Anil Pradhan, winner of 2018 National Youth Icon Award by the Government of India, is introducing innovation among school students of Odisha's Baral village.Debolina Biswas
Arun Kumar Bhoi, a farmer from Odisha’s Baral village, once walked up to Anil Pradhan and asked him what 'innovation' meant. Anil was surprised at his question, and asked where Arun Kumar had heard the word.
"Last evening, my son was dismantling his cycle. When I asked him what he was up to, he said he was doing 'innovation'," Arun Kumar replied.
Anil was flattered. Arun Kumar was the father of 10-year old Basudev, a student of Anil’s International Public School for Rural Innovation (IPSFRI) in Baral. Through the school, one of Anil’s main objectives was to improve the quality of education in villages through innovation and technology. That not only was Basudev applying concepts taught to him at IPSFRI, but also sharing them, was a proud moment for Anil.
Anil’s school, IPSFRI is centred around innovation. It follows the same syllabus and curriculum as the Board of Secondary Education in Odisha, but employs a different teaching methodology that involves the use of innovation and technology. Anil’s personal struggles with the education system in smaller villages motivated him to start the school.
When he was about 11 years old, Anil moved out of Baral, where he was born and raised, to Bhopal. Bhopal was much bigger city than his village, and along with adjusting to this new place, Anil found it hard to catch up in school.
"Despite studying in a English medium school in Odisha, I was denied admission in Carmel Convent in Bhopal because of my average English speaking skills," Anil recalls.
That was his first encounter with the gap between the quality of education system in villages and cities.
This memory stayed vivid in his mind when Anil shifted back to Odisha in 2014; his desire to improve the quality of education in villages was refreshed. In his third year of engineering, in Odisha, Anil began the IPSFRI school.
Set up in Baral, IPSFRI has provisions for classes from nursery to the sixth standard. For older students, or those studying in other schools, Anil arranges for after-school classes in the late afternoons, from 3.30 pm to 5 pm.
IPSFRI focuses mostly on skill development and STEM education, while still teaching all other subjects and languages like Odia, English and Hindi.
"STEM education is popular in cities and urban parents can afford it for their children. By starting up IPSFRI in the villages, we are not only ensuring quality education there but also introducing STEM education," Anil says.
IPSFRI uses innovative tools to teach even the simplest lessons to the students. The school has an innovation room with a 3D printer, laser cutters, drill machines, cutting machines, wood cutters, wielding machines, and all kinds of small tools. All these machines are equipped with the ‘kill switch technology’ to ensure safety of the children.
To teach kindergarten students how to hold a pencil, Anil has prepared a simple tool by hammering a needle into a ply. "We hand the students a thread and ask them to put the thread into the needle, using as many fingers as they want," he says. Once the students figure out that they only need to use the index finger and the thumb for this, they automatically learn how to hold a pencil.
Similarly, to bring about innovation in geometry lessons, the students use 3D printing to understand the shapes and measure the sides.
Apart from training students in basic subjects, IPSFRI offers other classes as well. One class is called, ‘'Tod, phod and jod' (dismantle, break and join), where students dismantle things such as old computer monitors and refrigerators and build something new from it. Another class, called 'Kabad se jugad' involves collecting scraps from junk and creating something from them. 'Zor ka jhatka' teaches students about electronics and engineering.
Besides this, the school holds 10-minute yoga, meditation and physical training sessions. Every day before leaving school, each student spends a few minutes cleaning the premises.
"This is called the Swachh Bharat session. The following morning when they come to school, they realise that because they cleaned the classroom the previous day, they get clean desks and chairs today," says Anil.
Anil had always been a bright student in school learning C and C++ in the sixth standard and attending classes with BTech students. At Veer Surendra Sai University of Technology, Anil was a member of Idea and Innovation Club and designed the VSLV - Asia's first student launch vehicle and satellite to monitor the Hirakud Dam in Sambalpur.
On graduating, although Anil got multiple job offers from places such as Tata, L&T, and Accenture, he wanted to grow his school. His parents were unsure about his decision of rejecting well-paying job offers to pursue something that wouldn’t ensure a stable income.
"I gave him (my father) the example of APJ Abdul Kalam - he was from a poor family and he worked for the poor later, never thinking about money," he says.
In 2016, Anil started the school with only three students at the kindergarten level, all his relatives. He got the International Foundation for Innovation Education registered in 2018, which plans and executes projects for the school.
"If you want to do something great, you have to do something different and extraordinary," he adds.
Initially, parents were not ready to send their children to IPSFRI.
"They said if I do not offer mid-day meals and uniforms, why should they send their children to my school?" Anil recollects.
In 2017, Anil introduced a school uniform for his students and is currently working on providing mid-day meals to his students.
Moreover, villagers did not understand what the school was exactly teaching. Anil collaborated with his mother - Sujata Pradhan, a former Kendriya Vidyalaya teacher, and created the curriculum. Last year, IPSFRI got recognised by the Board of Secondary Education, Odisha.
After the first batch of students graduated, they helped spread the word. Today, IPSFRI has 140 students in attendance and another 110 attending the after-school classes.
"I always tell parents - give me a year's time. If you don't find it good, you can go back to your government schools," says Anil.
When Anil was studying in Baral, he would cycle 12 km daily to school and back. To ensure that quality education reaches even the remotest of the students, Anil is working on a new project, ‘Innovation School on Wheels’, in order to impact more people.
"We will have the innovation room inside a bus, with all kinds of tools, and take this bus to remotely located schools across Odisha," he says.
Innovation School on Wheels is in the prototype phase now and Anil wants to make it a reality by the end of this year.
For students with a BPL or Ration Card, the education is free. However, students from slightly well-to-do families pay a minimum amount per month for the materials. "We do not charge any kind of tuition fees," says Anil.
Individuals willing to contribute, can sponsor particular children. "It takes Rs 15,000 a year to sponsor a child. This includes material cost, uniform and text books," says Anil.
Organisations, on the other hand, can sponsor the tools and equipment used in the innovation centre. "Kempii has provided us with the wielding machines," says Anil.
Anil has found an innovative solution for recruiting teachers as well. Anil trains students from local engineering colleges to teach the children. IPSFRI has seven college students teaching full time for a salary of Rs 3000 a month and 15 volunteers taking special technical classes.
Besides this, Anil mentors students of schools in Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Odisha and generates revenue for the same. IPSFRI is currently a team of 45 volunteers.
According to IBEF, the Indian education sector was estimated at $91.7 billion in 2018 and is expected to reach $101.1 billion this year. Edtech players like BYJU's, Khan Academy, Notesgen, ConceptOwl and AlmaMapper are combining aspects of traditional offline and online learning. However, what sets IPSFRI apart, is its target audience and innovative teaching methodology.
Funding was another challenge for Anil. He used all his scholarship money and cash prizes from competitions to invest into IPSFRI. Along with help from his family and VSSU alumni, Anil invested Rs 8 lakh on the school.
IPSFRI recently tied up with IIT-Delhi, and 10 students from IIT had come down to Baral to study and survey the innovation programme.
"They prototyped many things and made a bamboo water filter. They also taught the students of IPSFRI," says Anil.
Anil is planning to collaborate with more colleges in the future and generate revenue. He also wants to expand the nine-classroom school till 12th standard and create a skill development centre in two years. Anil's immediate plan is to roll out the Innovation School on Wheels by the end of this year.