by Ankita Deshpande
India is a land of contrasts. The cows seem to have as much right to the streets as do the Mercedes-Benzes. While large corporations push the limits of high-speed information technology, many people lack even a telephone. However, nowhere is the difference so apparent as the great chasm between the cities and the villages of India. Vidnyanvahini, a non-profit educational organization, aims to lessen this gap by introducing the practical side of science as well as promoting social awareness, proper hygiene, and other "life skills" among students of rural Maharashtra. As a rising senior in high school and a born-and-raised suburbanite in United States, spending two weeks touring with Vidnyanvahini was an eye-opening experience for me. I was exposed to, what seemed to me, the harsh realities of village life full of hardships I could not have imagined. Consequently, I realized just how vital the lessons Vidnyanvahini teaches are to improving the standard of living in Maharashtra's villages.
Dr. Madhukar and Mrs. Pushpa Deshpande began Vidnyanvahini in 1995. The program runs during the Indian school year (June-April) and typically visits schools once or twice each semester. The schools in the vicinity of Pune are served on day trips from the organization's home base. The organization also reaches out to more remote villages where the faculty stays for a week at a time, visiting four or five area schools. Often, in these circumstances, headmasters cart their students on tractors from 2 hours away to a school scheduled for a Vidnyanvahini visit just so that their children can learn science through experiments.
I had the privilege during my two week stint to observe dedicated volunteers interact with the students and make a change in one day. One volunteer who greatly impressed me, personally, was Mrs. Pushpa Palkar. Not only did she give typical anatomy lectures dealing with the circulatory system, excretory system, and brain, but she also discussed proper procedures for dealing with illness, such as when something is treatable at home versus when something needs to be seen by a health-care professional. Mrs. Palkar also informed the students about different blood types and the consequences of these differences. She explained about the necessity of knowing one's own blood type. But what most amazed me was her candid manner when discussing reproductive health. A topic, I learned, often shunned in Indian schools, Ms. Palkar matter-of-factly discussed with girls the changes that they would be undergoing as their adolescence progressed. She also helped discredit some of the common superstitions held in rural India about women during menstruation.
Correcting wrong ideas about life's natural wonders is one major objective of Vidnyanvahini. In addition to lectures, students are shown videos that demonstrate the truth of natural phenomena. Various other videos shown inform students about how things work, different science areas, and most importantly, good personal hygiene. The evolution of personal health care always takes longer to reach the villages; the dedicated volunteers of Vidnyanvahini help speed up the process.
Perhaps the greatest need that Vidnyanvahini fills is giving students the chance to experience the practical side of science. Since the majority of the schools which Vidnyanvahini visits don't get grants from the government or get only partial grants, they lack the funds to buy the equipment and supplies necessary to maintain science labs. Vidnyanvahini fills this void in children's education by providing the means for these children to experience science "coming to life."
I was able to demonstrate an optics lab to eighth grade students. After Ashok Rupner, the resident teacher, gave a lecture to the students on the properties of light, I demonstrated to small groups of children the theories and laws that he had just taught them. To learn about science is one thing, but to see it occur in front of you is another. When the students saw the principles holding true in the practical demonstration, the concepts took a firm foothold in their minds. By observing the way light behaves when exposed to various mirrors, lenses, and prisms, and combining that with their knowledge from the lectures, students understood the material well.
Besides optics, students were also exposed to practicals in other areas. Students learned how to use a microscope and how to look at slides in biology, observed the typical textbook chemical reactions occurring right before their eyes, and discovered the miracles of gravity in physics. Not only does this exposure help them on their exams, but it also gives them reason not to accept unscientific myths and superstitions.
I truly treasure my two weeks with Vidnyanvahini. Not only did I gain a greater understanding of economic barriers to education, I was permitted to understand how these barriers could be broken down by a group of devoted people and one very special bus. Spacious enough to easily fit a whole class at once, traveling in the bus to and from schools was quite comfortable. I was amazed at its layout; cleverly designed to maximize storage and seating space. And, of course, the devoted bus driver Mr. Atik Shekh not only made sure that the bus was kept in top condition, but also saw to it that we arrived at our destination safely and on time. Without the dedication of all the members of Vidnyanvahini, the incredible joy of knowledge would remain undiscovered for many children.
I greatly enjoyed working with the students. The most gratifying aspect was the students' pleasure and love of learning. Coming from a country where the majority of children detest school and learning, it was refreshing to see the thirst for knowledge still in existence. I also realized how privileged I am to have the opportunities I do as a student and more so as a young woman, especially the freedom to pursue higher education and a career of my choice. Although the norm seems to be shifting, I observed (during my brief time with Vidnyanvahini) that the number of females dropped sharply from the 7th and 8th standards to the 9th and 10th standards, presumably, as I learned, due to early marriages. However, within our weeklong excursions to Srirampur, we met several B. Ed. (Bachelor of Education) female students who were already married but still pursuing their degree. As the majority of girls forgo their education after marriage, I was happy to see that there are also women who choose to have a career in addition to their families.
Through education, Vidnyanvahini seeks to change this ever-present perception that educated females aren't useful in society. By demonstrating to these students that science is tested and that the conclusions drawn are based on factual data, Vidnyanvahini tries to help the students arrive at their own set of beliefs instead of merely accepting what is taught to them either at home or at school. The organization is giving these students knowledge and, thus, the power to think, choose, and decide, an idea foreign to many. By fostering the growth of the mind, Vidnyanvahini is helping Maharashtra close the gap between its rural and its urban populaces.