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Science on the move

Agastya International Foundation's science lab, mounted on a van, travels through villages and brings science alive to children by allowing them to do experiments using locally available material.



The mobile lab makes learning fun.

AT A time when education has been reduced to learning by the rote, an experiment is afoot where creative thinking is being given precedence at the grassroots level.

This is being spearheaded by the Agastya Indian Foundation (AIF), which is trying to set free young minds from the deadweight of conventional learning.

Ramji Raghavan, Chairman, AIF, sat with me and gave me a concise description of what AIF had set out to do.

I must confess that I started out as a non-believer. After all, what can one organisation do to lessen illiteracy and enhance creative thinking?

Let us start at the beginning, though. The seed for AIF was sown when Mr. Raghavan, an NRI, returned from England and sat down with a few erudite people and brain stormed as to what ailed our education system and what needed to be done to set it right.

The answer was quite simple and something which most of us are aware of: our schooling has been reduced to rote learning and somewhere along the way, we have lost our faculty of creative thinking.

To set right this problem, AIF decided to tackle it from the grassroots up.

It acquired 175 acres of land in Kuppam, in Andhra Pradesh.

Incidentally Kuppam is situated at the tri-junction of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu.

This is the region where the villagers and tribals are practically illiterate and much needs to be done.

The next step was to win the support of major scientific organisations such as Homi Bhabha Centre, ISRO, and Indian Institute of Science.

A major breakthrough was the acquisition of a mobile van, from a business organisation, which has been converted into a hands-on, student-friendly science lab.

The thinking behind this is that most labs in regular schools are equipped with expensive equipment and quite often, teachers demonstrate the experiments, while students watch with little or no interest at all.

Agastya's mobile science van, on the other hand, has low-cost experiments that students work on and then think about the scientific principle behind them.

The mobile lab also shows other simple experiments that demonstrate physics principles.

You could try this simple one: Roll a hollow tube out of a foolscap paper.

Hold the paper and look at a distant object, say a man standing. Now close that eye. Bring your other palm close to the tube in front of the other eye.

Open both the eyes and look. You will see a hole in the head of the person you first saw!

While most experiments are of this nature, which use material that is available around the house, the lab also has a complete working model of the entire solar system.And a little village girl explained the concept of solar and lunar eclipses to an audience of 300, which included the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, Chandra Babu Naidu. She convincingly dispelled myths about Rahu and Ketu gobbling the sun and the moon!

The mobile van moves along, training two to three schools a day, fascinating and educating about 200 children every day under the auspices of the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, and holding science fairs. Bangalore's Indian Institute of Science conducts high-impact workshops that concentrate on creative thinking, memory, personal development, communication skills, and art form. So far, 3,000 teachers have been trained and as they go back to their home schools and spread these concepts, it is hoped that there will be a multiplier effect and more and more benefits accrue.

The Commissioner of Public Instruction for Karnataka, V.P. Baligar, is impressed by the mobile lab programme.

Another aspect of Agastya's uniqueness is that it has adapted its teaching methods to be agro-friendly.

For its work in rural areas, AIF has Yellappa Reddy, Former Environmental Secretary, as the advisor.

At its campus in Kuppam, it has planted 15,000 medicinal plants, and rainwater harvesting is done.

There are 108 different species of trees. In five years, this arid area will be a green carpet.

Whoever heard of education helping the environment?

That reminds us of what Gandhiji said: "Create a new Indian not a new India." Perhaps, this can best be done by igniting the rural minds.

Agastya International Foundation can be contacted on 5548921/5548913/www.agastya.org

MALA ASHOK

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