Open Space Foundation was started in 2013 by four youngsters who decided to encourage children to take an interest in science.

Meet the group of TN youngsters taking science to government schools
news Human interest Tuesday, November 19, 2019 - 10:40

“When compared to adults, children make far more interesting conversation. They don’t think if something is right or wrong. During our astronomy sessions, they come up with questions like - ‘How did the Earth form?’ ‘How do you know human beings have life?’ ‘When did they discover that?’ - They ask these questions easily but we may not be able to come up with answers,” laughs Surender, who is doing his Masters in Nuclear Physics at Madras University in Chennai.

About six years ago, Surender got together with a few of his friends, and started the Open Science Foundation (OSF) that is now taking science to government school students. Their idea is to guide students into developing interesting science hobbies.

Open Space Foundation was started in 2013 by Surender Ponnalagar (23), Bharath Kumar (21), Dinesh Kumar (19) and Anupama Pradeepan (23) - all of whom met at various science events. While Anupama is currently employed, the other three are doing their Masters'.

“Our idea is to take science to rural students. There are many opportunities for students to explore science, but most are unaware of these. We ourselves got to know about it only later. The idea of OSF is to develop science hobbies in children,” he explains.

Initially, the four would travel to different schools with simple science equipment like telescope, microscope etc to conduct one-day science forums. A couple of years later, they realised that this method was not helping their mission. That's when they came up with Open Science Centres (OSC) in schools.

“We were not able to observe much impact in the previous initiative, where we travelled to over 50 schools. Only a couple of students showed interest. We then decided to change this. We wanted to work with students continuously for a year,” says Surender.

The first OSC was set up at Municipal Middle School in Tiruppur. “We make it a point to meet students two to three times every week, during non-working days. We have selected 30 students based on interest, with help from teachers, to be trained in OSC,” he adds.

And the very first idea that they introduced to students was the ham radio, also known as the amateur radio.

“In countries like Japan and America, ham is already taught in school. It is an excellent device that can be used during emergencies. In Japan, all houses have it. In our country too, it is taught in schools, but it stops with elite groups,” Surender explains.

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Any student who has completed 12 years of age is eligible to obtain the ham radio licence from the government. “There is an easy exam that anyone with basic electrical knowledge can pass. The ham radio is the best way to learn and discuss science. You can communicate with anyone across the world, share your recent science experiments. It is a very good hobby,” he says, the excitement evident in his voice.

While OSF has been organising ham radio sessions in schools, the Coimbatore Amateur Radio Club has shown interest in interacting with students. Surender says, “This is the kind of opportunity we wanted to create. There are many avenues that can encourage science, and students will first have to be introduced to such groups.”

In addition to the ham radio, OSF has also been encouraging students to map birds, animals, insects, water bodies, etc in their surroundings. “There are many forest patches near villages. We have been motivating students to map birds, insects in these areas. They can take down notes of what they saw, where they saw it, and take photographs if possible. We will then explore opportunities to encourage their interests, see if we can get them recognition from any kind of forum,” he shares.

OSF’s core idea is to encourage students to pick up a science hobby by the end of the year. They have also been motivating children with easy DIY projects to make telescopes and small science equipments. “Some students are taking down notes of what they are learning every week. This is very encouraging for us, to continue learning with them,” he adds.

'Vista' is another programme devised by the team, mainly to bridge the gap between students and scientists/researchers.

“Students spend their time in schools while researchers spend their time in their labs. How to connect the two of them? We decided to take students to science centres like ISRO, Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS), etc to experience science first-hand and interact with researchers. Recently, we had the opportunity to witness a PSLV rocket being made at the assembly sections. The students were thrilled at such an opportunity, This is the kind of reactions we are striving for,” Surender says.

So far, OSC has been piloted in three schools - Municipal Middle School in Tiruppur, Panchayat Middle School in Arumuga Goundanur in Coimbatore and another public school in Sevalur in Ponnamaravathi in Pudukkottai district. Sevalur, Surender says, is an interior village on the Pudukottai-Sivaganga border with erratic bus services. OSF functions just with the goodwill of friends and teachers who contribute in ways they can, from volunteering to helping with course materials and even financially. 

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