Last year I had written an article about an interesting organization, Agastya, that was transforming rural education in India by bringing a fresh new approach to teaching and introducing science and technology concepts to parts of the country that are typically ignored. Since then I was fortunate to visit Agastya founder Ramji Raghavan in Bangalore and accompany him to their Agastya Center in Kuppam.
The Agastya center is strategically positioned on 170 acres of rolling hills with panoramic views of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Each day a small flotilla of buses ferry hundreds of kids from neighboring schools to attend a day long series of sessions with Agastya teachers. The center has several discovery centers rooms each dedicated to a subject – biology chemistry and so on. Eager teachers encourage the students to explore, examine and investigate the scientific phenomena being discussed through hands on experiments.
In addition to the discovery centers, Agastya has a Science Center that is a mini Science Museum with several interactive exhibits – some that seem to challenge people’s perceptions like a square wheeled bike. The organization has converted their once barren site into a living ecological example. On a rolling hillside, the giant form of a man, woman and child is outlined with rocks. Within the outline is a well tended garden of Ayurvedic herbs and plants. Each plant is carefully planted within the human outline on the body part or organ that it benefits.
Later I met four young high school students, two girls and two boys. Ramji proudly mentioned that they had entered the All India Intel Science Fair. The girls, Rani (a poor farmer’s daughter) and Roja (a village carpenter’s daughter) described their entry which was about the relative effectiveness of different types of leaves as an insulating material for roofs. They showed their carefully tabulated data from a series of tests.
A couple of months after I returned I got a very excited email from Ramji. Rani and Roja had won a Special Distinction Award for their project at the National Fair in Kolkata. – What is truly remarkable is that of the 1000 plus entries from across all India only 98 were chosen to present at the National Fair -including the two Agastya teams. More remarkable, the two girls were among just a handful of the finalists that were singled out for the Special Distinction Award. What a wonderful story of impact and achievement!
That afternoon, I got to see one of the rural schools that is lucky to be visited by one of Agastya’s Mobile lab vans. In the open courtyard, a group of children was clustered around various scientific experiments that were laid out on portable tables pulled out of the van. An instructor was explaining concepts of mass and gravity while showing a cone that seemed to defy gravity and roll uphill. He challenged the kids to explain what they were seeing. The students, all eager to respond, stepped up with their own theories of what was happening. There was no right or wrong answer; rather the kids were encouraged to think through what was happening and apply what they had learnt. It was a pleasant change from the rote memorization that they were used to in their other classes.
You can see pictures from my trip on this page on the blog.
If you are interested in learning more about Agastya you can visit their website or contact them at agastyaadmin [at] gmail.com