There are approximately 1.3 million schools in India and close to 315 million students enrolled in school across the length and breadth of the country. And yet, there are only a few schools where we see school children not just present but thoroughly engaged, involved and taking complete ownership of their tasks and activities.
Welcome to Universe Simplified Foundation, a non-profit founded by Henna and Meera, youth from Mumbai who aims to promote innovation and problem-solving skills in children through inquiry-based, hands-on and collaborative learning.
Henna and Meera, both have been born and brought up in Mumbai. Henna graduated as a B.SC in Computer Science from Sardar Patel College, Mumbai and Meera graduated with a B.Sc in Physics from SIES College, Mumbai. Later on, Henna went on to do her MBA from Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS) and returned to India upon completion of her degree. Both of them have a shared love for Astronomy and Science and this passion for Astronomy led Meera to found the Stargazing Club in Mumbai.
When asked about her motivation behind starting the foundation, Henna narrates an experience which many students would have faced in their own childhood and schooling. She says, “When I was a kid I was really passionate about astronomy but that interest was lost because our education system did not encourage questions and nurture a child’s curiosity. The focus was on rote learning with the sole intention of clearing exams.
“Many years later, while working at my family business that passion came back and Universe Simplified Foundation was born with the intention of taking hands-on astronomy workshops for children so that they get a platform to explore their interest further and to ignite their spark of curiosity.”
When Henna and Meera started working in schools they realized that over all these years, nothing had changed and that science was still being taught through textbooks. So they set up hands-on, kit-based workshops around scientific topics such as sound, light, a human body, etc. which was focused on clearing the child’s concepts.
Universe Simplified Foundation had done many one-time hands-on science workshops with more than 2000 children but they could not really gauge the impact they were having and therefore, they wanted to set up science clubs within schools and communities for longer-term impact. Also, meanwhile they had the opportunity to talk to several people in the Makerspace Movement and they reflected that while kit-based learning is an excellent jump from textbook-based learning, students were still inclined to following instructions on how to assemble the kit. Their observation was that while it helped clear the student’s concept, it did not challenge them to think independently.
Children engaged in the creation of a Solar Car
In the past 1.5 years, Universe Simplified Foundation has shifted from one-time workshops to long-term interventions and the idea of science clubs within schools evolved into innovation hubs where students get continuous exposure to hands-on learning. After an initial pilot, 5 Innovation Hubs were set up last year (2017-18).
The Innovation Hub program runs once a week for two hours either at a school or a community centre. The curriculum of the Innovation Hubs is based on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) integrated into project-based learning. The methods are highly inquiry-driven and experiential while encouraging the overall spirit of collaboration among the students instead of competition. No certificates were given as they wanted the children to be a part of the program for the pure joy of learning.
Timelapse video in the classroom
On the surface it seems that Universe Simplified Foundation is dealing with just a mindset problem. However, the monster that they are fighting is gargantuan and deadly which affects humanity as a whole.
When probed to understand the long-term vision of Universe Simplified Foundation, Henna says, “We are leaving our children with numerous challenges such as garbage, water pollution, air pollution, etc. However, the current education system is not designed to equip our children to address these real-life challenges. Rote learning, for the sake of clearing exams, curbs children’s creativity and original thinking.
“Our aim is to build a network of innovators and problem-solvers who would be empowered to address real-life challenges. By working through an experiential and an inquiry-driven project-based curriculum, the children’s ability to think in terms of solutions increases. Our students learn STEM skills such as how to make projects using motors, solar panels, electronics and robotics, but we have consciously designed to bring in local problem-solving aspect too. In the second half of every year, the children pick a local problem such as garbage, electricity or even a rat problem in their school and use a ‘Design Thinking’ approach to come up with a STEM-based solution for it.
The solutions can either be pure innovations suited to their unique problem or the adaptation of an existing solution. For example, currently in villages, garbage is burned, so children came up with the solution of composting rather than reinventing the wheel.
Frankly today, only the IB schools are able to offer a system our students can aspire to. There are just around 400 IB schools in the whole of India and only selected few people can afford it. We hope to make inquiry-driven, hands-on education accessible to all schools and communities.”
(Video of girls digging a pit for composting)
Universe Simplified Foundation has focused on keeping the cost of their flagship program of Innovation Hubs low. The Foundation uses a lot of scrap plastic bottles, cardboard and local resources for our projects. A lot of innovation can happen even with minimal resources.
Till now, It has conducted around 200 workshops as a part of their Innovation Hubs covering 7 locations. There have been a staggering 40 projects that evolved as a result of the Innovation Hubs program, which ultimately led to an increase in children’s problem-solving skills and confidence in addressing challenges. Some examples are Kickbike, washing machine without electricity, sensor stick for blind people, composting, to name a few.
Innovations coming out of our spaces – Low Cost Wheelchair; Washing Machine without Electricity, & Kickbike from PVC Pipes, Wood Scrap and Old Cycle Tyres
When asked about how Universe Simplified Foundation is different from other STEM-based programs, Henna mentions, “The uniqueness of our program lies in the inquiry-driven approach. If students have to make a vacuum cleaner from scrap, the first design it on paper, figure out what material may go into making it and then start making the project. Even while making the project if they face some problems or are stuck, then the facilitator gives them hints rather than solving the problems for them.”
This year, the organization also intends to start working with teachers, and is developing an Educator Training program to partner with other schools and organizations to roll out this kind of learning.
The inspiring journey of these two women, however, weren’t devoid of challenges. Meera narrates; “The toughest time in the journey was at the beginning when we were just starting out and were attempting to understand the ground realities. It was difficult to convince schools for the importance of hands-on science workshops and there was a period where our funds had dried up.”
“As an entrepreneur, one needs to do every single role in the organization – marketing, HR and fundraising, in addition to program execution/operations. In addition to the challenge of learning all these varied skills and the business aspect of running the organization, the biggest challenge becomes maintaining a healthy work-life balance and taking out the time for personal growth” says Henna.
Their commitment to their work has led them to win many fellowships and accolades.
Universe Simplified Foundation is launching a two-year full-time Fellowship next year in 2019 along with a one-year part-time Fellowship.
The objective of the fellowship is to address the gap of STEM educators in our country who understand inquiry-driven learning. We are looking for people with an entrepreneurial streak who thrive in challenging environments. The fellowship is designed to hone the fellow’s innovation and problem-solving skills too. While executing the Innovation Hubs themselves, the fellows will also work on open-ended innovation modules in collaboration with other fellows. Henna’s organisation Universe Simplified has also been selected for an year long incubation program by TFIx.
Appeal to the readers
Universe Simplified Foundation would like to make an appeal to every educator engaged in teaching Science and other subjects to move the focus away from rote learning and memorizing and rather focus on cultivating inquiry, curiosity and problem solving among children through hands-on and experiential learning.
Universe Simplified Foundation is looking for schools and organizations to partner where the need for Innovation Hubs exists. If you can facilitate introductions for appropriate entities please contact Henna ([email protected]).
You may also follow their work on www.facebook.com/UniverseSimplified.