The word ashram typically brings up images of a spiritual space, with a guru, his followers, peace and quiet. But in Mysuru, there is an ashram that buzzes with activity, excitement and children’s laughter.
The founders of this Ashram – Dhruva V Rao and Rohan Abhijit – insist on calling it an ashram, more correctly, the Science Ashram!
In this conversation with The Better India (TBI), Dhruva walks us through why the friends set up the Science Ashram, how it is impacting the lives of children, and what their future plans are.
Dhruva tells us how it all began.
In 2010, after completing their engineering, friends Dhruva and Rohan decided to take up corporate jobs. While it took only a few months for Rohan to realise that he was not cut out for a corporate job , Dhruva persevered and stayed on for almost five years.
Change happened when one of their mutual friends asked for their help.
“A mutual friend’s cousin was appearing for the PUC examination and because of being weak in math and science she was unable to clear the exams. It was at this time that Rohan decided to help her and just after a couple of months of tutoring she managed to do well in the exams and passed with good marks as well,” says Dhruva.
This piqued Rohan’s interest in teaching and he started to explore his options in this field and decided to apply for a teaching position in a school called Manasarowar Pushkarini Vidyashrama in Mysuru.
“Rohan started teaching Physics and Maths at the school and did so for almost three years. Inspired by Rohan, I also quit my corporate job and took to teaching Chemistry,” says Dhruva.
Their teaching stints led both Dhruva and Rohan to conduct many one-on-one sessions with their students to understand their aspirations in life and problems they were facing in studies.
This experience paved the way for the creation of the Science Ashram.
The Spark for the Science Ashram
One of the most important lessons that the duo learnt as teachers was that teachers are not the only knowledge source any longer. “With the advent of technology and good internet connection, knowledge is democratised. Teachers are now a motivational source and are facilitators to help children learn,” he says.
While they were grappling with the idea of how to make academics more interesting and immersive, Dhruva and Rohan reminisced about how they both would spend hours pottering around a garage that was owned by Rohan’s grandfather.
“It was like a treasure trove for us,” he says. “It was filled with all kinds of tools and Rohan and I have spent many productive hours building remote controlled cars and segways.”
The duo had a habit of visiting the local scrapyard to pick up things and use them to build useful things. They felt that the time they had spent in the garage helped them focus and get better at academics. “We wanted to recreate that for children and get them into problem solving mode,” says Dhruva.
In July 2014, Science Ashram came into existence as a space for children to explore and learn. “Initially, it was an uphill task getting students to come. While the students were excited about the prospect of making things, we found that the parents did not have much faith in us or what we were trying to do,” shares Dhruva.
He goes on, “We had a parent who had just moved to Mysuru from Hyderabad and while his child was very enthusiastic about joining us, the father wanted to know how these classes would help his son fare better in class.”
Dhruva and Rohan explained how these classes weren’t ‘tuition’ classes and would help children develop the kids’ critical thinking ability. Nothing they said convinced him and so the duo allowed him to enrol his child for six months without taking any payment from him.
“It paid off,” says Dhruva with pride. “The same parent came back to us at the end of six months with a cheque in hand and thanked us profusely for the difference we made to his life. This incident reinforced the belief that both Rohan and I have in what we are doing.”
How do the classes work?
There are certain schools across India that have associated with Science Ashram. Dhruva mentions that they are in talks with a larger number of schools to ensure that they reach more students. In such cases, the teachers at the schools are trained to facilitate the sessions and students can participate from school itself. If this does not work, students can also visit the Science Ashram over the weekend where classes are held.
Each child enrolled at the Science Ashram gets to work on an open-ended problem. To help them solve this they have access to all kinds of tools from the stores that are located within the premise. Explaining this further, Dhruva says, “Every child is given ‘x’ amount of virtual currency with which they can buy the tools that they need to solve the problem or create something. Each child has an item request sheet and they can choose whatever they want. To make it efficient, we also allow them to return the items they do not use and get the money back for it.”
At the end of the challenge, the child is evaluated on the basis of the project that they come up with, in terms of sturdiness and design, feasibility of the product made, and also in terms of the money that they have managed to save.
Students from grade 4 and upwards are eligible to participate in the sessions. Each module could cost upto Rs 5,000 in which children have access to about 20 to 22 sessions, each of an hour. In these sessions, they get to work with various tools, which include a 3D printer, telescope, jigsaw machine, hacksaw blades, bolt cutters, drilling machine, and other simple hand-held tools.
Children – the Real Litmus Test
Dhruva feels that the real test is when the children take to it and come up with their own innovations. Speaking about one student from Hyderabad, he says, “This kid built an air cooler for his dog. Though it looks very simple, the difference it makes is phenomenal. It not only gives them a boost of confidence but makes them feel worthy.”
Another student built himself a hot case to take lunch to school everyday. “What we teach is the basics of designing and whatever the students make thereafter is an expression of their own creativity and ingenuity,” he says.
Science Ashram received a funding of Rs 2 crores from angel investor and has since then expanded to other cities, which include, Bengaluru, Magaluru, Coorg, Pune, Mumbai, and Hyderabad. With a large team of trainers and almost 5000 students enrolled with them across their centres, Dhruva is confident of taking his “Makers Space” idea to many more students and schools.
If you are part of a school and would like to invite Science Ashram then you could reach out to Dhruva at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)