Amrita is one of the co-founders at Apni Shala. Apni Shala works with children from low-income communities and municipal schools to help build their emotional, interpersonal, and thinking skills. Last year Amrita was looking to introduce something new to the children and push their growth. Right on cue, Amrita heard of a unique programme called ’City as Lab’(CaL) – a programme that encourages students to gain perspective on the issues their city faces and then formulate a mitigation plan with the help of a teacher/mentor. Amrita says, “It was perfect because the kids get a first-hand experience in getting primary data of the problems around them.” Amrita served as a mentor for students of 7th standard at a Marathi Medium School in the Govandi area in Mumbai.“The class together zeroes in on the topic that they would like to work with. We come up with a list of all possible questions to which the students can find answers to around one topic. From those questions, they picked a question that met the research criteria.” The facilitator helps them think through that process – Will the question get good data points? What could be the sources of information? What are the methods of data collection?
The students she was mentoring picked up the issue of discrepancies in water provisions in their communities compared to its supply to the residential societies around them. Amrita adds, “The students interviewed 50 households in their communities, which are the chawls/slums. Then they interviewed the security guard of the residential societies as well to get answers to the same questions.” The students did a comparative study on living conditions between the communities and the residential societies. Some kids took up the issue of waste management – How many trash cans were put in place by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) in their community. How often these trash cans are cleaned and replaced?
The concept of CaL
The purpose of CaL is to engage children in authentic inquiry and research using their city as a laboratory. Students observe their surroundings, come up with a research question, formulate a hypothesis, engage in research, analyse and interpret findings, extrapolate their results and come up with conclusions. They then present their entire project in a concisely written research paper. CaL gives children an opportunity to discover their ability to reason, to think critically, to work collaboratively, but most importantly, to understand their city as participative citizens.CaL gives out lesson plans to the facilitators as a framework. Teachers can add and subtract as per the students’ pace of learning. At the end of the programme, top ten students present their research at The Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai. Robinage Children’s Weekly newspaper featured the top ten students last year and will be covering the programme and students in depth this year.
Some more examples of research questions from CaL 2014 are – How much fuel do auto-rickshaws waste due to bad roads in Mumbai city? How much excess electricity is wasted in schools due to negligence? What is the level of financial literacy in a particular slum area? Which is the warmest neighbourhood in a particular suburb and why?
The women behind CaL
Purvi and Sangita co-founded Reniscience Education (RE) that hosts CaL. Purvi has a doctorate in science education from Teachers College Columbia University, NYC, where she lived and worked before moving back to India. Reniscience Education is a boutique education consulting firm born out of a desire to promote learning that is empowering, joyful and relevant for every learner. They work with schools and other educational organisations to provide expertise, interventions and solutions for ongoing teacher education, school-wide strategic planning, educational leadership development, student learning and curriculum design.
Purvi borrowed from her teaching experience in New York, where she was part of a professional development programme called ‘Urban Advantage’ that partnered city school teachers with institutions across the city- like museums, zoos, aquariums, parks, etc. in order to promote project-based learning. She adds, “I worked with my seventh grade students on understanding certain behaviours or gorillas at the Bronx Zoo. That experience has remained one of the key events in my evolution as an educator.” When she moved back to Mumbai, along with Sangita, she tried to bring such experiences to students in the schools. “When Sangita and I had the opportunity and freedom to design our own programmes with RE, we developed and piloted City as Lab in 2014.”
The Beautiful Game, a 17 year old and 6.5 lakhs – Sheel Soneji’s story
Aim and Impact
RE’s vision with this programme is to build a network of institutions/experts that support authentic research and inquiry in all classrooms across the country.
One of the biggest changes that Amrita saw in the kids was that the children gained confidence through the communication and interaction with the community and strangers. “They were initially apprehensive about going to strangers and asking them random questions. As data collection progressed, the confidence levels in the kids was soaring. They felt they could do this”. Another change that Amrita saw in the children was the ability to question. A well thought out question is the first step to a solution. Healthy debates and discussion in the classrooms helped the students think through questions.
The first edition of CaL, saw 182 children from 15 schools coming up with 40 research projects under the guidance of 30 teachers. The second edition has exceeded Purvi and Sangita’s expectations. They’ve already registered 1263 children and 58 teachers from 30 schools.
Challenges and the evolving model
The challenges in front of them right now are how to capture their impact, financial stability and finding the right people. Purvi and Sangita believe that this is a scalable model. The duo is constantly refining the model and figuring out the financials. Purvi adds, “While the goal is not to make huge profits from CaL, it needs to be sustainable so we don’t end up spending time and energy on fundraising and can redirect those precious resources to actually developing the program and innovating every year.”
Purvi and Sangita believe in education for all. Signing off, Purvi says, “We believe that the goals of our programme are relevant to every student in the country- regardless of their socio economic standing. The purpose of CaL is to engage every child in authentic inquiry and research using their city as a laboratory. ”