Pictures and articles about the contrasts between the haves and the have-nots of India do not prepare you for the irl experience—the poverty in Old Delhi versus modern architectural structures in high-tech Bangalor. However, the most significant contrast is in opportunity. Research on the U.S. economy has shown that few people are able to improve on the economic class into which they were born. In India, the challenges of moving upwards look insurmountable. This is especially true regarding the status of girls where attitudes about girl child infanticide, not just access to education, are being combated. In this context the Rabea Girls Public School is nothing but extraordinary. Established in 1974 by Hakeem Abdul Hameed (the school is named after his mother) it is now run by Principal Dr. Naheed Usmani. It is a unique school for Muslim girls, where their education includes working with electrical circuits and writing business plans. What’s notable about the school leader is that she didn’t talk about changing the world. Dr. Usmani talked about helping individual students become good human beings, about giving girls the “right values and confidence” so they would not falter, in whatever path they followed. Recognizing that many of her students get married by the 12th grade, Dr. Usmani talked about increasing the number of her students going on to university (20 last year compared to just 2 students in 2011, when she started as the school’s principal). Though many education leaders look to take on new challenges after a few years of a successful program, Dr. Usmani did not talk about what she planned to do next. “There is no exit strategy,” was a statement made by another school leader, Geetha Narayanan, founder of the Srishti Institute. Both women, like so many of the eduction leaders we met on this trip, have a commitment to providing opportunity that focuses on the individual student. Though I was surprised to see John F. Kennedy quoted in the Rabea School Magazine, I was not surprised by the sentiment—“…those who look only to the past and present are certain to miss the future.”
Our visit to Agastya was on the second leg of the delegation tour. It started with another early morning rise and a 4-hour bus ride that took us past Kuppam and other small villages. Along the way both sides of the road had mostly farm land and country side with mountains in the distance. This part of India is much more green and lush compared to the area surrounding Delhi and Agra.
Background on Agastya
Agastya International Foundation (Agastya) is an Indian education trust and non-profit organization based in Bangalore, India whose mission is to spark curiosity, nurture creativity and build confidence among economically disadvantaged children and teachers in rural India. Agastya was founded in 1999 by entrepreneurs including Mr. Ramji Raghavan. Agastya runs hands-on science education programs in rural and peri-urban regions across 14 Indian states, as of January 2015. It is one of the largest science education programs that caters to economically disadvantaged children and teachers in the world.
By making practical, hands-on science education accessible to rural government schools, Agastya aims to transform and stimulate the thinking of underprivileged children and teachers. Agastya has a Creativity Lab located on a 172-acre campus in Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh, and over 100 Mobile Labs and 45 Science Centers all over India. As of January 2015, Agastya has implemented programs for over 5 million children (50% girls) and 200,000 teachers, from vulnerable and economically disadvantaged communities.
Agastya Bangalore campus
Our schedule consisted of a brief presentation by Agastya host, leaders and educators, then visits around the campus to the various learning centers. These Centers are housed in beautifully designed buildings spread across the campus. Each building has amazing vistas of the surrounding landscape.
At each center we got a chance to do hands-on demonstrations of tools/games used in helping learners discover science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics through experience. The Agastya research and development staff have put tremendous amount of talent and effort into creating educational kits that are well thought out and extremely portable. With these kits they can reach learners in the most remote areas.
Through mobile classrooms Agastya has been reaching a significant number of learners and educators in rural areas around the country. Now with the Agastya campus and park their new model of training “teachers” or learning coaches they have and ambitious goal of reaching 50 million students and 2 million teachers by 2020. Keep in mind, there are at present 400 million students in India. Their impact would be tremendous in how STEAM is taught in India and internationally in the coming years.
The data they have reported shows their approach works. They have educated many children and teachers that would otherwise have been left behind.
Visit to after school activities in the village
We made two late evening visits at a nearby village. Our first visit was to an elementary school that had after school maker space. Children of various ages were making crafts out of paper, banana leaves, popsicle sticks, etc…
The second visit was to an afterschool program utilizing one of Agastya’s Mobile classrooms. This particular mobile classroom was a van equipped with equipment like laptops, tablets, and other technology to help deliver digital education. Class was being held outside someone home. Students were seated on the ground at tables arranged outside. Each student had a laptop/tablet. The van provided light and power to conduct class both of which are unreliable in areas where Agastya provides services. Vans are also being upgraded to provide internet access for the mobile devices.
We observed innovative uses of information technology by the Agastya team. Two of the more unique findings were the use of Raspberry Pi computers and mobile computer labs. To reach their goal of 50 million students the team at Agastya have to solutions that can scale to those kinds of numbers. A cheap computer like the Raspberry Pi is a scalable solution. Additionally, the machines are small and housed in clear plastic housing allowing students to experience both the hardware and software.
Like their mobile classrooms the mobile computer labs allow Agastya to bring classroom technology to rural areas. In this case it’s a but set up with multiple computer stations that can accommodate 18 students and on instructor. Each station has set up for two students to foster collaborative learning.
We finished our day at the Agastya auditorium immersed in the Arts. It is a beautiful building with unique architecture befitting their country setting. Another creed at Agastya is to foster and nourish creativity holistically. One of the many ways they do this through performance art. Experiencing STEM through performance art. This approach necessitates participation. So, the delegation sang and danced the songs and dances native to Tamil Nadu. True to form, their staff of engineers and scientists also sang and performed. Some of their staff show exceptional talent.
Unlike the visits in Delhi where we observed the use of technology addressing concerns in urban India. Classroom technology concerns in rural India are a few layers removed from the more basic needs of literacy and STEAM. But, I think Agastya has the correct formula.
We left there extremely inspired and full of hope.