Agastya’s “school for schools” sparks creativity in rural India through its unique approach to discovery, science and learning.
Nestled among majestic hills and forests at the border of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, just past the small village of Gudupalli, is a vast, sprawling 180-acre plot of land. Ten years ago this land was barren, over-farmed and ruined by years of ruthless development. Now it is a teeming wonderland, with numerous species of trees, plants and insects, many of which were feared extinct. This is the location of the Kuppam Campus of theAgastya Foundation, a “school for schools.” Started with the explicit goal of augmenting the current educational system through creative learning techniques and training, the Agastya Foundation caters primarily to rural schools. The Foundation reaches out to over one lakh students every year from classes III to X spread over 500 schools in the area.
“The need has always been there…”
“It is acknowledged that there isn’t enough creative learning in our education system,” says Ramji Raghavan, chairman of Agastya Foundation, “in the last couple of centuries, as a society, we haven’t generated that many new ideas, new innovations.” Although the Foundation was started in the late 1990s, it didn’t take off till the early 2000s when the Foundation acquired the current campus at Kuppam. Ramji explains that even now, a majority of funding for all the Foundation’s activities comes from pure philanthropy. “We go around with a begging bowl,” he says, with a wistful smile.Organisations like the R. Jhunjhunwala Foundation and the Deshpande Foundation, along with many such others, have contributed immensely to this project, enabling its transfer from dream to reality.
A campus that lives!
Tremendous efforts have been made to increase the biodiversity at the campus. Having travelled through miles and miles of barren, predominantly brown landscapes, it comes almost as a shock when the Agastya campus looms in view. Suddenly, green is everywhere. The air is fresher, there is a breeze; even the heat seems subdued.
The campus has regenerated over 300 species of flora, and has more than 15,000 medicinal plants. Rainwater harvesting has been introduced. Scientists from several of India’s foremost institutions collaborated with the Foundation: trees were planted, irrigation systems set up; plans were made to enrich the soil by natural means. And that has succeeded; the campus now has sufficient ground water, fertile soil, and a functioning ecosystem.
On the campus, one is greeted by several animals – deer, birds, a flamingo – all of which are startlingly lifelike, but modelled out of used bike parts. Murals abound, depicting sages teaching children. Ants made of wire and gauze clamber up walls and staircases.
Within the campus are various “Vanas”, each of them designed on ancient Indian principles; the Balavana is designed on the principles of Sri Aurobindo, dedicated to the three great children of Indian Mythology – Dhruva, Prahalada and Nachiketa, denoting birth, life and death. Similarly, the Mulikavana contains many species of medicinal plants.
“It fits into the creative element of learning in a very holistic way,” says Raghavan. “In the old days they would say, one of the paths to God is through nature.”
The experiment has succeeded beyond imagination. Scientists from as far away as Denmark come down to the campus to study insects and other fauna at the campus – and they have discovered species that were believed to be extinct in this region. IITs and IISc faculty and students regularly make visits to study rare frogs, snakes, and other creatures.
“That shows that life is being supported here,” beams Dr. Shibu, who handles the operations of the entire campus. “Day by day, we can see life supporting life. We can see white rabbits here,” he says, and then with an excited smile, points to the rolling hills just outside his office, “Recently we saw peacocks there. They came because it is summer; they came from other regions because there is water here now.”
Centres of Discovery
Within the campus are ten dedicated labs, each one containing low-cost, innovative models designed to better explain concepts taught by rote in schools. There are labs for Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Biology, Computers, Robotics, Arts, Ecology, even an “interactive museum”, where every exhibit explains some concept of science, be it Newton’s laws, the seasons, eclipses, pressure or acoustics.
Additionally, there are multiple ‘Science Centres’ distributed across Karnataka, 20 of them at present. Science Fairs are regularly conducted attracting thousands of students from all over.
“We encourage them to ask questions”
Each of the labs has instructors picked from the surrounding area, who are always at hand to instruct, explain and guide. It is their job to both maintain the lab – get new experiments, new exhibits – as well as to conduct classes for the children. And the children are most pleased. Their eyes light up with wonder when they see models of the sun and moon, and models of the human body. They gabble among themselves, touching, rearranging, learning. Students that display extraordinary facility in explaining and reaching out to other children are chosen as Young Instructors. They are then set to themselves teach other children – a program that has seen immense success.
“They become solution providers,” says Dr. Shibu, “We want them to be the local leaders.”
The creative learning process is also looked upon as a personality development tool. Classes are informal and friendly, no child is ever put down or scolded, and naturally, with the freedom to go anywhere in the lab, see anything, ask anything of the instructor, the children bloom. “We encourage them to ask questions, and also come up with their own answers. Sometimes they are wrong, but it is okay. And sometimes they come up with unique explanations which even we haven’t thought of,” Dr. Shibu says.
Students have benefitted tremendously – many of them now want to finish school and go on to higher studies, even more want to become Instructors with the Foundation. Projects done by students at the Agastya Foundation have won the Intel IRIS National Science Award the past two years in a row.
Learning is easier than un-learning
“The child is the main consumer,” says Raghavan, “you have to work with children when they are impressionable, when their minds are in the formative state. So you recognise that teachers are very important. You educate one teacher, and you’ve educated an entire school.” With this objective in mind, the Agastya Foundation also conducts skills development and training workshops for teachers.
Initially, many teachers are afraid to use constructed models to teach because, in their experience, these models are expensive and if they break, the teacher has to pay for it. Agastya trains teachers to make these models back in their own schools. Each teacher can now make his/her own models to teach their students, with low cost materials available at any departmental store.
“We use the medical school-hospital analogy here,” says Raghavan, ”teachers need to be trained, and there needs to be a school connected to the teacher college. After the training, we take teachers to the classroom and say, okay, let’s see you in action. And often you find that in your teaching you are not implementing most of what you learned.” Teachers are given feedback in what has become an interactive, iterative process.
The Agastya Foundation also trains dropouts. Operation Vijay – as it is known internally – started off when it was discovered that one of their best teachers was a man called Vijay. Vijay was a driver with the Foundation. Post training, he is now an instructor. “We need people with BEE to be our teachers – Bachelor of Energy and Enthusiasm”, Raghavan insists.
When Science “comes” to you
The foundation has mobile labs which travel around to nearby villages, towns and settlements. These mobile labs visit schools and explain to the students and teachers various concepts of science, art, etc. The travelling labs are of three kinds: vans, autos and labs-in-a-box. Mobile vans are large units, containing dozens of experiments. They can be used to teach students for entire days. For smaller localities, a limited number of experiments are taken by autos; instructors spend a few hours explaining concepts and experiments. Lastly, the lab-in-a-box – containing two or three experiments dealing with a particular concept – magnetism, electricity, and so on – is taken to individual schools for classes.
There are eco-mobile labs as well to set up small eco-clubs in schools. These schools have small medicinal gardens, where they grow plants and learn about their medicinal qualities.
Evening vans go to the elders and parents of the community. Educating parents and elders is of prime importance in such cases, because, as Raghavan maintains, “Parents can encourage or discourage. We need them on our side.
For an organisation that initially planned to start a school to foster creative learning, the Agastya Foundation has grown in leaps and bounds over the last ten years.
The school idea was dropped in favour of a “school for schools”.
The necessity to reach out to more and more children gave birth to the mobile van units.
The need to give the campus more greenery burgeoned into a full-fledged ecological plan in consultation with some of the top environmental and ecology experts in India.
The Agastya model has been recommended for nationwide replication by the National Knowledge Commission. The Karnataka Government has helped the Foundation to expand its activities to around 20 districts through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan scheme. This decision alone will benefit around 3 million children and over 120,000 teachers.
Raghavan explains that the Foundation’s next goal will be to cater to the arts as well. An Arts Centre on books, dance, music, theatre is a future target. “In our vision we said – creators, solution seekers, tinkerers, we must catalyse that whole objective. Our mantra is to spark curiosity. But I have introduced a new mantra, and that is to spark Humanity.”