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TBI Blogs: After Fishermen Deaths, 11-Year-Olds from TN Designed Zero-Cost Life Jackets Using Plastic Bottles

Disturbed that fishermen die at sea every day because they cannot afford safety gear, these boys from a government school in Tamil Nadu designed a cost-efficient life jacket out of waste plastic bottles. The project won the ‘Boldest Idea’ award at the ‘I CAN Awards 2014’ organised by Design for Change.

Eleven-year-old Rishikesh spent a lot of his time playing on the beaches of Ramanathpuram and the neighbouring fishing villages. While there, he’d often heard murmured stories of fishermen tragically drowning at sea. Disturbed by these stories, and knowing that most fishermen cannot afford safety gear, he started thinking.

With his Class VI friends – Praveen, Naveenkumar, Karthi, and Guhan, all of whom hail from agricultural families – from the Panchayat Union Middle School in Muthuramalingapuram, rural Tamil Nadu, Rishikesh went about designing a product that could help fishermen stay afloat, at zero cost. “The idea of designing a life-saving jacket came to me when I saw some plastic bottles floating in the sea,” he told EducationWorld.

The students envisioned putting such discarded plastic waste, which spoils the soil and water bodies, to better use.

Studying the physics of floatation by observing empty plastic bottles in water…

The students began researching on the physics of floatation by experimenting with empty plastic bottles. Stitching together about two dozen such bottles, their first prototype seemed to work pretty well. As Rishikesh knew swimming, he tried out the jacket himself first in a lake, to see if it effectively allowed him to float.

When this was successful, he asked Praveen, who did not know how to swim, to also see if he floated. It worked.

Rishikesh with the ‘Water Jacket’, with mentor Muruganantham and Praveen.
Praveen floats owing to the Water Jacket.

Easy to prepare, with almost zero cost, the boys sent their innovation to the ‘I CAN Awards 2014’ organised by Design for Change – a not-for-profit organisation that challenges children to solve problems in their community.

Under the mentorship of A. Muruganantham, they had actively gone about employing the four-step design-thinking framework of Design for Change, which encourages children to first ‘feel’ for an issue, then ‘imagine’ a way out of it, then ‘do’ something about it, and go on to ‘share’ their idea with more people. The project won the ‘Boldest Idea’ award from amongst 1,992 stories submitted in 2014, bagging a cash prize of ₹50,000.

After distributing many such jackets to the local fishermen, and feeling encouraged by the award, Rishikesh and his friends were eager to work further and have this idea implemented countrywide by reaching out to more fishermen. But things stalled when those in the government who appreciated the innovation moved departments. The students are now immersed in their Class X studies.

Though the idea of plastic bottle-life vests has surfaced in many places around the world, from Bangladesh to Vietnam, in the recent past, the boys’ creative problem-solving abilities addressing a major problem in their community, and their ‘I Can’ attitude, are a remarkable example of what a nurturing learning environment can achieve.

Be a part of one of the largest global movements of children driving change in their communities. Take up the ‘I CAN School Challenge’ in your classroom. Find out more online, or reach out to Design For Change on +91-95999-16181.

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Written by Niharika Sanyal

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Niharika Sanyal is a forager of meaning, architect by training, writer by instinct, and coffee-addict by habit.