Case Studies and bedtime stories

The EMBABE Diaries

Incredible India part 1: Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it can save the world.

on September 10, 2013

We’re in 17th century England. It’s summer and a young man looks for shade underneath an apple tree. He is the son of a prosperous farmer and a student at the prestigious King’s School in Gratham. He watches an apple falling from the tree and, lost “in contemplative mood”, wonders: “why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground”? We all know how that story ends; the young man with an inquiring mind was Isaac Newton, one of the world’s most influential and celebrated scientists (on a related note – almost five hundred years later, we still don’t fully understand the mysterious force behind the perpendicular fall of that apple).

We’re  in 21st century India. It’s summer and two little village girls look for shade underneath a tree. They are the first ones in their families to go to school – the local government school, of course. The heat is unbearable and they move from tree to tree trying to escape the sun. As little girls do, they talk animatedly. They giggle. They might well be wondering about which one of them will be the first to marry or have children, or talk about the pretty sari they saw a bride wearing last month. As it happens, however, a different kind of question occupies their minds. They wonder “why should the shade of some trees keep us cooler than the shade of others?”.

And this – curiosity –  is where it all starts. With the support of an incredible organisation called Agastya, our two little girls, Jyotsna and Bhargavi, have built on their initial question to put together a project for growing oxygen on highways, which they eventually presented at the International IRIS competition in Pittsburgh, USA, after a few intense months spent learning English. You can see their story so far (and fall in love with them, as I did) here.

We are all born scientists, tinkerers and researchers; a quick chat with any four-year-old makes that abundantly clear. Sadly, once we start school many – if not most – of us have that budding scientific spirit drilled out of us: multiplication tables, dry, meaningless formulas and laws to memorise and repeat, countless theories and theorems, uninspiring teachers, all conspire to convince us that only the Isaac Newtons of this world can ever figure science out. Which is a terrible shame and an incredible waste of brain power – and exactly what Agastya aims to prevent. Its “mobile labs” (special-purpose vans filled with scientific models and experiments) drive into villages and bring science to life for millions of disadvantaged children in India. Aided by innovative teaching methods, hands-on scientific models and, above all, an unshakeable belief in the human spirit, Agastya is on a quest to spark curiosity in the minds of all children, to change “yes” to “why?” and fear to confidence, to teach kids to love learning again. Imagine it for a second – a world where children are excited about learning; where they’re no longer afraid to ask questions; where they experience the joy of discovery every day – even if they live in a village with no electricity and they’re the first in their family to learn how to read and write. What could we achieve if we let science become play again? Well, let’s hear from our old friend Isaac:

“[T]o myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me”.

Agastya currently reaches 5 million children a year. You can find out more about what they do and how they do it on their website or by watching this short documentary. Their ambition is to reach 50 million children by 2021.  That’s a tall order, of course, but having met them, I’m sure they can do it – with a little help from their friends. So how about it? It’s the best gift you can give today:


2 responses to “Incredible India part 1: Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it can save the world.

  1. Sumant says:

    Very nicely written Alex!

  2. Jordana says:

    Amazing narrative and a wonderful way to spread the word about Agastya’s wonderful work. Thank you for sharing, Alex!

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