Cofounded by scientists Dr Karishma S Kaushik and Snehal Kadam, the science outreach programme, Talk To A Scientist, is open to children from the age group of 6 to 16.

Dr Karishma S Kaushik and Snehal Kadam, founders of Talk To A Scientist
Features Virtual Classroom Monday, December 27, 2021 - 17:17

Aditi Srihari, an 11-year-old from Pune, cannot wait to share her science project with the other children in her class. She has fashioned a miniature water filter, using materials from around her home – a plastic water bottle, a piece of cloth, among other things. However, she will not be showcasing her work at school, but in a Zoom session as part of the science outreach programme, Talk To A Scientist (TTAS).

Cofounded by scientists Dr Karishma S Kaushik, an assistant professor at the Department of Biotechnology, Savitribai Phule Pune University, and Snehal Kadam, a PhD student at Hull York Medical School, UK, TTAS was started a little more than a year ago. While having a programme like this was always something that interested the duo, they say that following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic a virtual outreach programme seemed a promising idea. “We have 30-40 kids attending the sessions week after week. The number of attendees has even gone up to 75-100 for some of the sessions,” Snehal notes. TTAS is open to children from the age group of 6 to 16, and the sessions are free of cost.

The science webinar sees students from all across the country – Bengaluru to Siliguri – and beyond attending. There have been times, children from  Singapore, Dubai and even the UK have attended the sessions despite the difference in time zones. There is a theme for each season – ‘Science in different careers’, ‘Beyond Stem: Science in everyday life’ and ‘Deep dive into science in the lab’, to name a few – and ten sessions per season.

In the Zoom sessions that take place every Saturday, participants are exposed to various scientific ideas by Karishma and Snehal, as well as guest scientists.. Apart from illustrations, pictures, videos and flow charts are used during the webinar to facilitate easier understanding. The kids learn to experiment and importance is given to real-world applications of scientific principles. Take for example the water filter session. Not only were the kids asked to make a water filter from scratch, but the youngsters also learnt about the working mechanism of water filters and to apply the scientific concepts in real life. They were given the task of being civic officers who have to choose the right water filter to avoid water contamination. It is this kind of practical learning and experimentation that has made TTAS stand apart. 

Karishma and Snehal say that when they started TTAS they did not expect it to last as long as it has. “We announced the first session (1.5 years ago) and did not know what the turnout would be like. Towards the end of that session, we just asked them to be back the next Saturday and it grew organically,” says Snehal.  

A screengrab from TTAS webinar on scientific illustration

Aditi Srihari, an 11-year-old from Pune holding the miniature water filter she made during a TTAS session

Collaborative and creative

With its hands-on and heuristic approach towards learning, Talk To A Scientist (TTAS) stands apart from the science classes taught at schools.  From computational medicine and vaccines to science in the kitchen, the wide array of topics covered as a part of the initiative has helped children explore scientific themes that they wouldn't otherwise be exposed to.

“I love science and I especially like the webinars where the theme revolves around nature-based learning, about components of soil, species of plants, animals etc,” says Aditi, a Class 6 student at Kalmadi High School, Pune, who discovered the programme while looking for virtual science classes during the pandemic. 

The fact that the sessions are creative and collaborative has resonated with the participants. “The classes have a lot of experiments for us to do and even when they explain topics, they use a lot of pictures and examples to ensure that we understand it better,” says Kavish Pingali, a Class 4 student at Bengaluru’s GEAR International school, who has been attending the sessions for over a year. He also says that he enjoys how complex topics are simplified for better understanding in the webinar.

One of the main goals behind starting TTAS, say the founders, is to provide a platform for children to meet real-life professionals from the scientific community including scientists, PhD scholars and graduate students. In a session about bullets titled ' Science of Pistol Shooting', national level pistol shooter and a student at Savitribai Phule Pune University Kashish Methwani spoke about calculating a bullet’s trajectory – a difficult topic for children to comprehend – by deconstructing and simplifying it. “Growing up, we did not have the opportunity to meet real-life scientists. We did not know what course we should take up to pursue science,” Snehal says. 

Meanwhile, Karishma says that the positive impact this way of teaching has had on the kids is quite noticeable. “Over time, we have been able to see how the kind of questions the kids ask changed. A few weeks ago, when we had a science editor conduct a session for us, a seven-year-old questioned how topics like climate change are supposed to be covered, given that they are contentious themes. We were awestruck at the level of understanding the kid had about the concept of bias,” she adds.  

Miniature water filter made by Kavish Pingali from Bangalore

Plans for expansion

In 2020, TTAS bagged the first India Bioscience Outreach Grant (IOG), which is supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India. An extension grant was awarded to the programme. Karishma and Snehal say that the grant funds have been utilised to digitise the classes. “We are editing and uploading the sessions on YouTube and are also spending resources towards maintaining the website as well as social media profiles,” Karishma says.  

TTAS is also being supported by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) SciComm Grant, which was started to assist creative science communication endeavours. “With AGU’s funds, we are planning to expand the team by hiring a programme manager and engagement manager to boost and promote it,” says Snehal. 

Speaking about the road ahead, Snehal and Karishma point out that they would like to reach out to schools to see if the webinars could be incorporated in labs and classrooms. So far they have approached schools in Mumbai. “There are kids all over the country who are interested in science and the schools we cover cannot be limited to cities,” says Snehal.  

You can email to learn more about TTAS and to sign up for the programme.

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