In Andhra Pradesh, the writer visits one of the world’s largest hands-on science programmes and sees children of cowherds and migrant labourers dream of becoming scientists.

For two months in this academic year, 13-year-old Vijaykumar became a full-time cowherd. His school — like others in Seemandhra — was closed, because the region boiled and raged against the proposed bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh. So the Std. VIII boy spent the days taking his family’s two cows out to graze. When schools reopened late October, he was back in class, and one morning in November, I found him in a physics lab, whacking a tuning fork and holding it close to a small Thermocol ball. His classmates joined in, with tuning forks of different frequencies. The children were excited, because they’d never seen a tuning fork before. “But we’ve seen a picture, in our textbook,” they said, and answered — correctly — that lower frequencies made the ball swing farthest.

The well-equipped physics lab where I found Vijaykumar and his friends is not in his school, but at Agastya International Foundation’s campus at Gudivanka (near Kuppam). Vijaykumar’s school, the government-run Z.P. High School, Dasegownur, is only a half-hour away; but, as far as facilities go, it’s a world away. For here, at Agastya, Vijaykumar has access to specialised science labs, along with labs in maths, arts, ecology, a planetarium and discovery centre, stocked with models (like Whispering dish, Hyperbolic slot, and Momentum machine) that are typically seen in the best science museums around the world.

What began in 2001 as a ‘public laboratory’ has now grown into the one of the largest hands-on science programmes in the world. (Besides Agastya, educational NGOs like Pratham and Eklavya in Madhya Pradesh among others work in this space). Every morning, 10 buses leave the campus and go to government schools within a 25-km radius in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka (Agastya is located at the intersection of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka) to fetch more than 500 students scheduled for various activities.

Vedha came to Agastya on one such bus. The daughter of a farmer, the 13-year-old also has to cook and keep house because her mother is unwell. Her daily grind is no jolly romp but, sitting in a circle with four of her classmates, she eagerly fixed two wires to a battery, placed a small bulb on it, and smiled when it glowed. It’s the first time she’s made a simple circuit. 

Like Vedha, “five million children — mostly from underprivileged backgrounds — have benefited till date from Agastya,” said Ramji Raghavan, founder and chairman of the Bangalore- based non-profit educational trust. Their parents are typically farmers or agricultural labourers. If the rains fail, they take the early morning ‘push-pull’ train to Bangalore to work as construction labourers. “My dream, since I was a young boy, was to build a school in the foothills of the Himalayas,” said Raghavan. But since Andhra Pradesh was receptive to the idea, he decided to ‘go where the demand is’. The campus — 172 green rolling acres — began engaging with schoolchildren in nearby villages and became ‘a sort of school for schools’, whose objective is to spark curiosity and creativity, as in the robotics lab, where Std. VI children from Z.P. High school, Aniganur, were play-learning with tiny Lego pieces. It took them three hours to assemble the pieces into working windmills. Each time they visit Agastya, the task set for them gets harder, and they progress from making a model with the help of a manual to programming it with a computer.

Twelve years after it started, Agastya now functions in 12 states across India (Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Bihar, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh). It also runs 33 satellite science centres, which are smaller versions of Agastya’s Gudivanka Campus, and are spread across Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Noida and Gujarat. Seventy-five mobile labs, mounted on the back of tempo travellers, take science learning directly to the schools. They hope to add another 38 to that number.

Given the scale of operations, Agastya’s annual budget comes to around Rs.18-20 crores. The funding comes from both individual sponsors — Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, investor and philanthropist is the biggest — and corporates, besides government partnerships with the states of Karnataka and Haryana). “Partnering with the government is important to scale up operations,” said Raghavan. His goal? By 2020, he hopes to reach out to 50 million children, and a million teachers.

Agastya’s target group is government-school children from Stds. V to X, said Dr. Shibu Shankaran, head, Kuppam campus. “Around 500 children visit us every day. On average, each child visits the campus five to six times a year.” (Each visit costs Agastya between Rs.200 and Rs.250 a student, and is entirely free for the schools and students). This results not only in a breakthrough in understanding the sciences, but also an improvement in academic performance, and hopefully a higher chance of opting for science courses in college. “Over the four or five years of their visits, they become proficient in science. Look here,” said Munuswamy, instructor, showing me copies of mark sheets. “C.S. Gourama and S. Harathi have both scored 90 per cent in their Std. X Board exams.”

For Dr. Shibu and his team, it’s a logistical challenge to schedule visits at the beginning of the academic year and see that the children get to visit all the areas — science, maths, arts, ecology, the planetarium and the discovery centre. “While the children explore and learn,” said Dr. Shibu, “the teachers are put through a two-hour session in which they’re sensitised about hands-on learning”, a concept alien to teachers conditioned to the ‘chalk and talk’ methodology commonly followed in schools. For their part, the teachers retort that they don’t have Agastya’s facilities or even money to buy models. “So we also teach them to make low-cost alternatives,” explained Dr. Shibu. “For a simple motor, all you need is one large cell, two safety pins, a magnet and a copper coil!”

In the beginning, though, it was hard to convince schools to send children to Agastya. “Schools were only concerned about whether it would help the kids score marks,” said P. Manjunath, senior manager, academics. “They asked if we could complete the portions and grilled us on the number of experiments the children would perform,” added K. Balaraman, an old Agastya hand, who’s now in charge of liaisoning with schools. But now, teachers are surprised that kids they had labelled as ‘duds’ were developing a keen understanding and parents are thrilled that their sons and daughters can speak confidently, and not just about science.

Basamma, a daily worker from C.P. Kunta village, told me that she does not know what her son, Raghavendra, is up to in the evenings. But he does not fritter away his time. He’s at an ‘Operation Vasantha’ centre where he completes his homework and prepares for his exams. This after-school programme run by Agastya is named after a young girl called Vasantha. Raghavan saw her coaching small children in her village and realised that all of them were first-generation learners with no adults to help or supervise. And so began ‘Operation Vasantha’, which now functions in 86 villages. “The centres are run by college students; they receive a modest stipend from Agastya to monitor and help 30-40 kids every evening,” said P.S. Jayamma, Operation Vasantha coordinator.

In Sodiganipalli village, Operation Vasantha’s impact has been life-altering. For here, many school dropouts have been mainstreamed. Umesh, now in Std. VI, was pulled out of school when he was in Std. II, and sent to rear donkeys. In Harish’s case, it was 30 goats that stood between him and school. Jayamma pleaded with their families to get them back to school. Harish has not just caught up with school work but has also been selected for Agastya’s enrichment programme, Young Instructor Leaders (YIL).

“We’ve selected 1510 YILs, from 255 villages around Kuppam. These kids have great potential, and we’re looking to develop that further,” said Uday Kumar, project manager, YIL. Girls, especially, benefit from the YIL programme. “There’s a tendency to get girls married early. But we encourage them to study, and give them scholarships for higher education,” said Kumar.

YILs also learn to make low-cost science models that they take back to their schools, said Kumar, showing me a periscope made for less than Rs.10. Keeping the costs low, the models simple and, most importantly, small are among Agastya’s objectives. Prof Baluragi, head of Agastya’s Teaching Learning department, starts his day bent over a notebook, hand-drawing new models or tweaking existing ones to make them portable. Placing a convex lens before parallel beams of light (of an optic kit), he demonstrates convergence. “If children see the demo, they will remember it for life,” he explained. The resource team can also quickly replicate the models. “From drawing to sample, it takes them just eight to 10 days,” said Dr. S. Somasekhara, director, academics.

One of the resource team’s breakthroughs is the ‘lab in a box’. A full set consists of 10 briefcases with around 15 to 20 experiments in each. “It covers all subjects. The models are miniature versions and our team identifies village schools, and circulates the boxes among them,” said P. Krishnan, senior manager. There are 39 full-time instructors working at the Gudivanka campus itself (out of 260 instructors nationally); the majority are from nearby villages. Teaching here, for them, is not just a job; it’s their way of giving back to the society, one whose social and economic drawbacks they know well. That understanding comes in handy, when they help students pick science projects that tackle local issues, for national and international science fairs.

Agastya has had a brilliant track record of wins at the prestigious IRIS (Initiative for Research and Innovation in Science), where the kids from local village schools competed against participants from India’s wealthiest schools. And won. They achieved this by keeping the ideas simple, and the costs low. This year too, Agastya won two prizes. One — “Energy from Musa acuminate” (that’s the scientific name for wild banana) — was from Gudivanka campus. S. Harish and K. Harish came up with the idea when they saw banana plants in their village being burnt. They thought it could be used as a cheap energy source and discovered that it costs just Rs.2.86 a kg to produce banana briquettes (dried banana stem, cut to size), which ignites very fast and, compared to firewood, produces much less smoke.

The boys — both Std. IX students at the Government school at Sanganapalli — begin the day by mucking out cowsheds; in the evenings, they bring the cows home, and wash vessels. At Agastya, they’re given the space — and the opportunity — to become scientists.