Science of change

Demystifying numbers  

For someone who has a phobia about Math and Science, meeting a bunch of youngsters who conduct after-school programmes on these subjects is not an assignment to be taken lightly. I first heard of Mango Education when they conducted an all-night astronomy session where I live. After hearing the kids rave about it, I picked up my courage to talk to them about why they do what they do.

Though Mango Education is just about four months old, the core team has been dabbling in education-related activities for some time. The founders, Obuli Chandran and Arumugham Sankaran, are engineering graduates who are passionately interested in science and computer science. Within a few minutes, we are engaged in an animated conversation about the state of science education — and education in general — in India. Ameerkhan, the digital strategist, watches us quietly, chipping in only when the conversation is specifically about children. Darsini Manikandan, who is in charge of classroom engagement and research, was a volunteer with Make A Difference (MAD) and enjoys working with youngsters.

Obuli had been working with children individually earlier via his Atom Academy. “That was syllabus related and I was trying to get the children to understand scientific concepts instead of just mugging things up from their textbooks. But,” an expressive roll of eyes accompanies the words, “the parents wanted to see tangible results in the form of marks. When that didn’t happen, they began questioning the need for my classes.”

Arumugham, a Computer Science graduate, had earlier tried to build apps to teach history and geography. “Instead of teaching maps the way we do, I thought we could use cartography to make a map-based game on, say, Gandhi’s Dandi March or something like that. But it didn’t work,” he smiles ruefully. While working for start-ups in Bengaluru, he also realised that many engineering graduates had no clue about how to apply what they’d learnt in the real world. This only confirmed his opinion that the sooner kids were taught problem solving and critical thinking skills, the better it would be for them and society at large. When he returned to Coimbatore, he knew he wanted to do something with school kids but wasn’t quite sure how to go about it.

Things picked up when he met Obuli at one of the Smart City meetings and decided to work together. Thus Mango Education was born. Ameer and Darsini were roped in. Right now, the group has two centres — at RS Puram and Trichy Road — and meets with the children once a week. “But they have activities to do all week, plus we are in touch with them all the time,” says Ameer.

The classes are mixed age groups ranging from eight to 16 years, says Arumugham. Isn’t that tough for the younger kids? Not at all, says Obuli. “We group the kids according to ability, not age. It wouldn’t be fair to them.” Arumugham offers another reason. “The younger kids are not afraid of asking questions and the older ones, who may be a bit leery of that, join in once they see that someone else is clearing doubts.” Darsini cites the example of a Std. III student who is way ahead of his seniors.

Their classes have nothing to do with the school syllabii. “What syllabus?” snorts Arumugham disdainfully. “One exam paper asked: ‘What is the fourth item on the drop down menu when you click on File?’” There’s a harangue in the making but he stops short. Obuli pitches in with science. “Schools are still teaching the Newtonian way of looking at the world. But the world has moved on. What about the Einsteinian way?” But don’t the kids need a historical perspective? They agree but point out that it will happen only when the syllabus is updated.

Their first programme in science is Young Astronomers. “Astronomy involves physics, chemistry and maths,” says Obuli. “We use astronomy as a means to bring in concepts from these subjects.” In computer science, Arumugham teaches computational thinking and game and app development. “In computers, there is no mistake; only a bug to be fixed. I want them to apply this concept to their lives. It’s a way of dealing with failure too. You don’t fail; you only have a bug that has to be fixed. But you have to figure out a way to do so.”

They also take the children on one-day trips to software and other technology companies so that the children understand how to apply what they are learning. The astronomy group gets a 12-hour night out to coincide with events like meteor showers or eclipses.

What is the outcome they are looking for? There is silence as the four look at each other. “Eventually to bring a change in the way science is taught in schools and colleges,” says Obuli. “To help the children understand that there is more to science and computer science than what they will find in their textbooks,” says Darsini. “To encourage them to ask questions and to find the answers,” says Arumugham. “To learn from their curiosity and engagement with the subject,” says Ameer, as the others nod in agreement. “We are learning as much as the kids,” say Obuli and Arumugham.

After I leave, I realise I haven’t asked them why they named their initiative Mango Education. I send the question and wait for an answer, which eventually comes from Obuli. Because they want to spread the culture of science and computer science to the aam janta.

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 12:40:31 AM |

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