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A Fountain of Knowledge in the hills of Kuppum

Jaynamma with children at Kuppum

(This story was originally published in the Women's International Perspective, a California based news/media agency that voices unique perspectives of women globally).

An outstanding organization neither stands on concrete pillars nor on the vision of its founder alone. Most often it stands on the power of ordinary people who go the extra mile, provide a human touch, and make the vision real. Kuppam, perched 2200 feet above sea level, bordering the three states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, is a paradise for learning. Beautiful narrow roads run across the granite rich landscape to the gates of Agastya Science Center, a 172-acre campus that is a fountain of knowledge for children from the local villages where basic amenities like power and drinking water are scarce. Agastya is transforming education for rural children and teachers, reaching millions with hands-on science programs.

Though Agastya began with founder Ramji Raghavan’s vision to ignite curiosity, shape creativity, and nurture innovation in young minds, it is people like community worker Jaynamma, who make that vision come alive. On a one-hour ride in the mobile lab to Chintarapalyam village, 20 km from Kuppam, Jaynamma tells me that we are heading for a cluster of villages where she and her assistant will conduct night classes for the community. It begins to rain heavily and is dark by the time we reach the village where a few people are assembled in the dingy verandah of an old temple. In this wet, dark and cramped spot, one of the best class lessons I have ever been a part of takes place.

The mobile labs reach out to centers surrounding Kuppam to give classes on health, sanitation, and hygiene and to urge people to send their children to school. An initiative called Project Vasantha identifies volunteer college students who exhibit leadership skills. On a humble stipend, the volunteers are trained by Agastya and are the contact point for these community classes and outreach.

Jaynamma tells me that the high rate of school drop-outs in these communities is a social evil that she must fight. “When both the husband and wife are daily wage earners, they often assign all the domestic chores to the adolescent daughter. She is the favorite and most common school drop-out.” Jaynamma recalls how she approached a father making visits to his house four times. She smiles and says, “He finally relented and told me, ‘Here, you can take her to school yourself.’”

The mission of Agastya is a clear departure from the conventional techniques of textbook-based rote learning with teaching limited to verbal instruction in classrooms. With an emphasis on transforming learning attitudes from ‘yes’ to ‘why,’ ‘looking’ to ‘observing,’ ‘passiveness’ to ‘exploring,’ and ‘textbook-bound’ to ‘hands-on,’ India’s children are moving from ‘fear’ to ‘confidence.’

Resting on the slopes of low green hillocks are several cottages that house science laboratories and boarding facilities for visiting children and teachers. All are designed to evoke curiosity and spark creativity in children studying between ages 6 and 18. The ‘hands-on’ methodology covers Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Biology, Ecology, Space, Astronomy and the Arts.

Agastya boasts a Discovery Center that exhibits life-size experiments and fosters individual discovery. A planetarium offers fascinating Astronomy classes at night. The Center for Creative Teaching trains teachers in all these subjects to enhance their performance and raise the quality of child-teacher interaction. The art center inspires children to observe the world around them, encouraging imagination and creative instincts.

What amazes me most is how the outreach program successfully mobilizes both the community and the educational system in the three states to reach children and get them to Agastya to access education. Five million children and 150,000 teachers have been reached by the hands on science education program. Buses ferry 500 children from 250 villages along 22 different routes and 52 government schools to the Agastya Science Center at the Kuppam center every day. This is the grandeur and impact of the outreach program.

The educational program complements government education, with programs running only after school hours, time often wasted in front of a television. Agastya’s syllabus is in line with the traditional school system, so it does not create conflict in learning but enhances a student’s understanding and sparks creativity.

Children come to the Agastya center for mentoring in science, creativity, innovation and leadership, preparing them for further educational and professional careers. The incidence of children winning science awards, faring exceptionally well in academics and going in for technical studies after Agastya intervention is very high.

The Young Instructor Leader program (YIL) selects children who exhibit leadership skills and talent towards science. These children train to become agents of social change in their schools, villages, and community in a four-year program. In one academic year a YIL frequents the Kuppam center 10-15 times, receiving training in confidence building, creativity, and team spirit. During the second year the YIL learns to think analytically and carry out research projects. In the third year a YIL is trained in community leadership and entrepreneurship; and in the fourth and final year, the YIL receives certification and career counseling. Scholarships are given for five years to support textbook costs, fees, and other related expenses. This support is essential for poor farmer families who cannot afford college education for their children.

The Initiative for Research and Innovation in Science (IRIS) is a program offered at the Kuppam center that provides an excellent platform for children to become next generation innovators. The IRIS program gives children the opportunity to showcase their ideas to eminent scientists and academics at science fairs such as the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) or the Intel National Fair. Supported by the Department of Science and Technology, the Confederation of Indian Industry and Intel, the students with the best ideas are chosen as National Winners and mentored by senior scientists and academicians. They then represent India at the Intel ISEF, organized in USA every year. Before IRIS, only students from affluent backgrounds could participate in these National Science Fairs. But now, after the Agastya edge, even children from humble rural backgrounds are presenting their brilliant ideas in this forum.

The Kuppam center and the IRIS program have given birth to several scholars and future scientists. One student won the ‘Young Innovators Award’ for mosquito repellant made from citrus peel. Another student used her idea of growing specific plants on the dividers of the highways to generate more oxygen and control pollution.

For disadvantaged children from rural India, Agastya is a door that opens to a promising world of innovation, creativity, and options to secure a better livelihood. Brick by brick, it is laying the foundation to transform education, development, and entrepreneurship in a part of India where privileges of modern educational resources would otherwise not reach.

As one student graduating from school said, “What I learn in my school I will remember till the exams get over, but what I have learnt at Agastya will never leave me in my lifetime.”

By
Urmila Chanam
E-mail : urmila.chanam@gmail.com
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/urmila.ch
Twitter: https://twitter.com/Urmila92531581

The mobile van goes to community classes in the evenings, even in rain
Innovation at its best, a creation of the children
Life -size experiments display the laws of Science
The micro plan of the educational intervention ensures children from far and wide are ferried to Kuppum every day
Travelling from my city Bangalore to Kuppum
A night community class where children look ahead to interesting lessons

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Comments

JaniceW's picture

Powerful writing

I love your writing style. You drew me in from the first sentence and had me captivated till the end. I loved how you introduced the topic with the sentence:

"Though Agastya began with founder Ramji Raghavan’s vision to ignite curiosity, shape creativity, and nurture innovation in young minds, it is people like community worker Jaynamma, who make that vision come alive."

You are such a compelling writer and I eagerly look forward to reading more from you. This story was not only informative but has inspired me to learn more about this successful and scalable program. How amazing it would be to see this model replicated throughout India and other countries where girls' access to education is limited.

Thank you for sharing Ramji's vision with us.

Dear Janice,

Like the spirit at Kuppum, let this fountain flow all the way to New Zealand now!!!!! Every incredible project, when studied and analysed, has a replicability with local adaptations and modifications of the programme. I wish my article will incite the fountain to flow far and wide for the one reason, that poverty has no ethnicity and children deserve education.

Thank you sister for all the support, encouragement and love. It will act as a balm to my sore limbs when I am tired travelling and trying to reach issues not covered by main stream media.

Love from India,
Urmila Chanam
Bangalore

It takes just one to change many

Y's picture

You are an incredibly gifted

You are an incredibly gifted writer.

I am so excited by your eloquent and informative piece that I had trouble finishing the article; I so wanted to hurry through to find out how to research whether there is a similar program in the United States of America.

In my country, is not only the girls who are in need of this type of program, but the boys being mothered by generation after generation of women without any access to intellectual resources. Powerless people are scared people. Scared people strike out at their perceived enemies. Information and the ability to reason are the only antidotes to fear.

Thank you for sharing your talents.
Blessing to you.
Yvette

Yvette

Urmila Chanam's picture

I am touched

Dear Yvette,

I am touched deeply to be seeing a day when a woman from USA is searching if there is a similar programme on education after hearing of one from India!!! I take this as the greatest moment in my life where I feel the power of social media, interaction and 'hand-holding'.

In India we always felt that education was a big deal in our country and other developing countries. I was under the impression that USA has some of the best education systems. Please do share with me if you find one in your country that you would like to tell me. I would benefit immensely from the information and inputs.

Thanks for the kind words.

Love and prayers,
Urmila Chanam
Bangalore

It takes just one to change many

Y's picture

Dear Urmila, I shared your

Dear Urmila,
I shared your article with my daughter, an award-winning third grade teacher. She was interested in learning more about the details of the curriculum and more details on the programs successes and statistics. I went to the web site and found a bit of information that she requested, but in not as much detail as she desired.

I have a couple of her suggestions that may be of assistance to you in addressing this type of interest: Perhaps you could include a couple of statistics in your article, and it may be of assistance to add to your article links to the foundation website and other articles referencing the program and it's successes.

I am especially interested in details about the way the program can be replicated, especially the young leadership segment. I feel that there is a great need for this type of intervention in many of our impoverished inner city areas, and I'd like to pass this on to those involved in improving opportunities for the children of theses areas.

Thank you for introducing me to this concept.

Blessing to you.
Yvette

Yvette

Urmila Chanam's picture

Way forward

Dear Yvette,

I am most excited about your enthusiasm in sharing the information on the good initiative that will impact education and raise livelihood opportunities for the marginalized. However, I do not have access to the statistics of programme outreach and impact, these are confidential data and intellectual property of the organization.For my part, I will take this message and proposal to the leaders of Agastya International Foundation and see what can be done.

My article was an initiation to a conducive thought process regarding how education should be; how innovations in disseminating education should look like; and how the rural segment should not be left behind.

I am happy we are talking about this.

Love and prayers
Urmila Chanam
Bangalore

It takes just one to change many

Y's picture

I am sorry to have asked, if

I am sorry to have asked, if these questions will cause you trouble. I am not attempting to question the organization for idle reasons, more for whether or not this is something we already have available to the impoverished in our rural areas and inner cities. If not, the details would be a very helpful beginning in addressing the issue.

I have 2 homes, one in a very rural mountainous area, where poverty is common, but has access to many retired professionals who may be able to help in implementation. The other home is near a very impoverished inner city with a growing crime problem caused by bored youth who drop out of school and become problems for lack of leadership opportunities.

A quote from the website lead me to this interest, "The model is scalable and replicable anywhere in the world."

Thank you.
Blessings.
Yvette

Yvette

Urmila Chanam's picture

Have faith

Dear Sister,

Have faith!!!!!!!! Something good will come out of it. Give me sometime. In the meantime, I am eager to know about the school drop-out rate in your country/region, reasons and what is being done to address it.

Love and hugs
Urmila Chanam
Bangalore

It takes just one to change many

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