This 24-year-old mechanical engineer quit his job to set up an innovation lab in rural Odisha

14th Aug 2018
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Sameer Kumar Misra is helping students at Gram Vikas Vidya Vihar, who are mostly first-generation tribal learners, think out of the box and innovate.

Nestled in the scenic valley of the Eastern Ghats in Rudhapadar village in the Ganjam district of Odisha lies Gram Vikas Vidya Vihar, a residential school run by Gram Vikas. Students here are mostly first-generation tribal learners, who, until 2016, thought that innovation and design thinking were limited only to Europe and the West. The change in thought and the desire to innovate was triggered when Sameer Kumar Misra, a mechanical engineer who was appointed to work at Gram Vikas as a part of SBI Youth for India Fellowship, started to screen movies such as October Sky and Big Hero 6 for children during the weekends.

“After watching Big Hero 6, where a school kid makes a primary healthcare robot, a group of students came to me and asked if they could make such things in reality, or if such things existed only in films. I told them it was very much possible to make such things using locally available materials. This was the start of our scientific model-making,” says 24-year-old Sameer.

Known as the Navonmesh Prayogshala, a Sanskrit-Odia name for Innovation Labs, the centre developed by the students has become home to student innovations and annual project works called Pariklap. Here, kids in groups of five build models of scientific innovations (like kaleidoscopes) while having a real-time problem-solving approach to issues faced by villagers.

The Navonmesh Prayogshala centre

The idea was to initiate a process that would encourage children to think out of the box, even with their limited resources, and to actually conceptualise, design, and prototype their idea. The school has created an Amazon wishlist to ensure that they have a regular inflow of materials required for making the models.

The school has become a model for other government schools, who hope to set up similar innovation labs. Sameer has also applied to Niti Aayog for external funding, under the Atal Tinkering Labs programme for setting up a lab in all Gram Vikas Vidya Vihar schools.

The beginning

“There has not been a single invention from India in the last 60 years,” says NR Narayana Murthy, Co-founder of Infosys, while discussing the status of education in India at the Indian Institute of Science convocation address, “that became a household name globally, nor any idea that led to earth-shattering invention to delight global citizens."

This thought remained with Sameer for a long time. He believed that Indian innovation could grow only from the grassroots level in the process of solving a problem. And this was the beginning of his journey to work in the social sector.

Sameer with students at a design-thinking workshop

After completing his studies at Manipal University, Jaipur, Sameer worked with Gravita India Limited, a metal recycling industry in Jaipur, on a pre-placement offer. During this period, he chanced upon an advertisement about the 13-month SBI Youth for India Fellowship at an SBI ATM centre. On an impulse, he applied for this fellowship. While he was the youngest candidate, his zest to work for rural India helped him to get the fellowship, and he was placed in Odisha’s Gram Vikas School.

“From conducting the sports league to Parikalp, and establishing the Navonmesh Prayogshala, making models, and starting a movie club, everything was experimented upon and the best was taken forward,” Sameer recalls.

The Innovation Lab

Sameer’s first initiative to get familiar with the students and their abilities was a sports league - GV Super League Football Final. Slowly, he started engaging with the students over weekends through movie screenings. The movies provided a window for students to engage with science fiction.

GV Super League
“The students were already familiar with Arvind Gupta’s Toys from Trash videos. After showing more sci-fi movies and videos of children coming up with innovative solutions to daily activities, students were all charged up to make something all by themselves,” Sameer recalls.

His first project included building a anemometer model (an instrument to measure the speed of the wind), with Class VII students. Sameer dug out materials like 30 cm scale, an old pen from the school inventory, coffee cups and an old shoebox from a nearby shop. The team built a cup anemometer within a week. The spark was ignited, and these students churned out one model after another - periscope, kaleidoscope, simple motor, Mangalyaan, solar system, etc.

At the Pratham biology workshop
“Such was the speed and interest that one of the models - a rotating Newton’s disc, which I was not able to make due to material unavailability, was made by the students in just two days all by themselves. They had taken the motor and battery from an old toy in the school store room, and used an old oil box as its base,” he recalls.

The children put up Newton’s disk on ceiling fans when they couldn’t find a motor to rotate it. The impact of the intervention led to the school’s collaboration with Pratham Education Foundation. The Bengaluru-based foundation conducted workshops on model making in Biology, which involved digestive system and skeletal system.

Sameer also encouraged children to paint their vision for their villages and ways to overcome their daily challenges by reading more about the work done by scientists and global leaders. Some of the projects were as simple as charts listing out the common diseases in their hostels with prevention and medicine, setting up an alphabet wall for the Class III students as a learning aid combating air pollution and making a first-aid box.

To further enhance the quality of these activities, it was important to link the students to the computer and internet. Sameer used Google Voice to help students access videos of APJ Abdul Kalam and Homi Jehangir Bhabha, as the children had difficulty in typing in English. The students recently launched a water rocket made from an old plastic bottle, a cork, and a bicycle pump.

Water rocket launch
“Seeing it sore high in the sky, I remembered Dr Kalam’s words I had read as a kid that we should dream and dream high, take action to give those dreams wings, and launch them with the fire of the passion inside us. Then we will see our country soar high in the sky,” Sameer says.

Wings to fly

Within a span of one year, Sameer undertook several other initiatives to empower the students and widen their opportunities for higher studies.

Students display their models
  • The Quantum Learning Methodology gave a platform to teachers and students to sit together and do combined activities. It eliminatd unnecessary distance between “teacher-students” and “students-school” at the start of a new session when there are new admissions.
  • The school’s first magazine Atthadipa Vihartha was published.
  • The Alphabet Wall drastically increased the pace at which the students learnt ABCD, as it worked as a visual aid and also saved time for the teacher to write the letters again in every class.
  • For computer literacy, a set curriculum was designed using Pratham’s programmes, More Pratham Computer Bahi and More Dwitiye Computer Bahi. These books are set and designed in Odia.
  • A permanent Amazon wishlist has been put in place so that the materials for the labs are replenished on an ongoing basis.
Charts as learning aid
“The aim was to create a love for science and to create a thinking that such models could be created at home by students using everyday materials. The Eureka moment came when a week after the workshop, Jasobanta, a student of Class 7, came to me to ask for the manual of the workshop. I asked him why he needed it. He said he would make the same model in his home in the village by himself, and also teach the kids how it is done,” Sameer concludes.

Currently, the school has Grades 3 to 7, with a strength of 152 students, and it has become a model school with several institutions coming in to learn and replicate the innovative learning in their schools.

(This story is part of the #KindnessMatters series, a partnership between YourStory and UNESCO MGIEP)

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