On a cold Sunday morning in villages shadowed by snow-covered Dhauladhar ranges in Himachal Pradesh, children gear up with gloves, caps, and sweaters. They are excited to attend the weekend math and science classes at the Aavishkaar Centre for Science, Math, Arts and Technology in Kandbari, a remote village in Palampur. On the other days, they study in government schools.
Bharat, a teacher at Aavishkaar, patiently waits in the classroom with books featuring bright pictures and bold letters. An alumnus of IIT Chennai, he chose to work with Aavishkaar over a 9-5 job and finds happiness in teaching mathematics to children.
In schools across the area, the subjects of math and science are a cause of concern among students. “Students in schools are taught mathematics by inflicting punishment. At home, their parents are not interested in knowing more about what is going on in the school, while schools aim for marks and do not focus on teaching,” says Bharat.
However, Aavishkaar, a brainchild of Sandhya Sharma and Sharat Gupta, is a ray of hope for children to drive away the twin monsters of maths and science.
Both Sandhya and Sharat hold PhD’s and have worked in the US for about 20 years. When they returned to India, they chose to settle in Kandbari.
“When we returned to India, my daughter was 5½ years old. I started looking at schools here for her. I realised then that our schools have a culture of fear, and it is difficult for education to thrive in such an environment. You must learn out of joy. I enrolled my daughter in the local government school and started volunteering there. About four years later I understood where the problem lies. Students have a huge fear of mathematics. The solution then was to make learning a joyful experience,” says Sandhya.
Subsequently, Sandhya and Sharat established Aavishkaar in 2012. Through the NGO, they reach out to students and teachers with their innovative methods of understanding mathematics, physics and chemistry.
In order to reach out to government schools with their unique method of teaching maths and science, the duo uses simple models, made using inexpensive material and discarded items, to explain various concepts. “When we visit remote schools we have to be careful while choosing the models so that they can make them at schools,” says Sandhya.
Incidentally, the mud and slate building where the centre’s classroom and library stand (the first picture) is a renovated cowshed. A pigsty has been converted into a workshop. “We had no choice. That was the only option available. We have used the locally available bamboo to make our furniture. Bamboo looks aesthetic too,” says Sharat.
The centre organises science fairs in schools they work with and residential camps for students and teachers. Aavishkaar also organises special camps for children from NGOs such as Neev, Nari Gungan and Karm Marg.
They are assisted by a vibrant team which includes graduates from reputed institutions. “We do not advertise. They find us. Many foreigners want to volunteer during our workshops, but we teach in Hindi,” says Sandhya.
Aavishkar has had quite a few success stories, and one of them is Rajeshwar, a 15-year-old boy. He is the son of a carpenter, and although he developed an affinity for woodwork at an early age, he did not know what the future held. Now a Class 10 student at a school for low-income families near his house, he is confident of realising his dream of becoming an engineer and credits Aavishkaar with giving him the necessary understanding of maths and science—the two subjects which are crucial for him to realise his dream.
Aavishkaar has also trained teachers of Teach for India, Youthreach and other organisations working with government schools across the country, and has also conducted teacher training workshops for Himachal Pradesh and Delhi governments. The centre has also been invited to work with private schools.
“Due to the rote learning culture, our children, who are actually thinkers, have come to rely on the copy-paste method. This affects the growth of our nation. Aavishkaar helps with the conceptual understanding of the topic and answers the ‘why am I learning, what I am learning’ question from students, by connecting it with daily life. Unless you make a child think, you have not done your job as a teacher,” says Sandhya as she readies the centre for an upcoming workshop.
Sandhya and Sharat also design quality math and science content for Classes 6-12 and are currently ensuring that the children from schools in neighbouring villages are ready to write their Class 6 exams.
Apart from education the centre has helped broaden the worldview of students in this remote area. “Village children here aspire to be taxi drivers, but we encourage them to aim higher,” says an upbeat Sandhya.
Kudos to Aavishkaar and its team that is striving to make education interesting for underprivileged children with their innovative methods!
(This article has been written by Syeda Farida)