Like the wandering minstrel of yore, Agastya International Foundation's Mobile Laboratory (ML) trundles in and out of schools in villages of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Just as the storyteller was received eagerly in the olden days, today, the sight of the mobile van evokes shouts of excitement from the eagerly awaiting school children. When the van pulls to a stop outside their school, children line up eagerly to watch what will come out of it. From within the van, the ML Instructor pulls out a number of planetary models as well as simple, every day objects and sets them up in a curious array before the children. The latter seat themselves happily below a tree. He then proceeds to demonstrate scientific principles with the help of inexpensive and familiar objects: a corrugated plastic tube, a trough of water, a candle, a brush, etc. One after another, the demonstrations, (which are followed by hands-on participation by children), excite the curiosity of the children: why, for instance, is this mixture of chemicals causing sparks and fire? Why is the water Igniting Minds: With Science On Wheels Neeraja Raghavan coming out of the inverted conical flask only in spurts?...

It was with the intention of sparking creativity in the young minds of rural India that Agastya International Foundation was founded in 1999 . Troubled by the pervasive lack of creativity in Indian education, Agastya launched the mobile laboratories to take science to the doorsteps of rural children. Today, Agastya has reached nearly 1 million children in rural India. In addition it has also trained about 50, 000 teachers.

For these rural children, Agastya's ML sessions have transformed Science into a journey of enquiry. Young rural teachers have been trained by Agastya to help the children see Science as a world of wonder and magic. Their training at Agastya transforms them into effective story tellers. One of the remarkable aspects of this programme is that these ML instructors are not necessarily Science graduates: yet, they manage to stoke the fires of curiosity in the fertile minds of the children, through their lively demonstrations.

Take, for instance, the demonstration of the principle of resonance in vibration. The apparatus is simple: on a horizontal wooden rod are nailed three pairs of strips of three different lengths. Each pair of equal length is painted in the same colour. as shown below.

The ML instructor now plucks the black strip and lets go: and lo and behold, the other black strip begins to vibrate in unison with its black partner! All the other strips stand still, showing the principle of resonance when the natural frequency of a strip is matched with the frequency of vibration of the 1st strip that has been set in motion. As children come up and try this out for themselves, the instructor explains to them why this happens.

When Agastya found that the fire of questioning had been stoked sufficiently in the children, the instructors began to document the questions asked by the children who witnessed the ML sessions. Agastya gets around the language barrier by having the children ask in their mother tongue, then translating the question to English and e-mailing it to its panel of scientists. The latter think about the questions and mail in their answers, which are then translated back into the regional language and ferreted back to the questioner. The relaying of the answer back to the questioner is done in as personalized a manner as possible (names of students and questions asked by them are recorded) so as to encourage sustained asking, thinking and answering.

Some Sample Questions (asked at any time, not necessarily during a ML session)

  • How is the soil formed? What is its cause?
  • How were animals formed?
  • Why can't a penguin fly?
  • When we go high up, there will be less air. Why is this so?
  • Why don't gases have any particular shape?
  • Why are elements made up of similar atoms?
  • Why can't we land on the Sun?
  • We cannot simply write the first letter of the names of elements as their symbols: why?
  • How did they find out the boiling point of water?
  • Why is a rainbow arc shaped?
  • Why can't atoms be created or destroyed?
  • Why does the earth rotate around the sun?

Such questions are bubbling, alive, floating in the fertile young minds. Teachers of science (not only in Agastya) are concerned with keeping the questioning spirit alive so as to allow the child to clearly articulate his/her doubts. Agastya is particularly focused on addressing the following: What impedes a question? What provokes it?

Agastya's simple demonstration of experiments provokes questions, that are often of a different quality altogether. The nature of questions asked immediately after a ML session is markedly different from those aired in a structureless setting. This is evident from just a glance at the following set of questions (asked after an ML session):

  • How can we measure the distance between two heavenly bodies?
  • What are the uses of full moon and new moon?
  • How did they find out the core temperature of the sun?
  • How were heavenly bodies formed?
  • Why does the sky seem to touch the earth at the horizon?
  • Why does the earth revolve around the sun and not the sun around the earth?
  • Why does the right side of the brain control the left side of the body and vice versa?
  • How do we measure air?
  • What would happen if we did not have a diaphragm?

Here, the ML session has provoked a curiosity about the actuality of what is being shown: be it the solar system, the nervous system or the respiratory system. It is doubtful whether a mere textbook would have provoked similar questions. It must be tantalizing for a child to be told of astronomical dimensions, and the tremendously high temperature inside the core of the earth, without being given a clue as to how these were estimated or arrived at. To elaborate on some questions asked

  • What are the steps we have to take while measuring something?

This question provides an opportunity to the teacher to bring home the whole field of measurement within the ambit of the child's attention. How is comparison possible without any measurement at all? What is the purpose of measurement? These, to my mind, are some of the aspects which a teacher must not fail to touch upon, even while addressing the central question posed above, by the child.

  • How do we measure air?
  • Why can't we see air?

It is quite likely that the child is asking more than what is emerging from the above string of words. One's senses seem to declare that air is intangible: or at least, not as tangible as solids and liquids. Perhaps the child is also asking: If we cannot see something, how else can we be sure of its existence? What are the immeasurables of life? In responding to the question, the teacher would do well to go as much around the central point and also touch upon (seemingly) peripheral issues.

Peering into the values/feeling beneath the question asked

What are the uses of full moon and new moon? Is heat useful or not?

The need to have a use for everything (including a full moon and a new moon) speaks of the utilitarian nature of today's lifestyle: such a questioner needs to be acquainted with the beauty of  purposelessness, as well as our motive for seeking a use for everything. (Of what use are we?) This is perhaps best illustrated to a child by asking the child to name a few things he/she finds beautiful and then to list the uses of that particular thing. We need to find use for that which does not inspire ussimply, by its very existence. As teachers, we tend to veer towards finding a use for most things and away from simply basking in their beauty: perhaps this child's question is meant to alert us to that!

What is the use of symbols and formulae?

A child who is questioning the use of symbols and formulae is obviously irked by the need to memorise them. The child has not been shown the cumbersomeness of dealing with long names of elements and compounds, and the practicality of abbreviations.

I would like to draw a parallel from my own experience. I am reminded of a remarkable lesson in the use of axes and coordinates, given by my Math teacher. She first asked the entire class to visualize our having to build a wall where our blackboard stood. Holding her arms above and below it, she said, 'Let's mark the ground level as our base, our zero.' Vividly describing the need for us to plan the length, width and height of the wall, she then slowly led us to calling the horizontal and vertical measurements as X and Y axes, respectively. Then, she posed the problem of deciding how far below the ground it would have to go. To this day, I recall the excited feeling of recognition that flashed within me: 'Oh, so a negative axis is necessary!' even before she articulated it. The subsequent lesson on coordinate geometry* was easy: none of the jargon was deemed unnecessary, I had no doubt as to its utility.

  • If seventy per cent of the earth is covered with water, why do we save water?
  • If blood donation is life donation, why do they sell blood?

Children who ask questions like those above offer an opportunity to question economics, values…the way society is structured. Here, the value of unleashed questioning and pulling out contextuality or a framework, is revealed. Further, the 'questions' relay' that is being set up in Agastya relieves the instructor of feeling obliged to know all the answers: as he/she is merely collecting questions, and is not burdened with addressing each and every one of them, then and there.

Encouraging urgent questions: making each question URGENT

Questions borne of experience are the most difficult to let go of: and a teacher of science would do well to latch on to those.

For instance, a child who is asking:

  • Why does elephantiasis come?
  • How can we control weeds?
  • Why do we fall sick if we eat lots of sweets?
  • Why do we respire more immediately after running?
  • Why is it better to cook in a pressure cooker?

has probably encountered that particular situation at home. This offers a rich possibility of sustaining the questioning spirit, as a child who wants to understand a problem will not let go of the question until the problem is solved. Many teachers employ the technique of bringing remote things into the ambit of the child's own experience. This is a time tested way of having the child sustain the fervour of asking questions: once something is in my field of experience, I simply must know more about it! [What does it matter if Robert Boyle discovered a gas law governing pressure and volume? When I fill air into my cycle's tyre, I need this law!

Interestingly, Descartes was idly watching a fly buzzing around in a corner of the room, when he suddenly realised that the position of the fly at any point in time could be represented by three numbers. The nature of his insight is now known to every school child who has learnt graphs: yet, his process of discovery is seldom revealed!

Is science always right?

Science has, too often, been linked with certainty. In the minds of many, it is synonymous with that which is irrefutably right and proven. What is frequently missed is the process of (often erroneous) trial and error in scientific conjecture and reasoning.

'We assent to experience, even when its information seems contrary to reason.' Robert Boyle

Too often, our reaction to a line of reasoning is based upon what we deem 'common sense'. In fact, some of the questions listed above could well be dismissed by one who is firmly grounded in common sense. It was 'common sense' to believe that heavier bodies fell faster than lighter ones, so that was the belief held by all, from the time of Aristotle until the sixteenth century: when it took the courage of a Galileo to show that, in fact, they fell at the same speed! The idea that the earth could be moving around the Sun did find some speculation even in the centuries before Galileo, but it failed to find favour largely because it flew in the face of 'common sense': how could the 'solid' earth be moving?! Even Descartes rejected the idea of a vacuum or void, not because of any other reason save his own abhorrence of the idea! It went against his own 'common sense'. That scientists, too, err when they get too attached to an idea, is something we are seldom taught. Perhaps, the teaching of this would go a long way in altering our perception of science as static, irrefutable and certain.

In fact, it is interesting to trace the journey of scientific thought and how until the sixteenth century, Western scientists/thinkers worked by first forming a beautiful idea and then going about looking for evidence to support it. It was not until Galileo and Francis Bacon (16th- 17th centuries) that the scientific method found the place in the world of Western science, that it has today. Isn't this the familiar journey within each of our own minds, as we grapple with our dearly held beliefs and attachments? The tussles that ensued between those with evidence to refute pet hypotheses and their proponents (the ancients, the Church) are amazingly illustrative of the tussles within the mind of each human being, when forced to take a look at his/her own bias or prejudice. Why do we deny this step in our own learning, as individuals trying to learn science and develop a scientific temper?

Does science ever say: 'I don't know'?

To focus on the (seldom spoken of) limitations of science, the teacher must emphasise that science only seeks to explain observed phenomena through Nature's laws, not explain the basis of the law itself: Why, for instance, is there a Law of Gravity? Science does not claim to know the answer to that. It only seeks to explain that the apple fell because of this law.

Why can't atoms be created or destroyed?

Because the Law of Conservation of Matter says so! In responding to a curious child, a teacher would do well to keep alive the questioning spirit by pointing out that while science may not have an answer, philosophers and scientists have been asking this question through the ages. Further, the inherent beauty in laws and the order that is consequent to the existence of these laws, is well worth dwelling upon. Until mankind knew of the existence of these laws, how was life different? What are the things that have become possible to do after discovering the laws that govern motion, for instance?

Having explained a 'miracle', does it become less wonderful?

Why do fingerprints differ for every one?

How were heavenly bodies formed?

Inherent in the first question above is the miracle of ubiquitous uniqueness: what a marvel! Too often, in explaining a miracle we dispense with the wonder it formerly evoked. McLuhan2 has called it 'label and libel': meaning, by merely naming a phenomenon, we close the door on looking at it more deeply. Feynman has described3 how his father taught him the meaninglessness of just naming a bird, and how it was far more important to look at the bird with all one's attention. We tend do this in our own way, in science. Simply because we are able to explain a phenomenon in scientific terms, we need not lose our sense of awe at the sheer magnitude of its sweep. Contrarily, there is an example of a 'miracle' where it appeared, from common sense, that we were 'getting something for nothing': the pulley. The 'miracle' of a pulley was explained by Galileo when he spelt out clearly how pulleys work. Having spelt out the law of levers and the consequence of its application in a pulley, a teacher of science could either leave the student with a feeling of having closed the mystery, and tucked it away in the files of 'known' phenomena, or with a lasting fascination for the profundity of this law.

  • 'What if…' questions
  • What would happen if we did not have a diaphragm?
  • Why can't we use water in a thermometer instead of mercury?
  • Why can't we use the clinical thermometer to measure the boiling point of water?
  • Why do plants not have nerves?
  • A seed will not be formed if a pistil is removed. Why?

Questions like those above indicate a potential for imagination and refusal to being bound by what is, in the mind of the questioner. A teacher of science would do well to encourage this: this is the stuff that a creative mind is made up of. [We are all well aware of the powerful ripples that were caused by one of the first 'What if…?' questions asked by young James Watt, as he saw the lid of his mother's kettle bob up and down due to the pressure of steam! Entire countries have been connected across their length and breadth thanks to the steam engine that resulted!

  • Inventions: questions and responses
  • How did they invent the pencil?

A child who wonders how the pencil was invented has obviously looked more deeply into something that many take for granted. I have found that asking children to come up with what they would like to discover or invent unleashes nonlinear thinking in a way that few other questions do. It also empowers the children into feeling the possibility of discovery/ invention in themselves.

  • Who invented the telescope?
  • Who invented the microscope?

An interesting spin off of a seemingly linear question like: 'Who invented the telescope?' is the way in which people's perception of the universe was completely transformed after this invention. Being able to see far into the sky meant that one could no longer rest on what one would like to believe about the way the universe was structured. It suited the thinkers of yore to imagine the earth to be at the centre of the universe, all orbits to be of the most perfect geometric shape (circular) and so this is precisely what they propounded. Galileo's telescope caused their entire perception of the universe to change: something few took to kindly. Inventions, therefore, have the power to change our lifestyles, our aspirations, our abilities to perform work and effect change, and finally, our own thinking. So, the teacher would do well to probe into the layers beneath the invention and the thought that went into it.

Science needs to come close to the mind and heart of the learner. For, lurking in those grimy hands of the village child, there could well be the dexterous fingers of a future master technologist or scientist.

One wonders how many scientists down the ages began with questions similar to those being asked by these children. As the Agastya van leaves the village children after an absorbing session, its wheels raise clouds of dust on the 'kuccha' roads, while its experiments and demonstrations have raised a host of questions in the pulsating minds of the rural children. 'I used to think, ' confessed a child, 'that discoveries and inventions were possible only for some. But now I think it's not so difficult…may be I, too, can make a discovery or even invent something!'

It is towards such a horizon that the wheels of Agastya's vans are slowly but surely moving.

Dr. Neeraja Raghavan completed a doctoral programme in Chemistry from Princeton University and returned to India where she then divided her time between industrial research and development, and education. Author of a couple of books, she now consults with NGOs in the field of education of which Agastya International Foundation is one.