Friday, August 31, 2012

Building experimentation capacity in rural schools in India: The Agastya way

“School in a lab” and “lab in a box” may seem paradoxical metaphors. However, Kuppam campus of Agastya Foundation has combined these two beautifully to create a rich learning experience for school children in rural India. In the process, Agastya has created a model which might create for the rural education what Grameen Bank has done to the micro-finance. What exactly has Agastya done? We got a glimpse of it during our memorable Kuppam visit earlier this month thanks to Dr. Shibu Shankaran and Ramji Raghavan. Here are three characteristics of Agastya-model that stood out.

Experience-first, explanation-next: Agastya has turned the learning process upside-down. How many of you remember anything about conservation of angular momentum? I don’t. However, when you sit on the swivel chair, hold the revolving cycle wheel in your hand and then turn it, you experience yourself revolving (see picture). This experience makes you much more receptive to understand the principle behind it. The whole of Kuppam campus is like a large laboratory where there are hundreds of instruments you can “play with” first.  However, what makes Agastya unique is that it has created a pedagogy (way of teaching) around it. When students come in the morning from nearby villages to the campus, they first perform experiments. Of course, you need to explain them enough for them to perform the experiment. 
Set-up without the kids 
Set-up with the kids
However, the major part of theory is taught after the experiment. On an average, a student within 30km radius of Kuppam visits the campus four times a year. And during each visit, he attends two sessions: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Isn’t four days a year too short a time? And what about the other students outside the 30km radius? Well, Agastya has thought about that too.

Agastya Hubli centre
Hub-and-spoke modelAgastya currently has 21 satellite centres spread across 10 states in India. In fact, when I visited Agastya’s Hubli centre last February I got to see the Bhishma’s chair and much more. Students in and around Hubli area visit the Hubli centre. Apart from this Agastya has created a “lab in a box” concept where instruments necessary to perform specific experiments are put in a box. And these boxes reach schools through 60+ mobile vans. Agastya is currently experimenting with a “lab in an auto” and a “lab on a bike” concepts. Making lab accessible to kids is just one part of the story. What about the teachers? Well, Agastya trains the teachers as well. However, what is perhaps even more impactful is the “young instructor leader” program. This program identifies bright students and trains them to become champions. What better way to learn than peers explaining it to you? You say, “Fine. But how is Agastya able to make scientific equipment available at low cost?” That leads to the third leg of Agastya’s model.

Build capacity to make low-cost instruments: When you are trying to reach millions of kids in several thousands of schools, cost of instruments matter. We visited the workshop in Kuppam campus where Agastya makes many of the student-friendly instruments. There were some which were made in Bangalore. Our 14 year old son said he wouldn’t mind doing an internship in the workshop.

Agastya is not claiming to be the “complete” institution. Currently, it is heavily biased towards hard sciences. Arts curriculum is just taking off. Theatre and music is nowhere to be seen. But, most importantly, Agastya is learning and innovating every day. Unlike most educational institutions in India its “idea box” is alive and breathing and language of experimentation is very much part of the culture. I wish Agastya a great future.

Lab in a box

Idea box at Agastya
Workshop for lab equipment
 Related article:
“Agastya is empowering rural India”, Ramji Raghavan’s interview at Education World, Mar 7, 2012. Ramji, the brain behind Agastya, explains the model and its impact.


  1. Agastya is doing a great job. Reading your blog makes me more determined to visit it and see it for myself.

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