The philosophy of the Auroville Schools Science Educational Training (ASSET) centre is to make science accessible to all children
For three days a huge banner at New Creation School announced ‘Science Fair – 2009'. Busloads of excited children from schools in the surrounding villages as well as Pondicherry came to visit. And the brains behind it was Aurovilian science educator Anbu Aravind.
“I strongly believe science enriches our lives, expands our imagination, and liberates us from ignorance and superstition,” says Anbu.
Anbu is passionate about taking science to children and making it accessible to them. “You can say it's in my blood,” he says with a smile. “My mother was a teacher, my sister is a lecturer in a college, my uncle a district education officer, and my grandfather was a headmaster, so I grew up around teaching and learning. And here in Auroville, I am lucky to have found the perfect fit at New Creation School .”
Anbu grew up in Kanyakumari, the Southern most district of Tamil Nadu. He moved to Pondicherry in the early nineties. “I used to come and visit Auroville when I was working there,” he says. “I would sit for hours at the Visitor's Centre watching people from all over the world as they passed through. It fascinated me, seeing such an international mix of people.” He also recollects cycling around the different Auroville communities. “I was curious to see how they worked.”
Anbu was very impressed by what The Mother and Sri Aurobindo had to say about education and became an avid reader. “And after six months of observing, reading, and searching within, I decided that Auroville was the place for me. It became clear that while the outside world offered a well paid job, there was no room for creativity or experimentation. And I wanted to be part of this place where experiments could happen.” In 1996, Anbu moved to Auroville; his wife Meena joined four years later.
Being a chemistry graduate with training in textile technology, Anbu first joined Auromode. “But my primary interest was teaching, so I left to join the Auroville School system as a science teacher.”
Anbu became part of the Auroville Outreach schools as he wanted to share his knowledge with the children of the villages. “There is an urgent need for good teachers everywhere, especially in the Outreach schools,” he says. “For me, all children are gifted, whether they come from poor or rich families or are from the village or the city.” Anbu's fluency in Tamil, his first language, besides English, made him very suitable for the task.
“I visited all the schools in the area and everywhere I saw the traditional Indian system of rote learning from the text book. It is as if education is still run by the military! But children need practical experience to understand the world, especially this complex modern world that is encroaching upon their lives.”
He is appreciative of what New Creation School has done over the last few years. “It has developed a completely different approach. The teaching is student-centred and visitors comment on how open and interested the children are in their work. We want this school to be a role model for India where teachers can come and see how things can really be different.”
It was for this reason that in 2006 Anbu set up an independent ‘one stop-shop' for science in Auroville. “That was how ASSET or the ‘Auroville Schools Science Educational Teaching' centre was established and it is part of SAIIER,” he explains. “I wanted to create a place where there could be a new energy and framework for science teaching.”
Anbu draws personal inspiration from India 's former president and scientist, Abdul Kalam. “I have read all his books, so when he visited Auroville in 2005, I was thrilled to meet him. For me, he symbolizes a man of action. He came from a lower middle class family and overcame all obstacles through personal effort and dedication to become who he is.”
Anbu is also moved by Kalam's rapport with children. “He is marvellous with youngsters. One can see that he respects children and always answers their questions. Once a young boy asked Kalam who the best scientist was, and his answer was ‘Children, as they are always asking questions.'
“This is what I believe too. And it is the teacher's responsibility to find the right tool at the right time to stimulate and encourage a child.”
In the last three years, ASSET has been offering workshops, trainings and field trips for teachers and students, inviting local experts in science, mathematics and even agriculture. Since 2007, ASSET has organized annual science fairs in Auroville, inviting the surrounding schools.
“The first year, our topic was ‘Water'. The second year, we focussed on ‘Energy' and this time the theme was ‘How does it Work?'.”
Judging by the turnout, the 2009 Auroville Science Fair was a great success. “Over 3000 children and adults visited,” says Anbu. The exhibits consisted of about sixty working models displayed under three categories – self-explanatory booths; material that the children could touch and handle themselves; and stalls where students of New Creation School demonstrated scientific principles to their audience.
Visitors were impressed. Professor Heidi Watts of Antioch University , USA , an annual visitor to Auroville, commented: “It was hard to believe that these confident and eloquent children come from poor families, the first in their families to have the chance of education.”Anbu wants to take ASSET further. “I would love to set up a Science and Technology Park at the Visitor's Centre,” he says. “Thousands of young people come here and, apart from the Matrimandir, there is nothing for them to see. We have all the material from our science fairs, plus the examples of the real practical work that Aurovilians are doing in the field of alternative energy and technologies. What an inspiring place this could be! That is my dream.”