by Urmila Chanam
An outstanding organization neither stands on concrete pillars nor on the vision of its founder alone. Most often it stands on the power of ordinary people who go the extra mile, provide a human touch, and make the vision real. Kuppam, perched 2200 feet above sea level, bordering the three states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, is a paradise for learning. Beautiful narrow roads run across the granite rich landscape to the gates of Agastya Science Center, a 172-acre campus that is a fountain of knowledge for children from the local villages where basic amenities like power and drinking water are scarce. Agastya is transforming education for rural children and teachers, reaching millions with hands-on science programs.Though Agastya began with founder Ramji Raghavan’s vision to ignite curiosity, shape creativity, and nurture innovation in young minds, it is people like community worker Jaynamma, who make that vision come alive. On a one-hour ride in the mobile lab to Chintarapalyam village, 20 km from Kuppam, Jaynamma tells me that we are heading for a cluster of villages where she and her assistant will conduct night classes for the community. It begins to rain heavily and is dark by the time we reach the village where a few people are assembled in the dingy verandah of an old temple. In this wet, dark and cramped spot, one of the best class lessons I have ever been a part of takes place.
The mobile labs reach out to centers surrounding Kuppam to give classes on health, sanitation, and hygiene and to urge people to send their children to school. An initiative called Project Vasantha identifies volunteer college students who exhibit leadership skills. On a humble stipend, the volunteers are trained by Agastya and are the contact point for these community classes and outreach.
Jaynamma tells me that the high rate of school drop-outs in these communities is a social evil that she must fight. “When both the husband and wife are daily wage earners, they often assign all the domestic chores to the adolescent daughter. She is the favorite and most common school drop-out.” Jaynamma recalls how she approached a father making visits to his house four times. She smiles and says, “He finally relented and told me, ‘Here, you can take her to school yourself.’”
The mission of Agastya is a clear departure from the conventional techniques of textbook-based rote learning with teaching limited to verbal instruction in classrooms. With an emphasis on transforming learning attitudes from ‘yes’ to ‘why,’ ‘looking’ to ‘observing,’ ‘passiveness’ to ‘exploring,’ and ‘textbook-bound’ to ‘hands-on,’ India’s children are moving from ‘fear’ to ‘confidence.’
Resting on the slopes of low green hillocks are several cottages that house science laboratories and boarding facilities for visiting children and teachers. All are designed to evoke curiosity and spark creativity in children studying between ages 6 and 18. The ‘hands-on’ methodology covers Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Biology, Ecology, Space, Astronomy and the Arts.
Agastya boasts a Discovery Center that exhibits life-size experiments and fosters individual discovery. A planetarium offers fascinating Astronomy classes at night. The Center for Creative Teaching trains teachers in all these subjects to enhance their performance and raise the quality of child-teacher interaction. The art center inspires children to observe the world around them, encouraging imagination and creative instincts.
What amazes me most is how the outreach program successfully mobilizes both the community and the educational system in the three states to reach children and get them to Agastya to access education. Five million children and 150,000 teachers have been reached by the hands on science education program. Buses ferry 500 children from 250 villages along 22 different routes and 52 government schools to the Agastya Science Center at the Kuppam center every day. This is the grandeur and impact of the outreach program.
The educational program complements government education, with programs running only after school hours, time often wasted in front of a television. Agastya’s syllabus is in line with the traditional school system, so it does not create conflict in learning but enhances a student’s understanding and sparks creativity.
Children come to the Agastya center for mentoring in science, creativity, innovation and leadership, preparing them for further educational and professional careers. The incidence of children winning science awards, faring exceptionally well in academics and going in for technical studies after Agastya intervention is very high.
The Young Instructor Leader program (YIL) selects children who exhibit leadership skills and talent towards science. These children train to become agents of social change in their schools, villages, and community in a four-year program. In one academic year a YIL frequents the Kuppam center 10-15 times, receiving training in confidence building, creativity, and team spirit. During the second year the YIL learns to think analytically and carry out research projects. In the third year a YIL is trained in community leadership and entrepreneurship; and in the fourth and final year, the YIL receives certification and career counseling. Scholarships are given for five years to support textbook costs, fees, and other related expenses. This support is essential for poor farmer families who cannot afford college education for their children.
The Initiative for Research and Innovation in Science (IRIS) is a program offered at the Kuppam center that provides an excellent platform for children to become next generation innovators. The IRIS program gives children the opportunity to showcase their ideas to eminent scientists and academics at science fairs such as the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) or the Intel National Fair. Supported by the Department of Science and Technology, the Confederation of Indian Industry and Intel, the students with the best ideas are chosen as National Winners and mentored by senior scientists and academics. They then represent India at the Intel ISEF, organized in the USA every year. Before IRIS, only students from affluent backgrounds could participate in these National Science Fairs. But now, after the Agastya edge, even children from humble rural backgrounds are presenting their brilliant ideas in this forum.
The Kuppam center and the IRIS program has given birth to several scholars and future scientists. One student won the ‘Young Innovators Award’ for mosquito repellant made from citrus peel. Another student used her idea of growing specific plants on the dividers of the highways to generate more oxygen and control pollution.
For disadvantaged children from rural India, Agastya is a door that opens to a promising world of innovation, creativity, and options to secure a better livelihood. Brick by brick, it is laying the foundation to transform education, development, and entrepreneurship in a part of India where privileges of modern educational resources would otherwise not reach.
As one student graduating from school said, “What I learn in my school I will remember till the exams get over, but what I have learnt at Agastya will never leave me in my lifetime.”
About the Author: Urmila Chanam is a journalist from the small state of Manipur in northeastern India. She is a columnist for the leading English Daily in Manipur, the Sangai Express. In addition to The WIP, she contributes to SUN Magazine, Chilli Breeze, and Global Press Institute, along with the journals World Pulse and Voices for Human Rights. Her dream is to be the 'Voice of the Voiceless.'