by Nita Patil
This paper documents my volunteer work with the Vidnyanvahini Mobile Science Laboratory (MSL) in August-October 1999. A complete description of the initiation, objectives, and projects of the organization are included. Information on its active members and typical daily program along with my objective and role are discussed. I have also made an in-depth comparison between a typical village in the state of Maharashtra and an "ideal" village.
Intro to Vidnyanvahini's Organization
Vidnyanvahini is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that originated in response to the present condition of India's rural areas: those of poverty, limited education, and a severe lack of infrastructure. In a country where there is high technology currently competing at the global level, simultaneously thousands of children are subjected to inadequate and insufficient education tools. Part of India's population contributes to some of the immense advances that are recently affecting us worldwide. Yet there are so many children in the nearby villages that do not acquire even a remote understanding of these high-tech advances. The resulting discrepancies between the urban and rural areas are overwhelming.
Underneath Vidnyanvahini's umbrella goal of improving the understanding and awareness of science in rural Maharashtra come several specific objectives:
- To provide village children with a chance to acquire basic science knowledge through experiments and observation.
- To discuss topics such as cleanliness, hygiene, safe drinking water, and the environment, thus allowing them to realise the applicability of science in their lives.
- To explain the basic science behind superstitions, thus correcting some of their mistaken beliefs.
- To teach teenage girls about feminine hygiene through discussion and audio-visual materials.
- To inflict awareness that science can help solve everyday problems as it does for urbanites.
- To hold workshops and camps for science teachers and stellar students for their continuing education.
Dr. and Mrs. Madhukar and Pushpa Deshpande, Vidnyanvahini's founders, initiated the organization to address the pressing concern of rural education in India. The Dialogue & Action Group (DAG) of the organization is composed of about 15-20 established individuals of Maharashtra. Most are retired professionals who enhance the organization by bringing in their specialties and devoting their time, efforts, and support. In addition to these volunteers, there are the workers employed by Vidnyanvahini, a science teacher, Ashok Rupner, and the driver of the MSL, Atik Shaik. Their unyielding energy, determination, and enthusiasm are like none other, allowing the organization to flourish indefinitely. Several visiting volunteers (primarily from Maharashtra and USA) come for short periods of time, adding a unique touch to the daily programs.
Initially, the founders donated the money to fuel the development of Vidnyanvahini. In between, several grants were received from organizations worldwide, along with charitable donations from a large number of other committed members of the public.
Mobile Science Laboratory (MSL)
The main tool that is used to better science education in villages is the MSL, a science lab on wheels. It includes plenty of countertop space, cabinets, science equipment, and a water tank, generator, television, and VCR. This mobile lab allows the volunteers to travel near or far to teach lessons and perform a number of science demonstrations in a fully equipped laboratory. These science activities provide village children the rare opportunity to learn biology, chemistry, and physics through actually seeing and doing the experiments. After the inauguration in July 1995, the bus is a marvelous success and has made more than six hundred trips to underprivileged village schools all over Maharashtra. A typical day of the MSL begins and ends in Pune, going out of the city a distance of about 20 to 100 km. Along with the driver and Vidnyanvahini's main science teacher, about four to six additional volunteers travel to the rural high school scheduled for that day. Upon arrival, they immediately begin planning the day's schedule based upon how many classrooms are available and how many children are present. After a plan has been determined, they quickly start delegating tasks to the students. As a group, everyone sets up the tables and laboratory equipment in a matter of minutes and the volunteers begin their interactive lessons. After four to six hours, each child has completed lessons and experiments in physics, biology, and chemistry, and has watched an educational film. Often the school performs a brief closing ceremony to offer their thanks and appreciation, and the MSL heads back to Pune.
These annual workshops are designed to give additional science exposure to exceptional students from the village's high schools. A child, after showing great enthusiasm and an eager learning spirit, is invited to attend these 2-3 day workshops organized in Pune. Different community figures give lectures and demonstrations, and the students have an opportunity to visit local science learning centers. It is comforting to see a high participation of female students and support from their parents to send their children for this type of an event. This shows how the importance of science is slowly spreading into villages, both in the young and older generations.
Several teachers from local high schools convene for these one-day workshops to enhance the science lessons they can teach. An extensive demonstration is given about how to teach several science concepts and perform experiments using everyday objects. Also, Vidnyanvahini's volunteers present lectures on specific science and math topics. These events are also highly successful with great reviews by the attending teachers and head masters.
The decision to publish this periodical in 1997 was made to benefit high school teachers and students on other levels. "Vidnyan Vichar", meaning "Science Talk", is a booklet with several articles on different science-related topics. It is sold for a minimal price and an even further discounted price for students. So far, it has been well-received by the readers with great reviews.
Another project started in 1997 is a system to circulate science books of all levels to high schools in easily accessible areas. Each school will have a set of books to offer to their students for one month. The mobile library will then be passed to another school nearby. This gives the students and teachers an opportunity to read books that are not easily accessible in a village environment.
My role with Vidnyanvahini
As a visiting volunteer, I had the opportunity to participate in many of Vidnyanvahini's projects and activities. I taught physics in the MSL, conducting an experiment of light and optics and giving lectures on density. I went on two extended village trips, Ralegoan Siddhi, an "ideal village", and Acola, allowing me to experience a Teachers' Workshop and a Science Camp for students. My objective in volunteering was multi-fold. I was able to experience village life in Maharashtra, explore teaching in rural high schools, improve my Marathi, and most importantly, learn from the hundreds of unique individuals I met.
Comparison of a Typical and an "Ideal" Village
I am making a comparison of the school systems in a typical (usual) village and an "ideal" village in Maharashtra. The typical village is a generalization based upon 20 different rural schools that I visited near Pune. The ideal village, Ralegoan Siddhi, has been awarded this honorable title because of the passionate efforts of Anna Hazare, an activist, in his home place. The components of the comparison are as follows: school facilities; students, teachers, and head masters; curriculum and learning tools. I will attempt to show the need for a growth in focus towards rural education.
School Facilities in an Ideal Village
Ralegoan Siddhi's high school impresses me just by its building and campus. The enormous concrete and brick structure holding twenty-two rooms is solid and newly constructed. The sole purpose of the facility is for educational purposes. The two-story school is well-maintained with relatively modern classrooms, desks, and blackboards. Plenty of sunlight enters through the large windows in addition to the electric-powered lights. A library consisting of more than one thousand books, a computer lab with three computers, and a fully equipped science laboratory is available to the students. The large school ground also houses other buildings including a hostel for 200 students who have failed in the recent past or whose villages are very far away.
Students, Teachers, Head Master in an Ideal Village
Ralegoan Siddhi's high school has more grade levels than usual: grades 5 through 10, plus the Pre-University College (PUC) for the Arts. Students choosing to do a PUC in Science or Commerce attend a different school after the tenth grade. There are 25 teachers here, all with Bachelor's degrees in the subjects they teach and with appropriate Teaching Credentials. Five even have post-graduate degrees, something unheard of in other village schools. The majority of the teachers live on the high school campus in order to make themselves available to the children as much as possible. An important philosophy is that children learn through example, so the school program insists that the teachers remain exceptional models. The head master of the school is a very committed person whose deep promise has allowed him to head the school for the past 19 years, since its birth in 1980. The 750 fortunate children attending this high school are broken up into eight grade levels. It is said that every child born in Ralegoan Siddhi is now attending school, a statistic never before found in rural India. Overall, the students' pass rates are higher: this is to be expected from the additional care, support, and encouragement they receive. After speaking with a few of them, I was pleasantly surprised by their maturity, curiosity, enthusiasm, and awareness.
Curriculum and Learning Tools in a Typical Village
Each of India's State Governments set a basic curriculum for their public schools. The subjects included in Maharashtra for the high school level are Marathi (first language), Hindi (second language), English (third language), social sciences (national and world history), mathematics, and science (biology, chemistry, and physics). Each semester's syllabus is provided by the state government, along with exams that are given at the end of the term. Textbooks sold in bookshops are to be purchased by the students. Each high school has discretion over how to teach the students with the given material for their exams. It is rare for the village schools to properly prepare the children, let alone to reach beyond the syllabus.
Curriculum and Learning Tools in an Ideal Village
I was most struck by the impressive and complete education which the children at Ralegoan Siddhi's high school receive. Besides the standard six subjects required by the state government, this school has created a "Five-Point Program" to allow their students to flourish into "good" human beings. The headmaster, a few teachers, and Anna Hazare developed this program when the high school was first created:
- Body Building (Sharirika Vikas) - This aspect is given the most weight in the entire program. It includes a one-hour session of running, physical training exercises, gymnastics, and yoga at 5:30 every morning. There is one hour per day in the evening for the students to play active games such as volleyball and cricket. And one class period per day is devoted to physical training. So in one day, the children spend 2 1/2 hours exercising their bodies.
- Voluntary Work (Sramadhan) - This is an ingenious way for the students to participate in building and maintaining their village. When there is work to be done in or nearby the school, an entire grade level is assigned to the job. They skip their classes that day and very willingly perform the necessary work. Every grade level is given an equal opportunity to do this. The children really enjoy participating in these voluntary services to help maintain their village.
- National Pride (Desh Prem) - Teaching children to honor and value their land and country is another aspect of the five-point program. The students sing patriotic songs and participate in national holidays. To instill pride in the land, they have each child plant and care for a tree. They also help to clean the roads and public areas in the village.
- Character Building (Vyaktimatwa Vikas) - Teaching children to have good character is very difficult. They created a way to teach this by providing a good example. The program requires the teachers to act as role models for the students. They follow some basic rules such as not smoking or chewing tobacco, and simply behaving properly at all times. Because they reside on the campus, they can play an influential role in the lives of the children.
- Knowledge & Wisdom (Pradnya Vikas) - This part of the program allows the students to thoroughly understand and learn their school subjects. They allot extra time for remedial lessons in which the teachers are available for assistance, plus a one-hour session at night for students to help one another. This gives the children plenty of time to fully grasp concepts.
This "Five-Point Program" has overwhelming success in assisting the students to become strong, influential individuals in their societies. It is very thorough, and the variety of elements keeps the students and teachers interested and active in the school. It is very inspiring to see such a successful program being implemented in a rural high school. This village's literacy rate of 95% shows how powerful this educational influence has been.
"A chain is only as strong as its' weakest link": India's villages need tremendous manual efforts and financial support to strengthen the country's chain. Creating solutions to these issues requires involvement from several parties, including the government, private sectors, and both rural and urban individuals. Vidnyanvahini is making a great step for rural Maharashtra in response to this tremendous need. We can only hope that these efforts inspire similar efforts throughout India and globally. The approach of Vidnyanvahini allows direct contact with students and influence on an individual basis, providing children with an extraordinary learning opportunity. Of course, the time the MSL spends with the students over the duration of their entire education is very brief. The greatest hope is that the influence of this science education will impact the teachers enough that they will strive to pass on a more lasting, long-term improvement in education to their students. I feel very privileged to have participated with Vidnyanvahini in their quest to spread the importance of education to rural India.