Would your children know that a kite is closely associated with mathematics? soars the skies on the kite that plays with numbers

Imagine your child, armed with video games and iPads, flying a kite? Suppose your child does, by some heavenly whim, do you think he would associate the kite, which is friends with the wind god, as also a dear pal of mathematics? It’s not a case of far-fetched imagination; if your kite needs to make bounds into the seamlessness of the high heavens, its size and proportion is determined by mathematical calculations.

At the first carnival of maths, organised by Number Nagar on the 150th birth anniversary of Srinivasa Ramanujam, most children were let into this secret: it had twin results — apart from setting them thinking, it brought two minutes of much-desired silence from them!

Why do most children scoff at mathematics? Why do most adults recall mathematics as their worst childhood fear? Someone who does well in Maths is looked upon with great veneration and is bestowed the demi-god status. The problem, vouch the trio at Number Nagar — Ravi Shankar, Anupama Prakash and Pavan Kumar — is surely the case of an unimaginative classroom situation.

The striking math lab Number Nagar, an initiative of Brainstars, is an endeavour “dedicated to fostering and nurturing the movement of science and mathematics education in India”, while keeping their approach curriculum based. Their aim is to achieve a crossover between “arts” and “academics” — to act as a bridge between “formal education” and “innovative research”.

If biographers of Ramanujan have seen him as an “artist” with numbers as his medium, why can’t this art experience be trickled down to every child’s tryst with mathematics? “Children from low profile schools, like the ones in Basavanagudi and Malleshwaram are so intelligent. Do you know…?” asks Anupama, daring a politically incorrect statement. But that’s the core philosophy of the Number Nagar project -- reaching out to children from ordinary circumstances and clearly not those from alternate schools. “We want to give their talent an impetus, so that they have the wherewithal to soar higher,” she adds.

Teachers, for an ideal classroom situation, are trained to be instructors and not facilitators, which takes away much of the enjoyment from learning. “We surely didn’t want to be hardliners,” explains Anupama. The science and maths projects at Brainstars was clearly imagined to embody the spirit of joyful learning ‘Nali-Kali’, a creative learning project, jointly envisioned by the Government of Karnataka and UNICEF.

Walk into their math lab and it’s a riot of colour and happy mathematical ideas strewn all over the place. So much so, it’s irresistible even for an adult. It’s clear that this space is the beginning of a new culture of mathematics, where every child’s curiosity is stoked by giving him a free hand. They are nurtured with responsibility and interest, helping them gain a “deeper understanding of science and mathematics through hands-on activities,” says Ravi.

A lot of research, dialogue and debate took place, before they zeroed in on a final model. Constant interaction and idea exchange with educationists, architects, pedagogues, artistes and researchers helped them design this model space that challenged stereotypes. Anupama worked with the design team and Pavan was part of production, while Ravi conceived the whole programme. “Our intention was not to replace a maths class, but to complement it,” says Ravi, speaking of a survey that they undertook. The results were alarming – 90 per cent of the children said they ‘hate’ maths, and 10 per cent said they ‘like’ maths. “That was scary. In a country like ours, how can we wish away maths and science? Their interest had to be triggered through curiosity and fun.” Contrarily, they found that most children who disliked maths didn’t do badly, but the problem was that their engagement was passive. “On the 125th anniversary of Ramanujan, we felt like doing our bit for the country and its children. With CBSE declaring maths labs compulsory, it gave us a forward motion,” says Anupama.

The space is designed so unlike the conventional class room. It is fluid, free, full of design elements and activities that provide them with the touch and feel of mathematics. The entire space is set in the “city” (the nagar) and helps the child engage with its city; as it finds its way through the city, it tumbles upon mathematical concepts. Taking you through “Math and City” an interesting wall mounted illustrated map, Ravi introduces aspects other than maths as well – waste management, urban mobility, so on and so forth.

“At our launch carnival, we gave away kites to all the kids who turned up. The response was dizzying! We had a whole lot of games, activities, the math mandala, sudoko and many other things. But each of these activities was linked to a mathematical concept. It was not just the kids, but parents and grandparents who accompanied them also enjoyed hugely,” recalls Pavan.

The basic idea at Number Nagar is to fascinate both the learner and the facilitator. In their model that is completely mapped to curriculum, maths is highly innovative. There is a wall mount with the faces of 36 mathematicians; Anupama tells you how each of these detachable puppets is picked by a child, and is encouraged to engage in “role play, discussions, and speak about the time in which these mathematicians lived… so on and so forth.”

There are plenty of activities – The Zero Suitcase, which contains the travel suitcase for zero, has postcards that narrate episodes in time. The Pi Pillar is very interesting — there are three drums that take you through the pursuit of number through various cultures. Ratio and proportion is taught through Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and the cubes have multiple purposes. The Time Tree is the most interesting of them all. It captures the Timeless mathematical truth, the Pythagorean rule along with the five elements of water, air, ether, earth and fire incorporated into it. It transports the child beyond the immediacies of the city.

They have a huge research team that gives life to their ideas — and Anupama, Ravi, and Pavan are clearly enjoying what they are doing. Lots of kids come to Number Nagar to be a part of their maths programme; they spend hours enjoying cracking a problem and finding answers. There’s no one route to crack a problem – that’s what kids like most at Number Nagar.

To quote Gandhi: “If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.”

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Ramanujan remembered April 27, 2013