Science Education on $1 Per School, Per Month

It's been two weeks since the conclusion of the inaugural Tech4Society celebration in Hyderabad, India. The event was well attended by the 106...

It's been two weeks since the conclusion of the inaugural Tech4Society celebration in Hyderabad, India. The event was well attended by the 106 Ashoka-Lemelson Fellows as well as other leading social entrepreneurs who focus on technological innovation. (See my previous post here.)

One fascinating project was the work of Ashoka-Lemelson Fellow Balaji Sampath, who helps children learn science "on the cheap." His Eureka Child Initiative-which grew out of his AID India organization-is bringing science education to extremely poor students in Tamil Nadu, India. The organization makes science accessible and fun by encouraging students to use ordinary, everyday materials.

In Hyderabad, Sampath told us a story about how science is traditionally taught in India-and why it doesn't work. While evaluating a science class, Sampath observed an instructor asking his students: "Do you think people can go to the moon?" Before the children had time to answer, the teacher responded: "You and I cannot go to the moon, but there are people who can, and they are called scientists."

With that one dismissive sentence, said Sampath, the students were prematurely discouraged from pursuing careers in science. So, he set out to reinvent the educational framework for teachers-guiding them to empower students, and therefore giving young people the room to aspire and challenge themselves. By having children take the lead, Eureka Child encourages students to explore their own sense of curiosity about science. Typically, the experiments can be accomplished inexpensively through the use of readily available materials-straw, mud, a glass of water, paper, books, or rocks-and as a result, schools only have to spend $1 per month on necessary supplies.

During his presentation at Tech4Society, Sampath demonstrated one such science lesson. He held up a book and a piece of paper-one in each hand-asking the audience: "Which is going to take longer to fall?" When the audience agreed that the paper would take longer, he let the materials drop; as the paper floated to the ground and the book fell straight, he started a discussion on air resistance and how the paper is affected much more so than the book.

Sampath then asked the Tech4Society participants to close their eyes and imagine that air is made of atoms moving across the room. He held up a piece of paper asking: "Then, why doesn't the piece of paper move?" The audience responded that it doesn't move because atoms were hitting the paper with equal force from both sides. Sampath continued to question the audience and proceeded with several more simple experiments related to air resistance-again, using just a single piece of paper.

It's lessons such as these that Sampath and his team use to train science teachers to instruct India's poorest students. Sampath also has a weekly 10-minute television show in India, demonstrating experiments that can be easily replicated at home or in the classroom. His approach has worked-by encouraging students to take risks and see mistakes as learning opportunities, he is challenging both students and teachers to find their own creative solutions. Already it has reached nearly 500,000 students.

While these techniques were developed for the children of Tamil Nadu, they have tremendous potential globally. We are working with Sampath and other Ashoka-Lemelson Fellows like him to explore the prospect of scaling successful approaches to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education. If we can share and build upon the model of making STEM education fun and accessible-driven by a peer-to-peer approach, with hands-on activities that generate experiential competence and confidence-we can not only dramatically change education systems, but also nurture the next generation of innovators and social entrepreneurs not only in the United States, but all around the world.

Julia Novy-Hildesley is the Lemelson Foundation's Executive Director.