When science comes alive, it’s in the water, the wind, your breath and everywhere you look. Children who are taught to see and understand science through hands-on experiments see the world differently from those who learn it through the chalk-and-talk method most schools use.

This is why a group of innovative Indian educators are using everything from trash to toys to build cheap, easy experiments for children to learn science: husband and wife duo, Sandhya Gupta and Sarit Sharma, electrical engineers with doctorates and long careers in the US, abandoned their careers to start Aavishkaar, a science and maths teaching method for students and teachers, in the hills of Palampur, Himachal Pradesh.

Vishal Bhatt, a software engineer, and Procheta Malik, a PhD Astronomy from the UK, are bringing accessible science education to thousands of children in Bengaluru through the Innovation and Science Promotion Foundation that they started in October 2014.

The Agastya Foundation that was started in 1999 by Ramji Raghavan teaches science to underprivileged children in the villages of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and 18 other states of India. Agastya runs more than 55 science centers, 144 mobile science labs, 77 mobile lab programmes and more on their 172-acre campus in Kuppam, near Bangalore.

Agastya Foundation classes.
Agastya Foundation classes.

Labour of love

The reason these educators are focused on scientific training for the young above all else, is because they believe it develops the most important qualities in human beings – curiosity, creativity and compassion. Aavishkar is a labour of love for Gupta and Sharma. “We want every kid to get access to quality education irrespective of social or economic background,” explained Gupta. “There is nothing more empowering than when you see a child figure out the way the world around her works.”

Bhatt, whose hands-on teaching methods involve teaching science through toys that children can make themselves, uses objects discarded as junk: old ballpoint pen refills, drinking straws, matchsticks, rubber bands, bits of paper and old plastic bottles, which are turned into flexagons, meccano sets, working pumps and whistles that teach science but also sustainability.

Another Mumbai-based project, City as Labs, helps children question and understand the social issues which surround them through a scientific process and honing their research skills. Started in 2014 by a science teachers Purvi Vohra and Sangita Kapadia, City as Labs details an intense research-based process for the participants to follow, where they come up with a relevant question about their city, design a data collection plan, learn how to collect this data systematically through research and interviews, analyse their discoveries and write a paper based on their findings.

“We felt the need to provide a platform to our school children to undertake independent research on topics which are relevant to their city,” Kapadia said. “This helps them learn skills like collaboration, problem solving, communication, critical thinking and analysis of data. This kind of learning opportunity is not available in regular school curricula.”

Agastya Foundation classes.
Agastya Foundation classes.

Vohra and Kapadia then choose ten finalists to present their papers at an annual conference in Mumbai. Through the students’ research, coaches train teachers to help their students work on a more hands-on way. “This also helps teachers create experiential lessons for their classes in the long run, while the children develop a research and inquiry-based mindset that helps them stay curious and creative,” Vohra said.

Lighting the spark

In Bengaluru, 12-year-old Nandana finally understood the concept of water changing its density at different temperatures through an experiment that involved dropping warm, coloured water into a glass of cold water. At a village school in rural Karnataka, nine-year-old Bhairavi and Lakshmi made whistles out of straws – much to their fascination, every time they snipped the length of the straw, the quality of the sound changed. At a hill station in Palampur, a group of students from the local school huddled around some plastic fibres and watched as they were brushed with wool. As the fibres, now static, stood to sharp attention, the boys learnt about the laws of attraction and repulsion.

Agastya Foundation classes.
Agastya Foundation classes.

“So far, we’ve hosted over 16,000 sessions with children in schools and have the Rancho Lab programme in six schools in Bangalore,” said Bhatt, who is in the midst of teaching his first large-scale teacher training programme for Master science teachers in Chhattisgarh.

“Through our Rancho Lab programme, we give schools a box with materials to build 25 such toys, and then work one-on-one with science teachers to show them how to create fun sessions for their students,” he added.

Gupta and Sharma, who run Aavishkaar, also predominantly work with children from government and local schools, making scientific education available in Hindi. “We develop our experiments through hours of research,” Gupta said. “Each concept is explained through storytelling and a multitude of activities that the children work on themselves. When they leave the centre, you can sense the amazement and excitement. We often hear them saying things like ‘Now I know why this happens’ or ‘I don’t need to memorise a formula anymore, I know how to derive it now’.”

Consistent challenges

But while innovative science generates a lot of excitement amongst children, parents and schools, it doesn’t always translate into actual action or even funds to keep these programmes running. “While our workshops are often greeted with a lot of excitement, the number of children dwindle when we conduct a series of these,” said Bhatt. “We also get some amount of opposition from teachers when we take our session to schools because they think we are eating into precious time that they can use to complete their syllabus.”

Vora of City as Lab agreed. “I find it disappointing that most Indian students studying in our typical state board, ICSE, CBSE schools don’t have opportunities to develop skills which are critically important today – collaboration, critical thinking, communication, managing complexity, and problem solving,” she said. “We have to raise funds each year to cover the costs of our project, which means we cannot pay our coaches and have to rely on teachers from past years and friends in our networks to volunteer their time.”

Agastya Foundation classes.
Agastya Foundation classes.

Shastri said that retaining skilled employees with dwindling funds was one of their biggest challenges. “Also convincing people about the value of what we do, when we approach donors.”

For Aavishkar, it is finding someone in the government to champion the cause of innovative science teaching which is the most difficult task. “They have good intent, but things get lost in the system,” said Gupta, who travels from school to school looking for a principal or teacher who understands the value of innovative scientific teaching for children.

“Our programmes have turned out to be life-changing for many of the students,” said Subbu Shastri of the Agstya Foundation. Children from villages who have trained with Agastya have taken up interesting careers, won international science competitions and most importantly have become more confident and aware of their own agency.

“The children the schools label as difficult kids are the ones who are the most enthusiastic participants in our workshops,” said Bhatt. It is creating citizens who think rationally, live consciously and act compassionately, which is science’s greatest challenge today.

Agastya Foundation classes.
Agastya Foundation classes.