On Friday morning, six-year-old Milan rang up the Kerala Forest Research Institute to get an accurate answer to a question that has been troubling him for some time: “How do fans produce wind?”

His call was attended by a research scholar at the institute who patiently noted Milan’s question before hanging up with a promise to give him the answer in 10 minutes. The research scholar then discussed the question with a subject matter expert and called the young boy back with a simple answer: “We get the air flow when its blades push air up or down. With the air movement our body sweat evaporates…”

Milan was one of the participants of “First Question”, a telephone helpline launched by the Kerala Forest Research Institute on February 28, National Science Day. It encourages children to ask questions mainly on nature and science.

The helpline, considered to be the first of its kind for children in India, is being managed by 20 research scholars from the institute with help from around 50 subject matter experts and scientists across the state.

The initiative has received an encouraging response from children, parents and teachers, said the institute’s research coordinator Dr TV Sajeev. “We will try to answer questions on all questions under the sun,” he said. “But we do not entertain queries on career and employment guidance.”

While the institute encourages children to use the helpline to clarify their doubts, it has not barred parents or teachers from utilising the service. The helpline is also not restricted to residents of Kerala alone. “If the children are reluctant to call, parents or teachers can help them,” said Sajeev. “We want to ensure that not a single question from the children should go unanswered. We encourage students, parents and teachers from across India to utilise the service.”

The helpline number is 0487-2690222. At present calls to this number will be answered from 9.30 am to 5.30 pm from Monday to Friday. There are plans to extend the hours of this service from 8 am to 8 pm and to add a mobile number too.

Not the first

Established in 1975, the Kerala Forest Research Institute, located at Peechi in Thrissur district, is at the forefront of conducting research on tropical forests and biodiversity conservation in the state.

The “First Question” helpline is not the institute’s first outreach programme. Since 2009, the institute has been running a “Tree Helpline” for farmers and nature enthusiasts that addresses their queries on plant diseases and insect infestations. In 2012, the institute launched a temporary helpline to provide correct information on the recommendations of the Gadgil Committee that studied the ecology of the Western Ghats and made recommendations to protect the sensitive region.

During the floods that devastated large parts of Kerala in August, the institute ran a round-the-clock helpline to co-ordinate the rescue operations of thousands of people.

Members of the First Question helpline answer calls on the day of its launch on February 28.

Birth of ‘First Question’

The decision to launch “First Question” was spurred by an observation made by historian and social scientist Rajan Gurukkal. While delivering a speech on the “history of learning” in Kozhikode in February, Gurukkal had said that India’s education system did not encourage students to ask questions and this should be changed.

Sajeev is a much sought after orator on science and related topics. Over the years, he noticed that children, especially those in higher classes, were reluctant to ask questions. He said this might be because no one answered their questions when they were very young.

“Children have an inherent ambition to learn,” he said. “They will ask questions when they are receptive to learning. We should not ignore their queries. They will lose interest to ask questions if we do not listen to them.”

Sajeev said parents and teachers sometimes evade questions asked by children as they do not know the answers. “They don’t have to worry now,” he said. “First Question is here to help them.”

Future plans

The institute plans to create a database of the questions being asked and produce YouTube videos and books based on the more interesting ones. “We will curate the questions for posterity in print and electronic formats,” Sajeev said. “It will be a treasure.”

Those associated with the helpline said the children who called in were clearly interested in nature and their surroundings as it reflected in the questions they asked.

Archana, an employee at the institute, said the children have surprised her with their excellent questions. “The helpline has just started, but we have already got top class questions,” she said. “I am happy to be associated with this project.”

The research scholars and scientists said it is their duty to spread science awareness in society. “Besides, there is an element of surprise in this whole exercise as children may floor us with unexpected questions,” said Sajeev. “We are here to enjoy every bit of it.”