When a magnifying glass is used to concentrate the heat of the sun, it can burn through paper or create a small fire with some dry grass. Its a simple experiment that demonstrates scientific concepts related to the nature of heat, light and glass lenses.

And yet, its not often demonstrated in a classroom.

Or take pollution. It is an important subject in the textbook, as education policy makers seek to awake environmental awareness and understanding about the scientific consequences and solutions of pollution among students.

And yet, few Chennai teachers take their students out of the school grounds to see firsthand the pollution of the Cooum, or visit a sewage plant as part of a real life demonstration of a lesson on water pollution.

A new experiential science learning programme being developed in association with IIT-Madras aims to change the way teachers and students approach science education. The multimedia-enhanced Physics and Chemistry material, meant for Classes 6 to 9, is already available on CDs, and will be put on the Internet by the end of the year. The programme is being coordinated by the Kuruvila Jacob Initiative for promoting excellence in school education, which was set up in memory of the former headmaster of the Madras Christian College High School.

What makes it different is that it was developed by teachers who actually teach in schools, not by IIT professors and so-called experts… The teachers know best, said T.S. Natarajan, Physics professor at IIT who helped to oversee the project.

Most of the experiments I suggested are things we actually do in our school, but many schools dont encourage it, said Anuradha Sriram, a physics teacher at TI Matriculation and Higher Secondary School, Ambattur. In many schools, especially government schools, they say that they cannot do demonstrations with 80 children, and group work is too noisy, they dont have time to finish the syllabus and they dont have enough facilities. So they get discouraged and just stick to the textbook and the blackboard… This project is inspirational for any teacher, since it uses very simple, everyday material and real-life examples.

Full of videos

Unlike many sophisticated e-learning programmes with diagrams and animations, this projects modules are full of videos actually showing simple experiments water expanding when it becomes ice, a thick glass tumbler cracking when hot liquid is poured into it, a simple electromagnetic circuit. It also connects experiments to what the child sees in real life. A video of the gaps in the Chennai suburban railway tracks provokes a discussion on how metals expand and contract with the changing weather, while a video of Kalakshetra weavers teaches important lessons in how fibres are made into fabrics. Teachers say it was important to bring context into our own backyard by using local examples rather than international ones.

It was meant as a support to teachers, but it has turned out so visual and child-friendly that students can also access it from the comfort of their homes over the Internet, says Vijayalakshmi Srivathsan, a retired teacher who helped coordinate the project.

A group of 80 elementary school teachers from 22 city schools brainstormed for ways to make science come alive for students. Then, animations and videos were added using the same equipment and team which are putting IITs engineering courses on YouTube. By December, the modules are expected to be freely available on their own website. The next step is to translate the material into Tamil, according to Beena Gopinath, coordinator of the project for the Kuruvila Jacob initiative. It is going to be taken to the Corporation schools…, said Teresa Sitaraman, a teacher at Sishya School, who worked on the project. If a magnifying glass and the sunlight can kindle a spark in a student, we may be touching an Einstein or a Newton. You never know, Dr. Natarajan added.