ARVIND GUPTA on what it takes to in­cul­cate the love for sci­ence in young minds

For decades, Pad­mashree Award win­ning toy in­ven­tor and ex­pert in sci­ence ARVIND GUPTA has been cre­at­ing sci­en­tific toys from waste. He speaks about his jour­ney till date and at­tempt­ing to in­cul­cate the love for sci­ence in young minds.


It is some­times dif­fi­cult to com­part­men­tal­ize some­one be­cause their jour­ney has been full of sur­prises. What makes their work more pro­lific or suc­cess­ful is that it can­not be de­fined by any set bench­mark. Arvind Gupta is one such gen­tle­man. A toy in­ven­tor and an ex­pert in sci­ence, he has been suc­cess­ful i n pop­u­lar­iz­ing sci­ence among school chil­dren in both cities and vil­lages. Gupta is also an ad­vo­cate of us­ing of sim­ple do­mes­tic ma­te­ri­als that we call trash, which can be con­verted into sci­en­tific toys. The mind-set be­hind these in­ven­tions is to de­velop a sci­en­tific tem­per and ra­tio­nal think­ing in school­go­ing chil­dren. You can call him a sim­ple man with a Gand­hian out­look to life, whose con­tri­bu­tion to teach­ing sci­ence through toys gives us an in­sight into his work and phi­los­o­phy. A man who hailed from a sim­ple yet hum­ble back­ground,

where chil­dren were en­cour­aged to study. Though both his par­ents were un­schooled, his mother re­al­ized the value of ed­u­ca­tion. The Pad­mashree awardee walks down mem­ory lane of his hard­ships, ex­pe­ri­ences and tri­umphs.


In the 1970s, af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the pres­ti­gious In­dian In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy in Kan­pur, and armed with a de­gree in Bach­e­lors in Tech­nol­ogy in Elec­tri­cal En­gi­neer­ing (B. Tech), Gupta joined Tata Mo­tors and worked there for two years. Dur­ing this pe­riod, a pi­o­neer­ing ex­per­i­ment was con­ducted by the Hoshangabad Sci­ence Teach­ing Pro­gramme in Mad­hya Pradesh, aimed to re­vi­tal­ize sci­ence learn­ing in vil­lage schools. In­stead of the stan­dard bu­rettes and pipettes, they used sim­ple and read­ily avail­able ap­pa­ra­tus to make sci­ence fun and en­joy­able. HSTP started ini­tially with 16 schools, and later went ahead in tak­ing on 1200 schools. Gupta re­calls that this was a turn­ing point in his life at the Hoshangabad Sci­ence Teach­ing Pro­gramme. “There was a weekly vil­lage bazaar that I would visit, where peo­ple sold their wares on the road­side. I used to buy glass and plas­tic ban­gles, lit­tle boxes, mir­rors, etc. On one such oc­ca­sion, when I was get­ting my cy­cle tube in­flated, I saw a thin black rub­ber tube hang­ing. I bought 10 feet of this rub­ber valve and be­gan work­ing on it. Within a month, I had used lit­tle bits of this rub­ber valve tube and match­sticks and fash­ioned them into two- and three-di­men­sional match­stick mod­els. This en­thralled me to no end. It was an ‘Aha!’ mo­ment for me. This is what got me hooked to ac­tiv­ity-based sci­ence teach­ing. A few years later, I wrote my first book, Match­stick Mod­els and Other Sci­ence Ex­per­i­ments. It was a thump­ing suc­cess. It was trans­lated in a dozen lan­guages and is still in print even af­ter thirty years,” he rem­i­nisces fondly. Gupta was for­tu­nate enough to meet Dr Anil Sad­gopal, who had com­pleted his Ph.D in molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy from Cal­tech Uni­ver­sity and was work­ing at t he pres­ti­gious Tata In­sti­tute of Fun­da­men­tal Re­search (TIFR). He left his job and started the Hoshangabad Sci­ence Teach­ing Pro­gramme (HSTP). “I was only eigh­teen years old when I had the priv­i­lege of hear­ing his lec­ture at IIT Kan­pur. It had a great im­pact on me. In HSTP, one looked for­ward to in­vent­ing low-cost sci­ence ex­per­i­ments. We de­signed sev­eral ex­per­i­ments on the hum­ble match­box. Later on, I trans­lated Joy of Mak­ing In­dian Toys by Prof. Su­dar­shan Khanna in Hindi for Na­tional Book Trust. This book lists 100 toys, which can be made from the sim­plest of ma­te­ri­als ly­ing around the house. This pro­pelled me to delve deeper into the mak­ing of toys. To­day, we live in a con­sumerist so­ci­ety, where the credo is ‘Buy More and Throw More’. We have de­signed more than fifty toys us­ing Te­tra­paks, Frooti car­tons and Dhara pack­ets. We have doc­u­mented over 100 ac­tiv­i­ties us­ing plas­tic bot­tles. There is no dearth of plas­tic. They are littering our en­vi­ron­ment. We’ve also put the good old news­pa­per to much use by mak­ing a dozen caps.” The main aim be­hind this ef­fort is also to teach chil­dren how to make things from throw­away ma­te­ri­als and sen­si­tize them about the en­vi­ron­ment.


Adding to his in­ter­est­ing reper­toire of ex­pe­ri­ences, Gupta re­calls his four­teen years in New Delhi. “For six years, I ran a sci­ence club in a small ex­per­i­men­tal school — Mi­ram­bika. Our daugh­ter Du­lari com­pleted her stan­dard twelve from Sar­dar Pa­tel Vidyalaya and went to study at the Chris­tian Med­i­cal Col­lege in Vel­lore.” In 2003, the Gup­tas de­cided to pack up their bag and bag­gage and re­turn to Pune. “Here, I was in­vited by Prof. Jayant Nar­likar to work at the In­ter-

Uni­ver­sity Cen­ter for Astron­omy and As­tro­physics (IUCCA) Chil­dren’s Sci­ence Cen­tre, whose build­ing was funded by Pu La Desh­pande, a great phi­lan­thropist, pro­lific writer and a cul­tural icon of Ma­ha­rash­tra. I worked in the Chil­dren’s Sci­ence Cen­tre for eleven years from 2003-2014. We had a very dy­namic team con­sist­ing of two other in­di­vid­u­als – Vidula Mhaiskar, a post doc­tor­ate from Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity, and Ashok Rup­ner—a pas­sion­ate sci­ence pop­u­lariser. This team did a great job. We made over 1100 short videos on ‘Toys from Trash’ in English. These videos are just one or two min­utes du­ra­tion – crisp and cap­ti­vat­ing. These videos have been dubbed by vol­un­teers into 18 dif­fer­ent lan­guages. So to­day, we have 8,600 videos on YouTube with a view­er­ship of over 65-mil­lion!” You can also find pas­sion­ate books on Ed­u­ca­tion, Sci­ence, Math­e­mat­ics, En­vi­ron­ment, Peace and Chil­dren’s Books. “Ev­ery day, over 10,000 books are down­loaded. This is an indi­ca­tor of the hunger for good knowl­edge in our peo­ple. My role at the cen­tre was to in­vite the best of peo­ple to come and share their ideas and in­spire us with their world view. It is em­bar­rass­ing that most of the credit goes to me, while my col­leagues did most of the hard work!”


One is cu­ri­ous to know if Gupta’s toys can de­velop a sci­en­tific tem­per and ra­tio­nal think­ing in chil­dren. His an­swer throws am­ple light on our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. “In most of our schools, sci­ence is very book­ish and of­ten learnt by rote. Most good schools have well equipped sci­ence labs, but un­til the 9th stan­dard, no chil­dren are al­lowed to en­ter the sci­ence lab. Later, a good teacher may take them to the lab, but still chil­dren don’t get to touch any equip­ment. In most of the sci­ence labs, the test tubes, pipettes, etc, are of­ten locked in the cup­board cov­ered with a grime of dust. Schools for­get that the child’s mind is much more pre­cious and sa­cred than the ap­pa­ra­tus in the cup­boards.” If you ask him to talk fur­ther, Gupta is of the view that play is uni­ver­sal and even those chil­dren who hate sci­ence, or don’t have the chance to go to school should love to play. “We thought, why not let chil­dren make their own toys and have a great time. And when made from dis­carded junk, they cost very lit­tle. Many toys have in­built sci­en­tific prin­ci­ples and chil­dren learn these con­cepts in­tu­itively with­out be­ing taught. They need to work with con­crete things be­fore they un­der­stand ab­stract con­cepts. These toys al­low them to make things, put them to­gether and see how they work. If a toy doesn’t work, the child has to only work harder to make it work.” On a topic or area close to his heart, Gupta could go on talk­ing end­lessly. He states that be­ing ev­i­dence-based is sci­ence. “In sci­ence, one can­not pro­pose a wild the­ory and get away with it. Work­ing with sim­ple mod­els, chil­dren can test a the­ory, prove or dis­prove it. This cer­tainly helps them to build a sci­en­tific at­ti­tude. If some­one pro­poses a wild the­ory, they will de­mand proof and ev­i­dence to sup­port it. In a demo­cratic coun­try, sci­ence should help the poor­est. ‘Toys from Trash’ ex­per­i­ments are very af­ford­able. That is why hun­dreds of groups work­ing with poor chil­dren use these sim­ple toys and ex­per­i­ments to in­cul­cate a love for sci­ence among the most marginal­ized chil­dren.”


Un­der his able lead­er­ship and sup­port, many mu­nic­i­pal schools have been taken un­der his wings and a love for sci­ence has been in­cul­cated. One won­ders if he has any plans on the anvil to reach out to pub­lic and pri­vate schools as well. “It is true that we have given pri­or­ity to mu­nic­i­pal school chil­dren, be­cause they need us the most. But many pri­vate schools use our ma­te­ri­als too. We con­ducted two work­shops a week in our cen­tre. Be­ing very small, this lim­ited our phys­i­cal in­ter­ac­tion with chil­dren. But once we started up­load­ing ‘Toys from Trash’ on our web­site, then we truly went

global. Two years back, Ger­many took in 1 mil­lion Syr­ian refugees. Many Ger­man ed­u­ca­tors suc­cess­fully used our Toys from Trash with mi­grant chil­dren.” He fur­ther speaks about the Gov­ern­ment of In­dia’s ‘Atal Tin­ker­ing Labs’ ini­ti­ated two years back. “Some­one in the gov­ern­ment re­al­ized that there will be no ‘Make in In­dia’, un­less chil­dren start mak­ing small mod­els in schools. The gov­ern­ment set up 500 ‘Atal Tin­ker­ing Labs’ in the first year and 1500 in the sec­ond year in both gov­ern­ment and pri­vate Schools. It is a great ini­tia­tive, which will give thou­sands of chil­dren an op­por­tu­nity to de­velop skills and learn sci­ence the way it should be learnt – by do­ing.” Ask him about what he thinks about the present cur­ricu­lum of sci­ence to­day and pat comes the re­ply, “The sci­ence cur­ricu­lum in schools is jaded – still the old chalk and talk method rules the roost. The rea­son is that most teach­ers them­selves have not ex­pe­ri­enced the thrill of cre­ation or learn­ing through mod­els as stu­dents. It is un­likely that they will be able to trans­mit that en­thu­si­asm to chil­dren. On the other hand, there is enor­mous po­ten­tial in our chil­dren. How­ever, there has been a very grad­ual shift from rote learn­ing to the ‘project’ method. There is a pre­vail­ing myth that sci­ence ac­tiv­i­ties re­quire ex­pen­sive lab­o­ra­to­ries, which a poor coun­try like In­dia can scarcely af­ford. The Hoshangabad Sci­ence Teach­ing Pro­gram de­mol­ished this myth. ‘Toys from Trash’ have fur­ther proved that even the poor­est chil­dren can af­ford them.”


With such a fan­tas­tic mind-set, one is keen to know about his plans to fur­ther his mis­sion of pop­u­lar­iz­ing sci­ence in the fu­ture. Gupta has re­tired from the Chil­dren’s Sci­ence Cen­ter at IUCAA in Dec 2014. “I have been trans­lat­ing bi­ogra­phies of fa­mous sci­en­tists in Hindi. There is a vi­brant group, which is trans­lat­ing these bi­ogra­phies in other In­dian lan­guages – Tamil, Tel­ugu, Marathi and Kan­nada. These are pic­ture bi­ogra­phies of very in­spir­ing sci­en­tists. What got them in­ter­ested in sci­ence – was it an en­light­ened mother or an in­spir­ing teacher? What are the ba­sic ques­tions they asked?” He speaks about a small room mea­sur­ing 400 sq ft in IUCAA, in which all sci­ence toys were cre­ated. “I feel there is a great need to have de­cen­tral­ized, one-room sci­ence ac­tiv­ity cen­tres spread out in each locality and each large hous­ing com­plex. In a large coun­try like ours, we des­per­ately need tens of thou­sands of such cen­tres run by en­thu­si­asts for the lo­cal com­mu­nity from a sin­gle room in their own apart­ment. The chil­dren us­ing these cen­tres pay small fees to make them sus­tain­able. There is a great de­mand for such an ini­tia­tive in our so­ci­ety.” Lay­ing spe­cial em­pha­sis on teacher’s train­ing, one feels the need for spe­cial pro­grammes where teach­ers are trained to make toys from trash. Gupta rues the fact that teach­ers fol­low a rigid cur­ricu­lum and also pres­sures to com­plete the syl­labus within the given time frame. “There are many who ad­mire and ap­pre­ci­ate these toys, but are un­able to in­te­grate these ac­tiv­i­ties un­der the reg­u­lar cur­ricu­lum.” As this in­spir­ing and won­der­ful con­ver­sa­tion with Gupta comes to an end, the ques­tion does arise of him find­ing time for his hob­bies. He has an in­ter­est­ing an­swer, “I love watch­ing trees and read­ing chil­dren’s books – es­pe­cially the il­lus­trated ones. If I can’t say hello to a tree, it is like a jab in my heart. So, over the years, I bought ev­ery pop­u­lar book on In­dian trees. I was priv­i­leged to live on the cam­pus of the Pune Uni­ver­sity for 11 years. The Uni­ver­sity is a beau­ti­ful cam­pus with an un­usual range of trees. I would of­ten take school chil­dren for ‘Tree Walks’. I would tell them in­ter­est­ing sto­ries about each tree and in the end, chil­dren would make a toy from each tree. This was a fun ac­tiv­ity for chil­dren.” As the in­ter­view winds up, the plea­sure of hav­ing spo­ken to one of the great­est minds in the coun­try can leave any­one feel­ing both elated and nos­tal­gic.

“In most of our schools, sci­ence is very book­ish and of­ten learnt by rote. Most good schools have well equipped sci­ence labs but un­til the 9th stan­dard, no chil­dren are al­lowed to en­ter the sci­ence lab.”

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