Tinker to innovate – The Statesman

April marks the start of the academic calendar year of “DIY” and “Innovation” with the celebration of ATL Community Day to give everyone an equal chance to innovate.

Recently, India improved its ranking in the Global Innovation Index from 81 (2015) to 46 (2021) and science education will be key to improving future rankings. The Constitution (Section 51 A h) states that “it shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop a scientific temperament, a humanism and a spirit of inquiry and reform”. One of the tools for developing it is to strengthen science education. What if we learned about it and promoted it in a fun and playful way?

Since independence, various efforts have been made to strengthen science education where science was mainly seen as a tool to solve the problems of hunger and poverty. In 1961, the Indian Parliamentary and Scientific Committee studied the problems of science in Indian schools. Emphasis on science education has also been placed through various education commissions, especially the Secondary Education Commission (1952), Kothari Commission (1964) and NPE 1986. Few science movements such as the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad and the Hoshangabad Science Program have also helped to popularize science.

The establishment of the Homi Bhabha Center for Science Education (a center under the Tata Institute of Basic Research) has helped immensely in disseminating research to enhance science education and the quality of science teachers in India. The position statement on science education (developed as part of the National Curriculum Framework 2005) by NCERT strongly advocates taking science out of textbooks and into the real world.

In continuation of several such efforts, to make science learning more practical and experiential, the Atal Innovation Mission (AIM) launched by NITI Aayog (in 2016) under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has become a powerful national initiative primarily promoting a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. In fact, it is boosting science education in schools all over India, with the ingredients of creativity, innovation and ‘do-it-yourself’.

AIM tries to accelerate these traits in school children through its DIY labs – the Atal Tinkering Laboratories (ATL). It covers approximately 7.5 million students from over 9,500 schools in 722 districts in India. Seventy percent of ATLs are established in public, government-subsidized, all-girls and coeducational schools.

So what is DIY? Think back to when you were a kid, when you used to mess with your toy car, pull out its key, engine and gears, and check how it works. You may have put it in water to check if it still works. That’s when you “tinkered” for the first time in your life and would probably have been reprimanded by your parents for breaking toys. Sadly, such “tinkering” has disappeared from our school science labs as well. These labs are mostly confined to pre-planned experiments, like a theater. For example: To check whether the color of chemical A changes after adding chemical B or not. If it changes, at what level (volume), otherwise students can manipulate the experiment to get the desired result in their notebook (for review and grades purposes).

There is also a lack of freedom in science labs as students are under pressure to handle lab tools with care. Often, students are asked to leave the lab as soon as the experiments are finished and warned of a penalty if any equipment is damaged. To a greater extent, science labs and science exhibits have become synonymous with “Thermocol models”.

The ATLs disrupted this “thermocol” culture, especially in public schools. What students need is time and freedom to explore and experiment with manipulation, and at least get something out of it. This not only stimulates their creativity, but inspires them to innovate. ATLs give young tinkerers a chance to play with electronic equipment, Arduino, Raspberry Pi, robotics, DIY kits and software like AutoCAD and TinkerCAD. The laboratory is also equipped with basic infrastructure such as a projector, a computer system and a 3D printer.

According to teachers, the culture of ATL allows them to take a more contextual and hands-on approach while teaching science in the classroom. On a lighter note, kids love spending more time at ATL than in class. While working in ATL, they also develop their reasoning skills.

We spoke to Dr. Devendra Singh (an established ATL teacher and mentor in Gaya, an ambitious district under NITI Aayog) and got a glimpse of what’s brewing in the lab. He shared his experiences of developing an air and water generator, for which he and his team of students (from moderate backgrounds) obtained a patent in October 2020. He shared an incident on how whose students used a constructivist approach and used reasoning skills to develop a path (serpentine) for the water so that it could reach up and down in a specific time. However, the water arrived in less time than needed. To overcome this problem, the students modified the same zigzag coil and adjusted the timing. He says ATL provides a realistic opportunity for students as well as him as a teacher to relive Kolb’s experiential learning, Bloom’s taxonomy, remembering to create something and developing psychomotor skills.

Children study local societal problems and brainstorm to model solutions. They learn the programming of digital models relevant to design; put the prototype through a 3D printer (which they really appreciate) and rework it to finalize their product under the guidance of mentors. ATLs also use Meta-Teaching where senior students guide and exchange ideas with current students.

The ATL established in public schools provided working-class children with access and craftsmanship. These children are already exposed to DIY on some level due to the professions of their parents. A child whose father works in an electrical store already has some experience working with wires, batteries, light bulbs, etc. at home or a child helping a family in agriculture already has knowledge of soil, machinery, etc. When these children are given a chance to craft at ATL, they use their extracurricular knowledge to create useful products themselves. Their products can be patented and they can also start their own business if necessary.

Such motivation for ATL among students can be helpful in reducing school attendance problems. ATL also promotes a culture of standardization of laboratory tools in all schools under AIM. All AIM-affiliated schools across India, be they elite or simple, receive the same lab kit and funding, reducing the disparities between the ATLs of these schools. All financial and lab kit formalities are governed by the GEM portal. While the ATL propagates a vibrant culture of science learning, it has great social involvement as it advocates for equity, access, and opportunity for young do-it-yourselfers, especially for the disadvantaged. Through ATL, schools, teachers and students across India have connected with each other in an atmosphere of healthy competition. It will strengthen the development of DIY science and culture in public schools. DIY leads to learning through discovery. It is better to tinker than to be bored.

(The authors are, respectively, the Assistant Counselor (Education), NITI Aayog, New Delhi, and a graduate of the University of Delhi, who works in the field of science and mathematics education.)