Rayagada (Odisha): The atmosphere shifted perceptibly when the Mobile Science Lab, with pictures of science activities and a telescope on both sides, entered a tribal residential school in Odisha’s Rayagada district on a regular school day. The school children watched every movement as the science coordinator and supporting staff went about organising that day’s science experiment for the students.
Soon after, students of classes 8 and 9 were called inside to make temperature measurements and look at plant cells through a microscope. Most of them were keen to participate and gleeful when they touched and worked with the scientific equipment, materials that they don’t otherwise have access too. This particular event had been organised by the School and Community Science (SCS) programme run by the NGO Sikshasandhan, which works on education in Odisha. A collaborative endeavour of the Tata Trust and the TCS Foundation, and implemented by Sikshasandhan in five blocks of three tribal districts, Rayagada, Kandhamal and Kalahandi, where science teachers are hard to find, the SCS has received enthusiastic response from students.
Paramita Hikaka, a class 9 student of Hata Muniguda Government Girls’ High School, Rayagada, had never had an opportunity to touch or work with a microscope before. “When I was asked to see the cells of an onion through the microscope, I couldn’t believe it,” Hikaka exclaimed. “It created more interest in me and I learnt more about it. I am now helping other classmates to use it for their science activities.”
Likewise, Rakesh Uthan Singh, a class 8 student of the Government High School in Kandhamal was inquisitive when he used a thermometer to read body temperature. “In our community, when people suffer from fever, the elders predict their body temperature only by touching their forehead and neck,” he said, all smiles. “I had read about the thermometer in my school science book but after using it myself I realised how easy it is to use.” Both Hikaka and Singh as well as hundreds of students studying in different government high schools and tribal residential schools in Rayagada, Kandhamal and Kalahandi districts are now getting an opportunity to learn through hands-on science experiments.
Teaching science in remote areas
Though science should ideally be taught through observations and demonstrations, it has for many years been limited to lectures in the classroom, especially in schools located in far-flung areas. As a result, students often have to learn by rote and effectively end up learning not much at all. It is no surprise then they often find lessons to be difficult and boring, particularly tribal students for whom language is also a problem. On the occasion a teacher is able to put up a demonstration, it is not participatory: the students simply watch and have little opportunity to intuit its processes.
“The situation is abysmal in remote blocks and small towns, especially in the western and southern districts of the state,” said Anil Pradhan, secretary of Sikshasandhan. “Lack of adequate equipment, teachers’ absenteeism and shortage of science teachers, lack of confidence and indifferent attitude of teachers in conducting experiments while imparting science in classrooms” exacerbate the problem. The SCS programme provides an alternative to these students, enabling them to conduct science experiments from their curricula hands-on.
Amrita S. Patwardhan, programme head of education at Tata Trust, said, “Improving teaching learning of science in schools, encouraging children to think critically, observation, asking questions and discovering is central to quality education.”
The mobile lab
The Mobile Science Lab was set up to increase students’ interest and participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields and to facilitate curricular practices that provide learning opportunities. It visits each school once a month.
“When we first visited these schools, the students were completely unaware of science experiments,” according to Snehalata Patra, the coordinator of the initiative with the SCS in Bissam Cuttack. “Due to lack of time and interest, their teachers had not exposed them to any kind of science experiments. Now, through various experiments, they understood the concepts of science, which they really enjoyed. They are now more thrilled and excited when we reach their school.”
Ahead of a school visit, the coordinator notifies the block education officer, the corresponding science teacher and principal of the school and discusses the kind of activity to be conducted. The Mobile Science Lab carries different apparatuses, student-friendly research equipment, over 30 types of types of charts, a television, a projector, a laptop, audiovisual equipment and an inverter. The vehicle is layered with solar panels.
Although the experiments have been designed keeping elementary education in mind, it meets the curricula of classes 6 to 10. The coordinator and support staff help students with their assignments by using the experiments to deepen their understanding and to enhance conceptual clarity.
“Initially, we were little apprehensive as to how the mobile science lab will integrate with the school science curriculum. However, the experience in the last one year has been very positive,” said Pradeepta Sundaray, a programme officer of education with Tata Trust, “with the activities of the Mobile Science Lab adding a lot of value for transaction of different science topics in schools.”
With this in mind, she said they were “planning to increase the frequency of the lab’s visit to schools twice every month.”
“The state-run schools do not have provision for science equipment for all the students,” according to Jagannath Sahu, the block education officer of Kotagarh in Kandhamal district. “The Mobile Science Lab bridges this gap by providing equipment to conduct science experiments in these tribal dominated schools. Students have developed more interest in science, asking questions in class and not finding it difficult and boring.”
Barsha Palkhia, a class 8 student of a Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya, said she had trouble understanding filtration and electricity during lectures in class, but after participating in experiments housed in the Mobile Science Lab, “I thoroughly understood the concepts and it helped me to write [about them] in detail in the class promotion examination.”
Itishree Priyadarshinee, a science teacher at the Government Girls’ High School in Muniguda, said, “Now the students are confident, inquisitive and asking questions on science subjects.” Her counterpart in Hatamuniguda, Swarnamayee Panda, believes the initiative has helped expand horizons that might not have been otherwise: “The tribal students had a better knowledge in trees and leaves and were doing better in botany, but after participating in science experiment programmes, they have been taking interest in chemistry and physics” as well.
The students have started participating in various block, district and state level science exhibitions as well, and have been feeling more confident in the presence of students at the schools in Odisha’s cities. Subarna Baliarsingh, a class 8 student of Odisha Adarsh Vidyalaya, Kotagarh, said, “Our project was production of electricity from sea water. Our science teacher and block science coordinator helped us with the project, which was highly appreciated in a state-level exhibition. I had never participated in any science exhibition earlier. Science experiments in our school empowered me to participate in the exhibition and bring laurels for my school.”
Rakhi Ghosh works as a freelance journalist in Odisha and is based in Bhubaneswar.