Where science, schools, and social entrepreneurship meet

Lewitt Somarajan’s Life-Lab has partnered with close to a hundred schools in Delhi, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.  

PUNE: In a small workshop, hidden away on Pune’s NDA road, a demonstration is under way. A supervisor draws diagrams on a white-board, watched closely by a group of four or five employees. Shelves line the walls, displaying a variety of science models on bases made of black acrylic fibre; more acrylic sheets are stacked to one side; a DC motor vies for space with a conductivity tester, a beam balance and a large yellow plastic ball (intended to explain how the human retina functions). All told, this workshop produces 81 such models, covering around 540 concepts of science for students from the third to the tenth grade.

Overseeing the whole operation from a corner is Lewitt Somarajan, curly-haired and bespectacled, every bit the eccentric scientist. Except that he is the boss here, the entrepreneur running the show.

Mr. Somarajan, who is now 28, graduated in engineering in 2007 but, he says, he quickly realised that a corporate job was not his calling. In 2008, he went on the Jagriti Yatra, an annual two-week train journey that introduces a bunch of carefully-selected budding social entrepreneurs to successful social enterprises across the country. The experience taught him that he wanted to start an enterprise that could benefit smaller towns and villages, but he still had no idea what he would do. In 2011, he started a fellowship with Teach for India, in Pune (incidentally teaching in a government school that is in a street just opposite to where his workshop is currently located).

“While I was teaching,” he says, “I started questioning my own role as a teacher and how a classroom is structured. When I was young, I used to think that a classroom was like a circus and the teachers is like a ringmaster that everyone blindly followed without knowing why, and I was concerned that I was just repeating the same thing.”

During the second year of his fellowship, he began exploring the idea of creating low cost, high-quality science equipment into low income schools. A couple of engineering buddies helped with the initial design, and the first models were made by a cobbler whom he recruited after noticing his exceptional dexterity. “The models were first made using rubber shoe soles. Of course we had to change the material eventually to find something more durable but this set the base.”

Then, three years ago, he started Life-Lab. A grant soon arrived from Hewlett Packard’s Education Innovation Fund, which gave the enterprise some breathing space, but in attempting to get schools interested in their models, Mr. Somarajan and his team identified a key problem. Despite the promise that activity-based learning (ABL) — a teaching system that aims to keep children interested and in school — it has not been able to spread to low-income schools. This is because there is a lack of support structures that would enable teachers to reimagine their traditional roles. “When we talk about a pedagogical process like ABL, we often look at it from a child’s perspective and how it will benefit the child. But there has to be a proper structure in place so that the teacher feels he or she is being supported. They should not feel that this kind of learning is very difficult for them to do.”

So, when a school uses equipment produced by Life-Lab, it also enrolls in a two-year coaching programme that trains teachers in using the equipment: for every ten schools, there is one facilitator who visits each school every fortnight. In addition, there are two centralised training sessions annually, for all the teachers enrolled. For classes which use their equipment, the company conducts an assessment for the students and these are then compared to their marks in actual exams to see if performance is improved. “We have already noticed a 35-45 per cent increase in learning outcomes,” Mr. Somarajan says.

The company has partnered with close to a hundred schools in Delhi, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Each year, Mr. Somarajan says the company grows its business by about 300 per cent. It has 16 corporate partners, whose grants from corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds meet almost all their needs. The funding also determines the location of the schools Life Lab works with, because, “According to the CSR provision, the schools have to be within a 50 km radius of where the company is operating. Sometimes they choose the schools and sometimes they let us choose.”

Aside from economical lab equipment, Life-Lab also makes activity kits for students of each grade that can teach them different aspects of biology or chemistry. The teaching materials too, are undergoing a constant process of evolution — as the focus on develop a more structured approach to ABL continues — and Mr Somarajan is now hoping to create a series of comics and animated videos that can again be used as teaching aids. The goal: reach every state in India.

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2021 3:10:01 AM |

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