By Jayalakshmi K
That science can be so interesting was a revelation to many of them. A troubling fact, since they are all science teachers. They had become too used to shoving definitions down their students' throats rather than encourage questions or scientific thinking.
At the Anubhava Science Foundation's year-long teacher enrichment course though, these teachers from government schools saw questions progress logically into concepts. So different from the definition-driven, text-book teaching they had practised for so many years.
They could now understand and appreciate science. For the many who did not have a degree in science, and even for the handful who did, science now took on an entirely new avataar.
Formed in 2008, ASF has dedicated itself to improving science education, and has been conducting science and maths workshops for school teachers in Bengaluru. The 17-day contact program for teachers handling science from Class 5 to Class 8 was an extension of the one-off trainings, held in colloboration with Karnataka State Council for Science and Technology (KSCST) at its IISc campus and with support from The Centre for Sustainable Technologies (CST), IISc.
As much of the feedback from participants shows, a few simple but revolutionary shifts in teaching method could cause a radical change in views and approach towards science and its teaching. “I was able to teach without the text book,” said one participant. Another said, “I was able to explain the concept first and then give names of definition.”
Others talked about how the workshops gave them great boosts of confidence, and helped them delve deeper into their subjects. Some even said that they did not feel the lack of a science degree anymore, and felt confident about bringing hands-on, experiential learning into the classroom.
Of course, some did point to how the new method called for more time to prepare classes, a difficulty given that time was a premium for government school teachers who are pulled into all kinds of administrative jobs.
Words are not to be used lightly in science. This was one of the fundamental lessons the workshop had for its participants, as they spent hours thrashing out the differences between words like “matter” and “object”, “mass” and “weight”, “energy” and “force”. With examples and subtle questions, the instructors painstakingly drove home differences, drawing out the specifics of crucial basic concepts.
There was no dull droning of a monologue from a teacher here. Instead, the classroom of 45 government school teachers was abuzz with discussions and arguments most times. Questioning as a way of learning was stressed on.
Once the concept was arrived at, simple experiments were used to demonstrate them. All with simple everyday objects like paper, chalk, buttons, balls, stones, sand, rubber bands and so on. It was endearing to watch the teachers work excitedly on sub-atomic configurations using just pieces of cardboard with circles drawn on them, and buttons to represent electrons.
"We used to talk about the periodic table to students, but did not know how to read it or use it till now," exclaimed one participant. Many such simple experiments elicited wow moments.
Through it all, ASF founder Geetha and her colleagues maintained a conversational tone with the class. There was no lecturing so much as facilitating the learning process, and the flow from the known to the unknown.
The participants also learnt that science can be fun too, as instructor Bhama Sridharan produced oohs and aahs, with her assortment of colourful liquids, flowers and vegetables, funnels and burners!
The course was designed on the experiential model where the learner experiences the joy of understanding, learning, scientific thinking, questioning, deriving, performing experiments and analysing results.For the teachers to understand the meaning of scientific investigation and to promote scientific thinking, they were also asked to take on projects where they performed simple experiments by following the scientific process rigorously.
As with science, so with maths. With a focus on learning concepts, mathematical ideas got turned into games using sticks, stones and bits of paper by another ASF faculty, Kshama C. Basic mathematical concepts were “played with” to enhance critical and logical thinking skills through problem solving strategies. And the end result was participants walking away saying, "I never knew math was such fun!"
Yet another contribution from ASF to the teachers was the introduction of the 'mind map'. Initially confusing, the logical flow of thoughts when charted out soon captured the imagination of the class. The teachers were unanimous on the usefulness of the mindmap over the mandatory lesson plan.
Importantly, the workshop stressed on ideas of everyday science, or science in our lives. From understanding how every morsel we eat is converted into energy to run the various functions of the body, to the process of cell repair and maintenance, and the body's mechanism to fight sickness, this 'complex science of life' is something ASF feels important for teachers to understand, even if it goes beyond the curriculum. The organisation's objective of 'exploring and experiencing the science of life' is a key part of this holistic approach to education.
And so the workshop also had rainwater harvesting expert AR Shivkumar from Karnataka State Council for Science and Technology (KSCST) talking of how citizens waste rainwater that could easily cater to the needs of a city like Bangalore. Another scientist, Vijay UT, brought home the sad state of kalyanis (village tanks) in the state and the institute’s efforts to reverse this.
Vishnu Chinagundi and Mahesh Kashyap spoke on global warming and the urgent need for energy conservation. Sessions on alternative building technology by Monto Mani from The Centre for Sustainable Technologies (CST) and on food and nutrition by scientist-turned-farmer Dr Khader, threw open a vast field beyond the teaching curriculum to the participants. Agricultural scientist Nalini Murthy from Artyplantz showed how to turn a terrace garden into a self-sustaining mini forest.
And in the process, another stereotype, of the bored and uninterested government school teacher was broken during the workshop, as the participants engrossed with each session and asking for more.
"Meaningful science taught in a meaningful way as part of school education can impress the children and inspire them to pursue science in higher studies," says Geetha, who founded ASF to improve science education.
Founder member Geetha Arvind, is a post graduate in Maths & Computer Science from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay while Kshama Chakravarthy holds an M.Sc degree in Mathematics from IIT Madras and an M.A degree in Education from Azim Premji University. Bhama Sridharan holds a M.E. in Computer Science from Indian Institute of Science Bangalore in 1990, besides a Masters from McGill University Canada.