Monday, April 13, 2009

Education on wheels

Sharada Prahladrao
[Article published in Deccan Herald]

Agastya's Mobile Labs have successfully revolutionised the approach to education in rural areas.

Einstein once said, “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” Transforming moribund systems of education into creative engines of learning requires a shift from passive learning to methods that engage, energise and liberate children and teachers. Studies show that countries which have invested in primary education have progressed faster than those who have concentrated on university education.

Transforming the education scenario in India is a daunting prospect - the constituency is a mind-boggling 250 million children and 5 million teachers. A large proportion of the nation’s 1 million schools do not have laboratories, and the pupil-teacher ratio in some areas is about 100:1. Boring classes, rote learning and endless examinations dominate student life. Poverty and gender related issues discourage children from going to school, contributing to a knowledge divide between urban and rural India.

Hands-on education with its ability to motivate the learner, can best leverage and stimulate the inherent strength of rural Indians to jump-start careers and lift communities. Injecting enthusiasm into this system is Agastya International Foundation with its mobile labs - for science, ecology and art.

Last year nearly 600 children made time during their summer holidays to work on Science and Environment projects at Agastya’s science centres. With 35 mobile labs and nine science teaching centres, Agastya expects to reach 1 million children and 20,000 teachers annually.

Mobile science labs teach children complex concepts through simple experiments and ignite their curiosity. They learn about gravitational forces, eclipses and how the brain deciphers signals. As urban areas come up, nature gets denuded and subsequent generations suffer. Agastya’s Mobile Ecology Lab and community education programme aims at mobilising local community support and awareness to rejuvenate local ecosystem services.

The local ecosystem (water and soil conditions) has degraded significantly over the last two decades. There are no open wells any more. Bore wells are running dry and the underground water level has gone down from 100 feet a decade ago to 600 feet or more and is going down annually. Farmers complain that the natural fertility of the soil has degraded so drastically that they are unable to cultivate the land without large use of chemical fertilisers, raising the cost of inputs and possibly damaging the soil further.


A Mobile Ecology Lab to promote the understanding of ecology for students and the general community has been developed and a dry run was conducted in early August, 2007. About 10 models dealing with Water, Soil, Energy and Agriculture were developed and made at Agastya’s Creativity Lab. These models will facilitate hands-on learning and understanding of key ecology concepts. The models will be upgraded regularly. The first Mobile Ecology Lab has been sponsored by Agilent Technologies in Kunigal, Karnataka, 60 kms from Bangalore. This is the first Agastya mobile lab for rural India, which deals with critical environment and livelihood challenges. Developed after extended interviews with five village communities, Agastya hopes to make it an effective model-instrument to spread awareness about the scale and nature of environment degradation and generate home-grown strategies to reverse it. With the help of A N Yellappa Reddy, the seeds of ‘Coclosprem gossipium’, a local keystone species, have been collected. It is a hardy, drought resistant plant ideal for the local environment, but exploitation of the tree for fuel wood has made it almost a threatened species.

The specialty of this tree is that it blooms in dry / lean periods of the year and flowers of the tree are an excellent source of nectar and water for birds. The avian (bird) community in turn plays an important role in the local ecosystem as they are a natural predator of pests and will thus reduce the incidence of pest attacks on agro crops. This will help to reduce the consumption of pesticides and eliminate a major ‘non-point source’ of pollution by agro-chemicals, creating a self-sustaining ecosystem. The proliferation of the trees will increase the infiltration of rain water and help recharge the ground water.

Art lab

Agastya recently launched a mobile art lab to reach out to rural children and encourage them to draw, paint and sculpt. It’s not enough to build only a nation of scientists, one needs to nurture art, beauty and creativity too. Agastya’s Creativity Lab, Jhunjhunwala Exploratorium, the Oberoi model making Center, and the Teacher Education Center sponsored by the Schlumberger Foundation are among the upcoming additions that promise to expand significantly the array of interactive, discovery-based learning opportunities for teachers and students.
One organisation, one initiative is enough to have a ripple effect. But more volunteers, more organisations and more environment-conscious approaches need to be adopted if we want to improve and save the world we live in.

What the UN Can Do to Promote Non-formal Education

by Ramji Raghavan

Think of the untapped potential of millions of poor children who have it in their genes to achieve great things, but fail to do so because they lack the tools to ignite their innate creativity. Imagine these poor children in a hot and dusty village, busy doing experiments, talking and discussing animatedly with their teachers.
A girl demonstrates a model of a simple rocket that she has made; a boy in a wheelchair tells his friend about the properties of magnets; and another girl explains the medicinal properties of a plant that she has grown in the schoolyard. These are possible but difficult to imagine, especially in poor countries, where most schools have no laboratories, where systemic mediocrity is typified in crumbling infrastructure and teacher absenteeism, and where didactic, rote-based learning that discourages questioning dominates the school classroom, contributing to dropout rates as high as 70 per cent. Beating poverty and underachievement inevitably remains a distant dream for most poor children.
From left: A student shows how a rocket works. At an art class. A boy explains the solar system. PHOTOS/AGASTYA INTERNATIONAL FOUNDATION
The education systems worldwide need a massive infusion of the creative temper. It is a big challenge, but fortunately an answer lies in the educators' observation that the average person learns 10 per cent of what he or she reads, 50 per cent of what one hears and sees, 70 per cent of what one discusses with others, 85 per cent of what one personally experiences and 90 per cent of what one teaches. This insight spells hope for millions of underserved children and teachers, whose untapped creativity could be ignited through hands-on interactive learning methods. Creative people and problem-solvers demonstrate exceptional skills of observation, awareness, assimilation and application, which can be illustrated by a few famous examples:
‹ Watching a cafeteria plate tossed into the air by a Cornell student, physicist Richard Feynman later derived a two-to-one ratio between the plate's wobble and spin. The wobbling plate inspired his work on the famous Feynman diagrams and had won him the Nobel Prize in physics.‹ From a ship's deck, Indian physicist C. V. Raman asked a simple question, "why is the sea blue?" His answer produced a stunning insight into the interaction between light and matter, for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1930. The equipment Raman used for his discovery cost then just $4.50!‹ In the third century B.C., the brilliant Indian statesman Chanakya witnessed a village woman scolding her son for not eating rice. The boy replied that the rice was too hot, whereupon his mother told him to start from the edge of the bowl and eat his way to the centre. The episode propelled Chankaya to conceive the "rice bowl" stratagem of weakening the enemy's outlying forces before taking the centre, climaxing in the great Mauryan Empire of his protégé Chandragupta.
Inspiring examples like these highlight the need to shift the focus of education away from rote-based learning toward skills and creativity, and the good news is that there are ways to achieve this cost-effectively. An example of a scalable and replicable model is the work of the Agastya International Foundation in India, whose goal is to empower the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children and schoolteachers with creative life skills. Working with the Governments and private institutions, the Agastya's innovative programmes use mobile labs, teacher education and high-impact learning centres to reach millions of children.
From left: A simple hydraulic crane model. An instructor demonstrates how a magnet can be suspended in air. Learning about binocular vision.
Founded by scientists, educators and executive officers, Agastya is a leader in spreading hands-on learning methods that encourage questioning and engage the senses. Concepts are brought to life through ingenious experiments developed from low-cost materials. By rotating the earth and moon around the sun, a rural child or teacher learns why seasons change or why the sun rises in the east, about the eclipse and the properties of sound by swinging corrugated tubes at different speeds, about binocular vision by rolling a piece of paper and looking through it with both eyes open, or about light by tracing a laser beam through smoke. Children and teachers often replicate models at home or in school.
The Agastya science fairs offer 14- to 16-year-old "young instructors" opportunities to raise self-belief and develop leadership and communication skills by teaching other children. Typical comments are: "I enjoyed teaching other kids. I had no idea they would ask so many questions"; "I finally understand the principle because I did and explained it"; "I realize how difficult it is to teach"; or "My parents were really thrilled to see me teach". Confidence and curiosity increase, while learning and retention happen at a much faster speed than through traditional chalk-and-talk methods. For many poor children who have not seen a lab or performed an experiment, the experience of an Agastya science fair is life-changing. As word about it spreads, thousands of children rush to learn.
The Foundation's teacher training programmes aim to diffuse and propagate creative-thinking and problem-solving skills. Agastya uses non-standard approaches to transform teachers, for example, by offering modules that integrate learning and knowledge across subjects, influencing children and parents to urge teachers to deliver more and better and working with mixed groups of teachers and children to raise interaction and bridge the gap between teacher training and the school classroom. Agastya's upcoming lab school, the Jhunjhunwala Exploratorium and Teacher Education Center, on its 170-acre ecology park campus will be a unique model for holistic creativity-based learning.
As school term commences, thousands of children and teachers in villages eagerly await the arrival of the Agastya Mobile Lab, a remodeled vehicle with a screen to show videos, custom-designed exhibits and experiments, documentation and a computer, as well as two energetic instructors, trained by some of India's top scientists and educators, who engage about 100 children and five teachers with simple learning tools and experiments. The Mobile Labs, synonymous with creative learning, replace boring one-way lessons with stimulating hands-on learning at a cost of less than $2 per child. Operating within a radius of 500 kilometres, the Mobile Labs represent a unique blend of reach and richness, a distributor of an expanding array of interactive education services, including potentially digital access for millions. Ultimately, the Mobile Labs' appeal is not just as a resource but also an innovative approach that local teachers can learn and use even after the labs have moved on to the next village. Exciting new initiatives aimed at enhancing the "stickiness" of Mobile Lab visits include a home laboratory for single-teacher schools and a film on hands-on experiments to be broadcast over satellite.
Agastya's experience suggests that injecting creative pedagogy into a rote-based system is a slow and subtle process, whose impact can be measured only over several years. Once embedded, the impact is transformative. For example, many attempts to transform education through digital access have failed, because users are not "switched on" to begin with. Exposed to the Foundation's programmes, disadvantaged children and teachers are "switching on" in growing numbers, as seen in increases in students' questions, spurt in model-making and promotion of science centres by education authorities. In some villages, out-of-school children who work during the day make time to attend mobile-lab classes in the evening, showing a hunger for learning and a burgeoning creative spirit. Proactive governments are expanding their operational funding for mobile labs.
The Foundation's vision is to create learning networks, growing towards a "tipping point" in Indian education. "A single spark can start a prairie fire", goes the old Chinese saying. The Agastya model suggests that serious learning will spread like "a prairie fire" when it is fun and engaging. In five years, it has reached more than 1 million poor people, mostly rural children, and 50,000 teachers in four Indian states. It is creating the capacity to reach over 1 million children and 20,000 teachers annually. By exposing them to creative learning methods, Agastya is on its way towards transforming the very concept of education in districts where it has been neglected. However, it sees this as only the beginning-its 2015 goal is to reach 50 million children and 1 million teachers.
By identifying and transferring successful models of creative education, the United Nations can lead a transformational change of moribund education systems and free millions from mediocrity and underachievement. The need is urgent and imperative, as experience shows that all too often modern technologies with their asymmetric impact favour the rich at the expense of the poor.

About the writer

Ramji Raghavan is Chairman of the Agastya International Foundation, which leads a grass-roots education initiative to transform primary and secondary education in India. He worked in senior posts in organizations in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean and Asia, creating and managing businesses in financial and consulting services and software. In 1998, he left a commercial career in London to pursue social development initiatives in India.