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They are above 60. And they have traveled about 3 Lakh kilometers to take Science to Kids.

A group of retired professionals. One ‘Mobile Science Laboratory’ bus. 2,80,000 Kilometres traveled. More than 3 Lakh students covered. Science education by this group of senior citizens will give our youthful teachers a complex!

As the ‘Mobile Science Laboratory’ (MSL) bus turns on the winding roads of Maharashtra, the teachers ready the science experiments and all the material for activities. A science laboratory on wheels is perhaps no novelty in India these days; after all, it has proved to be the simplest way to reach out to those in rural landscapes. However, the people taking it from place to place certainly are.

‘Vidnyanvahini’, as the name itself gives away, is literally a wealth of knowledge on wheels.

Knowledge is imparted at absolutely no cost at all and science is made interesting by Vidnyanvahini’s team, a group of retired professionals from the various scientific fields.

This team of entertaining and passionate teachers has an average age of 64 years with the youthfulness of that of twenty-year-olds.

The Vidnyan Vahini team with the ‘Mobile Science laboratory’
The Vidnyan Vahini team with the ‘Mobile Science laboratory’

Harsh weather conditions, long hours of work or arduous journeys in a bus are the least of deterrents for this team as they travel across the state and the country to teach science the way it should be – practically.

The last 20 years of their generous service have seen more than 3 lakh students from all over India benefit. Their impressive records include 2,750 visits to schools across India till date. Even more impressive is to know that they have traveled 2,80,000 kilometres, the same as travelling seven times around the globe, in just 20 years!

Humble beginnings

Vidnyanvahini was born of an idea by Mr. and Mrs. Deshpande. An NRI couple with a penchant for Mathematics, Mr. Deshpande holds a PhD in Mathematics and Mrs. Deshpande spent numerous years as a Mathematics teacher in the United States.

A short documentary on mobile laboratories in 1994 gave Mrs. Deshpande the inspiration to start a mobile laboratory in their hometown of Pune. Thus, this determined couple came home with modest donations to build their very own Mobile Science Laboratory (MSL).

A first-of-its-kind back in the 80’s, this innovative solution of an MSL conceived by Mrs. Deshpande was ideal to address the lack of resources and quality education in rural India.

The MSL on the road .
The MSL on the road .

Mr. And Mrs. Deshpande looked to their acquaintances in various fields for support. Volunteers came on board to form a small team of five, and soon the operations began in 1995.

With the simple aim of creating a passion for scientific enquiry and heightening students’ interest in the subject, the MSL embarked on its journey to villages in Maharashtra.

Travelling close to 150 kilometres every day, the team commenced their visits to schools on the fringes of Pune. Each day saw new schools and excited students, and to reach out to as many of these students, more members joined the initiative.

Within months, the word of the MSL had spread to various rural schools in Maharashtra and the Vidnyanvahini team had more invitations to schools than their schedules could permit.

Dr. Kiran Phatak teaching Physics in a school in rural Maharahtra.
Dr. Kiran Phatak teaching Physics in a school in rural Maharahtra.

“In the beginning, we hired a bus and went from village to village. Just a few months later, due to the increasing demand, we invested in a bus of our own and designed it to make it a lab on wheels. We have everything in the MSL from audio visual equipment and working tables to science experiments equipment and library sets,” says Mr. Sharad Godse, secretary of Vidnyanvahini.

Age is a state of mind

With every passing year, the Vidnyanvahini team has increased their outreach to more parts of the country, and also modified their curriculum and activities as per the students’ and schools’ needs. Additions to Vidnyanvahini’s program include sex education for middle school students, mobile library for schools and teacher training programmes.

All these activities together have kept this senior citizens’ team of 25 busy for the last two decades. “Once a month we take a long trip in the MSL for a week visiting schools we associate with in Maharashtra. The rest of the month goes in trips to various schools around Pune and other cities and villages in Madhya Pradesh, Assam and other states. Not a day is kept free,” answers Mr. Godse when asked about the hectic schedule.

The MSL is equipped with everything from science experiment equipment to a television and library sets.
The MSL is equipped with everything from science experiment equipment to a television and library sets.

Furthermore, word of their fantastic programme has reached the far corners of India like Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Chhattisgarh, where they have been invited by respective governments and private organizations to give valuable advice on similar mobile laboratory projects undertaken. They are also very often invited for teacher training programmes in Maharashtra and other states. And, the Vidnyanvahini team has enthusiastically obliged.

If that wasn’t all, Vidnyanvahini’s work hasn’t been limited to the confines of rural education. They have taken up a watershed development project in Surodi Village, Ahmednagar. The team built close to 15 bandhs to arrest the water in this dry village to give the agriculture a much needed boost.

For the last 5 years, the village has seen their crop flourish, with an onion crop worth Rs. 3 Crores this year alone!

Recharged wells help produce full crop in Surodi village
Recharged wells help produce full crop in Surodi village
Villagers doing Shramdan to build the watershed
Villagers doing Shramdan to build the watershed
The watershed filled to capacity.
The watershed filled to capacity.

And, work goes on

Unlike the early days, Vidnyanvahini now no longer needs to go looking for funds. As individual donations and company CSR funding pour in, work carries on. Over the last 20 years, the team has conducted an average of 150 school visits every year despite the team now running on a strength of 15 volunteers in the field.

Developing passion and interest among students is a non-quantifiable objective. However, a study conducted by the Symbiosis Institute of Management, Pune concluded that their work was ‘extraordinary’ and very positively received in the rural landscapes.

Additionally, they have also received recognition through awards by foundations like Marathi Vidnyan Parishad and Seva Sadan Trust, amongst others.

One presumes the rough travel and long hours would be the biggest challenge for the Vidnyanvahini team. Surprisingly, Mr. Godse cites absolutely the opposite as a challenge, “We are always short of time to make visits to all the schools that invite us. Our calendars are full and we cannot, unfortunately, reach out to everyone we would like to include in our programme. Invitations are many and days are few.

Here is a group of Samaritans who refuse let retirement dictate terms. Come rain or sunshine, or even weak knees and back aches, the Vidnyanvahini team is on the road ready to make science education hands-on.

Mr. Sharad Godse conducting a workshop in a school in Nagaland
Mr. Sharad Godse conducting a workshop in a school in Nagaland

To enquire about science education programmes in schools or to make donations to the trust, please contact Mr. Sharad Godse at +91 96236 76949.

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About the author: After a degree in Banking, Pooja Choksi took off for South America to follow her passion — teaching. However, her love for the Indian outback brought her home to work on the Education-Base project with Conservation Wildlands Trust in the Pench Tiger Reserve. Her interests are conservation, education and travel that includes tents and no cell phone reception. She continues to play Capoeira and lend her voice to matters close to heart. She tweets as @poojation.

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