Every week, science teachers at Rishi Valley School get together for a faculty meeting. We are a diverse group. Some have taught for over thirty years, and for others this is the first year of teaching. Some teach exuberant eleven-year-olds while others work with anxious eighteen-year-olds preparing for their board exams. Our discussions usually focus on streamlining the science curriculum, the difficulties we face in teaching a certain class, or ways in which we can reach a particular student. Underlying all the discussions is a common desire—to make science more meaningful and exciting for our students.
Caught up in the daily timetable, we often felt unable to fully explore in an open-ended way ideas that students were excited about. We felt the need to do something with students that would evoke and celebrate the excitement of science. Thus the seeds of a ‘Science Mela’ (science carnival) were sown, almost a year before its fruition. This article describes how the idea grew, took shape, and what we learnt in the process.
Objective of the Mela
The aim of the Science Mela was to create greater awareness, interest and appreciation of the different facets of science. We hoped to convey how accessible underlying scientific principles are, how dramatic and exciting science can be, how the ways of doing science are fascinating and stimulating. We wanted our students to understand the role of observation in science and to look afresh at the world around them.
The discussions on how to conduct the Mela began in earnest several months ahead. For most faculty members, this was the first attempt at organizing such an event. There were many discussions about which classes should participate, how long the event should be, and what kinds of activities we could include. We took the pragmatic decision to keep it relatively small and manageable by working with middle-school students (about a hundred of them!) on a variety of projects. The whole school was to be included in other events such as assemblies, films, talks and the final exposition.
Scheduling the event, given the teachers’ packed schedules and the busy school calendar, was another issue. We finally chose to work with students over four afternoons on different projects, and include hands-on activities, lectures by well-known scientists, video sessions and assemblies during other times during the Mela week. An exhibition of students’ work on the fifth and last day was also included.
The process of planning for the event was in itself a great learning experience. At the outset we listed the various tasks needed to be done. These included identifying the locations, organizing the infrastructure, inviting guest speakers, selecting films, sourcing material and liaising with the school administration. Each of us volunteered to take on some of these responsibilities.
We also decided to work in small groups to generate ideas for projects in different areas. For convenience, each group focussed on a subject it was most familiar with (physics, chemistry, biology, environmental science), although there was much overlap between these areas in the ideas that emerged. Weekly meetings to review how things were moving along were an opportunity to share ideas and offer suggestions. Differences of opinion were discussed and disagreements resolved in an atmosphere of openness and camaraderie. It soon became evident that each of us had vastly different styles when it came to planning, especially an event that was months away. Some of us were laid back and needed reminders and encouragement from the group, while others were constantly making lists and firing off e-mails! The differences in style and temperament coupled with the ability to work together proved to be one of our strengths as a group.
Sourcing material was a challenge, given the remote location of the school. Checklists were maintained to ensure that adequate supplies were on hand before students started work. In open-ended projects, one could not always predict what ideas students would come up with. So teachers had to be specially resourceful in anticipating and being ready with additional materials and alternative plans.
Gathering materials was in itself an experience: visiting the alleys of Madanapalle town looking for just the right plastic pipe, understanding the local areas and culture, struggling with the language when buying materials from small vendors.
People spontaneously offered help in different ways. A teacher visiting Bangalore (150 km away) offered to shop for materials, a houseparent helped to make science posters with her students, a laboratory assistant volunteered to make models for display. The enthusiasm seemed infectious. We also alerted other departments in school that we would need their help. The woodcraft section, the arts and crafts department, the estate, the health centre and the building maintenance department all chipped in. Their unstinted assistance in several tasks (often at short notice) was invaluable and energizing.
As the week of the Mela approached, the anticipation and enthusiasm among students was palpable. Students constantly came up with new ideas and questions about projects. Our own preparations became more frenetic as we ticked items off our lists and kept our fingers crossed
Projects and activities
Choosing and collating projects for students to do was fun. It gave us a chance to include all those exciting projects that a fixed, time-bound curriculum excluded. A project could call for doing experiments, designing and making a model, investigating an idea, or a field-based exploration. Projects needed to be feasible, given the available time and resources and the age of the students. When we got together to compile the final list of projects, even we were amazed. We had more than fifty diverse and exciting projects for students to choose from! As a colleague remarked, ‘I wish I were a child again doing some of these projects.’ The projects covered a range of ideas and concepts. Students were allowed to choose the projects they would do. On the basis of their choices, we divided students into small groups. Each student worked on a minimum of two projects: a long one over three afternoons and a short one over one afternoon. They prepared write-ups, posters, charts and models to present their work.
Sample list of projects:
- Why does fungus grow on some surfaces and not on others?
- Grow a bacteria garden.
- Can we light a fire without a match?
- Study the patterns of tree bark.
- Explore where weaver ants prefer to make nests.
- Bake yummy bread using the power of the sun. Understand the chemistry of kneading and why bread has holes in it.
- Grow different kinds of crystals.
- Make your own fire extinguisher.
- Solar distiller: purify water using sunlight.
- Design and build your own electric board game.
- Genes and variation: record variation in classes 7 and 8.
- Explore why we need animals to grow good food by getting elbow-deep into cow dung.
- Investigate the mechanics of marbles.
- Mechanically propelled car: How far can you make a car go without fuel?
Things started out smoothly. Our extensive planning pre-empted various issues: maintaining order with more than a hundred students working in different locations and the sharing of resources were reasonably trouble free. Students needed reminders about maintaining equipment and cleaning up, but were generally responsible and helpful.
There were several surprises along the way. Projects which were expected to take three afternoons were completed in half a day. Batteries ran out and bulbs fused as students designed and tested unexpected circuits. Open-ended projects demanded discussions with the harried teacher. Field work and observation required patience. Recording data was painstaking. Failed experiments led to dejected youngsters.
Teachers would gather at the end of every day for a much-needed cup of coffee and sharing of experiences. The debriefing helped us gear up for the next day with new ideas, strategies and a renewed sense of purpose. In addition to the work the students were doing, there were several other science-related events. Assemblies on topics as varied as ‘Mirror Neurons’ and ‘Camera traps in RV’, interactions with visiting scientists from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and the Raman Research Institute, film screenings on life in a space station, and the work of an Indian science educator added to the ‘science buzz’ on campus. The walls of the middle school were decked with science-related posters, charts and puzzles.
After four days of hectic and purposeful activity it was the day of the exhibition. Students displayed and explained their work to more than 300 visitors (other Rishi Valley students, parents, teachers and students from the rural school). As students explained what they had discovered, their excitement was obvious. The exhibition literally ended with a bang as students set off the fireworks that some of them had made.
While the Mela was intended to be an interesting exposure to science for the students, it was an enriching and educative experience for teachers as well.
Here are some of the things we learnt:
- Planning and delegation helped us work collaboratively as a team. It helped us take individual ownership for tasks and yet take collective responsibility for the success of the event. The larger vision of making science exciting and meaningful underpinned our work. This helped us receive suggestions and resolve disagreements in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and cooperation.
- Open-ended projects were a challenge for students and teachers. Students often had high expectations of what they would make or do. Things did not always work as expected as in these examples:
A group of students decided to make a ‘Hovercraft car working with an airpowered propeller’. When it did not work after several hours of serious effort, there were many dejected twelve-year-olds. As one student said, ‘Our car was supposed to be powered by a balloon, rubber band and a flywheel... It was too heavy and would not move. We noticed that it was a total failure. That made our group members split up.’
Two days and several heartbreaks later, there were several proud inventors racing their ‘cars’.
Another group chose to study the mechanics of marbles by building a roller coaster which was two storeys high. Failing to get the marbles to move through complicated loops, they finally scaled down their project and wrote: ‘Conclusion: Big projects can be depressing flops. Small is beautiful.’
In the interim, teachers had to maintain the fine balance between offering assistance and yet not ‘taking over’ the students’ work. Allowing students to make mistakes and yet encouraging them through the tough patches was an essential part of learning.
- We learnt many things working alongside our students and colleagues: toilet seats in school had fewer microbes than computer keyboards (from ‘Grow a bacteria garden’); crystals come in fascinating colours and shapes; fruits have cells and DNA; the bread you have baked yourself is yummy even if it is hard!
Now we look forward to our next celebration of science.