Excerpted with permission from '7 Sutras of Innovation - Stories of Scale-Ups That Are Transforming India' By Nikhil Inamdar with Marico Innovation Foundation. (Publisher - Jaico Books)
An excerpt from the chapter on 'Agastya International Foundation' - an Indian education trust and non-profit organisation based in Bengaluru, which has a mission is to spark curiosity, nurture creativity and build confidence among economically disadvantaged children and teachers in India.
It is 10 am on a Monday morning and the Government Higher Primary School (GHPS) in Bengaluru’s Yelahanka suburb is in a hubbub of activity. An energetic bunch of kids with neatly combed hair and wearing chemical-blue uniforms engage in a steady hum of casual banter until the sight of a colorful minivan entering the campus impels some of them to disrupt the standard orderliness and leap out of class with visible excitement on their faces. Soon, the whole lot is on the ground, animatedly lining up to look at a curious array of scientific instruments, working models and experiential tools that an instructor pulls out of the van and lays out in the courtyard.
Over the next hour, a horde of smiling faces pour over plastic replicas of the human body, gaze with wonder at a model of the solar system and bombard the instructor with a volley of questions about a chemical reaction they have just witnessed, their faces lighting up every time he answers them with a live demonstration
This is the scene of an Agastya International Foundation mobile lab in action, one of the many held in schools such as GHPS Yelahanka across rural and urban India, in a bid to instill a sense of wonder and scientific inquiry in school children. Agastya does this by dispensing with the archaic ‘chalk and talk’ method of rote learning that students in India endure, exposing those from underprivileged backgrounds in government-run schools to fresh, experiential, real-life pedagogy. And the mobile vans are just one of the many ways in which Agastya is spearheading an educational revolution.
Agastya was founded in 1999 in Bengaluru by Ramji Raghavan, a high-flying ex-banker who abandoned a lucrative job with Citibank in New York to return to India. The organization was founded upon a rather unique, if not esoteric mission—to spark curiosity, nurture creativity and instill a sense of confidence in India’s children and school teachers by using hands-on science as a medium!
In a country where the Annual State of Education Reports (ASER) reveal a monumental failing of the basic education system—50 percent of students cannot read books meant for kids three years younger to them, less than 60 percent can read time from an analog clock and under 20 percent are employable by the time they graduate—this seemed like a pipe dream to many at the time.
But in the 20 years since Ramji first dreamed up his lofty resolve in 1999, Agastya has made a significant dent in the country’s education landscape, supplementing and complementing the onerous task the government has of harnessing India’s massive demographic dividend. It has reached 12 million children through 250,000 teachers, 200 mobile vans, over 75 labs on bikes, 95 science centers and a sprawling 172-acre creativity campus that acts as the feeder laboratory for it to run what has become one of the largest hands-on science education programs for children and teachers in the world!
Evidence of the efficacy of Agastya’s unique approach is perceptible while conversing with the kids at GHPS Yelahanka, their minds stirred and their behaviors often fundamentally altered due to the intervention.
Inside the computer lab after the mobile van leaves for the day, little Nisha from the seventh standard relates how learning about electrical circuits made her force her parents to change the incandescent bulbs in her home and shift to LED. Abhishek from the eighth standard says that he no longer needs to mug up before exams but remembers all the concepts as he has performed the experiments with his own hands. Then there is 10-year-old Jayashree whose day identifying plants with an Agastya instructor for her botany lesson has inspired her to plant 50 saplings around her house. She says that she wants to become an environmentalist. Darshan’s latest passion, he insists, is making compost for his neighbors by segregating waste. This he learnt during a video-based learning exercise that Agastya carried out.
These are deprived kids who often do not have a square meal to eat, but have had their minds ignited by Agastya. And it was precisely with this objective—to nurture an imaginative young population and build an inspired nation from ground up—that Ramji started his journey back in 1999.
It had always befuddled Ramji that India, despite having a large, young and intelligent population, lagged behind other countries on several innovation indices and he could only see the largely uncreative educational system as the reason for blunting the instincts of students and preventing them from seeking anything more than a well-paying job.
He believed the status quo had to be altered by bringing about a fundamental shift in a child’s attitude to learning from 1) ‘yes’ to ‘why’, 2) ‘looking’ to ‘observing’, 3) ‘passiveness’ to ‘exploring’, 4) getting him to use his hands to touch and feel things rather than read about them in a textbook and 5) replacing fear with confidence.
In essence stimulating the spirit of what he called-Aha-ha- ha!
Ah!—awakening a student’s mind to abstract scientific concepts with simple, affordable models and experiments made using materials like coat hangers, balls of string, potatoes, etc. For example, most kids find it difficult to understand how electricity is generated. But Agastya conducts simple experiments to show this using potatoes. Here, metallic wires are inserted inside the potato so that they become electrodes by reacting with its sugar, water and acid contents, and illuminate a bulb. The first reaction of the kids when they see this is, ah!
Aha!—promoting a sense of inquiry and exploration and encouraging students to investigate the logic and reasoning behind what they have seen.
Ha-ha!—arriving at a state of delight after having conquered one’s fear about a formless idea, thereby improving retention, performance and instilling a sense of confidence in the student.
“Very few people, if any, in India or around the world had voiced a mission like that,” says Ramji. “And therein lay a big difference between what we wanted to do and what others were doing in the domain of education.”