I.K. Lenin Tamilkovan, Project Director of the Anna Science Centre is not too perturbed by the exceptionally hot day in Tiruchi. After all, global warming is one of the many subjects he has to explain to visitors at the centre on the Pudukottai Road. Established in 1999, the Centre, more popular by its Tamil moniker ‘kolarangam’, incorporates a 3-D theatre, a planetarium, herbal garden and an environment gallery. Equipped with top-notch accessories like a Rs.1.3 crore-projector system donated by the Japanese government, the sprawling five acre campus comes under the Tamil Nadu Science and Technology Centre in Chennai. Watching over the knowledge resource is Mr Tamilkovan and his team of eight.

The role of a science centre remains crucial to children’s understanding of life. “Whatever be the technological developments, kids must understand the basics of science first,” he says. “It’s like learning the alphabet before knowing how to use the language.”

Fun to learn

Mr.Tamilkovan realises the importance of ‘fun-tainment’ while learning a serious subject. “I have hundreds of toys that I use to teach children,” he says. Most of these are handmade and non-battery operated.

He proceeds to give mini lessons on popular science that can get the most hardboiled science-phobe interested. “You can teach many concepts in geometry and mathematics using just a piece of folded paper,” he says, folding an A-4 sheet to demonstrate.

The double Graduate in Physics and Maths delights in pointing out the science in the most mundane of things. “The Thanjavur doll for example, is an easy way to learn about stability. Even a water bottle can tell you about centre of gravity and its importance.”

Simple folk toys that could impart scientific knowledge have now been replaced by plastic gadgets that don’t last long, he rues. “All those bamboo flutes and air-pipes that we played with in our childhood are no longer in use. The flutes show that as the length of the air column changes, the note will change. A practical demo of the science concept is easier for children to understand than theoretical learning.”

Education is key

The rush for ‘prestige’ courses like engineering and medicine has blinded many parents to the career prospects of allied sciences, says Mr. Tamilkovan.

“There is ‘status’ attached to being a BE or MBBS degree holder. But the basic training for teaching is not there,” he says.

“Teachers are stuck on the syllabus and don’t have time to update themselves beyond the subject books. As a result, children feel their teachers don’t know their work.”

“We have a history of science education much before it became fashionable,” he says, adding that Tiruchi has nurtured many luminaries in the field like Sir C.V. Raman and former president of India A.P.J Abdul Kalam.

Interactions

For many children, especially those from the surrounding towns and villages, the Centre is their very first interaction with the field. Every second Saturday sky observation sessions through telescopes are conducted between 6.30 p.m. to 8.30 p.m.

“Luckily, good views are guaranteed from here as there’s less light pollution in Tiruchi than in bigger cities,” says Mr Tamilkovan. Trying to be all things to all people can be a never-ending process, and not a particularly edifying one, concedes Mr. Tamilkovan. “We need to work harder on making ourselves popular,” he says.

Public interest in the centre usually soars during celestial events. He hopes the response will be robust this December, when the comet Ison (C/2012 S1) will be visible in twilight to the naked eye.

Monthly interactions with experts in different fields are an added attraction at the centre.

Eco-awareness

Instilling civic sense in young children is a constant challenge for the centre, which is where its environment gallery, developed at a cost of Rs.30 lakhs with the help of Indian Oil Corporation Limited comes in.

With sections devoted to eco systems, bio-geochemical cycles, biodiversity and conservation, pollution and sustainable energy sources, the aim of this part of the centre seems to be futuristic.

But how does it compare with the situation on the ground?

“If we sensitise the kids, we create a generation of eco-aware people,” says Mr Tamilkovan, while agreeing that Tiruchi residents could do more to save their environment.

For his part, he remembers photographing the growth of a banana plant from germination to fruition to note that it was the bat that was the crucial pollinator. “We fail to realise the importance of these links in the food chain when we cut down plants,” he says.

Need for patronage

Places like Anna Science Centre could provide the spark that is lacking in the traditional classroom, but even this has to have patronage, he says.

Some problems are practical, such as the absence of any city bus service to the centre despite the bus stop outside.

“If we had even a single bus plying to our centre, visitor numbers will definitely go up,” he says.

Crediting his “passion for science” as the chief reason for his joining the centre, he says, “You have to be a master of all sciences and arts to work here.”