Tell Me Why

A reIMG_20190319_101149.jpgcent news item about a telephone helpline for children caught my attention. This was not the usual helpline for children in trouble or distress. Called First Question, this is an open line that children can call with questions related to science and nature, and their questions would be answered by real scientists. A novelty indeed in an age where increasingly Google is the ultimate guru that provides all answers.

This reminded me of the TELL ME WHY series. For myself and my children, these were among our favourite go-to books. These comfortingly solid volumes were not glossy nor profusely illustrated, but they were jammed with questions What, Why, How, Where, and answers to these.  From the bizarre ones like ‘Are armadillos edible?’ to the logical query ‘Where does water go when it dries up?’ to the dreamy ‘How did fairy tales originate,’ to the puzzled ‘Why don’t women have beards?’ every volume had over 300 questions, and short answers that were well researched and reliable.  While flipping through the pages in looking for an answer one would come across a dozen other questions that made one stop and read and wonder! A learning experience that was not compartmentalized into subjects and periods, and test papers; just an adventure in exploring and discovering.

Alas in the digital age, while the whole world’s information is at our fingertips, our children, and even we, seem to have lost the charm of wandering in search of answers, and chance discoveries. The TELL ME WHY series also seems to have gotten lost with the advent of media that are rapidly replacing physical books. However the innate curiosity of a child can never be quashed.

First Question, an initiative of the Kerala Forest Research Institute, seeks to bring back the humans in an age of AI. Launched as a response to the concern that our educational system that does not encourage children to ask questions, the Helpline, considered to be the first of its kind for children in India, is being managed by 20 research scholars from the Institute with help from around 50 subject matter experts and scientists across the state.

Students can call the helpline number 0487-2690222 from Monday to Friday between 9.30 am and 5.30 pm and ask their science-related questions in either English or Malayalam. Students from outside the state can also ask their questions in Hindi.

What a wonderful initiative, and what joy for a child to be able to talk to an adult who takes them, and their questions, seriously.

–Mamata

 

Institutional Campuses: Biodiversity Havens

Those who sanctioned academic, scientific and other national institutions in the days of yore, were generous in their land allocation. So you have such organizations sitting of tens, and sometimes even hundreds of acres of land.

Some institutions have built up on much of the land. But in others, the land is either landscaped, or left wild. Or a witting or unwitting mix of the two. Any which way, a boon in today’s rush for land development. Often, because these institutions are under-funded, they are not able to maintain lawns etc. and let the land go wild, which is also a good thing. These campuses are like havens, where both green cover and biodiversity thrive.

To take just one example, I go back to the campus of IIM Ahmedabad (see also my blog of last week, ‘Living in a Louis Kahn’).

I had commented in that piece that there was no landscaping to speak about on the campus. I was mistaken, as comes out from this personal communication from Prof. Marti Subramaniam, eminent academic, in a comment on the piece:

‘The high point of my contact with Kahn’s work was when I spied him with Kasturbhai Lalbhai, early one morning, walking right outside the house where we lived as students.  I quickly followed them to overhear their conversation which went roughly along the following lines:

Kasturbhai: What trees should we plant here, Louis?

Kahn: Of course, in one line they should all be of the same species.  Otherwise, how would they talk to each other?’

So in fact it seems, a lot of thought had gone into the landscape! My ignorance indeed!

IIM A campus is a mix—from the manicured lawn of the Louis Kahn Plaza, to the utter wilderness on the edges. And this mix, it seems, has given rise to a good deal of biodiversity. And the great thing is, that as part of the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the Institute, these have been captured and documented in coffee table book called Natural World at IIMA.

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A work of love and passion indeed! Close to 200 pages of colour plates, documenting the flora—trees, shrubs, climbers, sedges, grasses and herbs; as well as the fauna—birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, spiders, butterflies and moths.

One hears of pressures on several institutions to ‘not let the land go to waste, put it to use.’ Or worse, institutional lands being taken away for other uses, including commercial uses. We need to resist any such diversions. These are among the few remaining islands.

And documenting and disseminating these in the form of books, databases etc., helps to communicate the value of this diversity, and is the first step in making the campus itself an educational resource. And a matter of pride and joy for alumni.

Here is to large, unmaintained campuses, and books on them!

–Meena

Snakes Alive!

This is the month when many parts of India celebrate Nag Panchami or festival of snakes, by worshipping the Snake God for protection. The many rituals and myths associated with this perpetuate many false perceptions about snakes. This takes me back to my own snake story.IMG_20180830_100525311.jpg

When I started my career as an environmental educator, one of my first close encounters of the wild kind was when we were asked to touch a snake! This was in Sundarvan, a small snake park. The snake was a Red Sand Boa—a non-venomous snake. For someone who was, at that time, far from being a passionate wild-lifer, this was indeed an experience that served to dispel the many myths that one had grown up with. One of these were that snakes were “slimy”, and to be avoided at all costs. The skin of the sand boa felt dry and smooth, and we learnt that most snakes are in fact non-venomous.

And there began my long and fascinating journey in the natural world. A journey along which I had the most wonderful encounters with some of India’s best known naturalists and educators.

One of these was the Snakeman of India Romulus Whitaker.

Not so long after my induction by snakes, Romulus himself came to CEE and fascinated us with snake tales and the importance of breaking the myths that associated snakes with all things creepy and vile, and communicating the vital role of snakes in the ecosystem, especially as friends of farmers because they eat the rats that destroy crops.

A little later, Romulus graciously accepted to write a piece for a book that Meena and I were editing. In this he recounted how he first came to India from New York city when he was 8 years old, and returned a few years later  to make India his home, and herpetology his career. He recalled how “the snake charmers at Juhu Beach in Bombay were my first tutors but it wasn’t long before I outgrew their mixture of magic and nonsense.”

Romulus’s passion for setting the record straight about reptiles has manifested itself in a long and close association with the Irulas, an indigenous tribe of snake catchers of Tamil Nadu who became his friends and mentors; setting up of India’s first Snake Park in 1970 and the Madras Crocodile Bank in 1975 and, in 2005 the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in Karnataka. These Parks continue to attract and educate millions of visitors every year, and they have also become the base of conservation research projects in many parts of India including the Andaman islands.

His never-ending impulse to show and tell people about reptiles led Romulus to start making documentary films, many of which have won international awards. One of his first films Snakebite tells about how to avoid and treat snakebite. While studying incidents of snakebites in India, Whitaker discovered that numerous lives were lost due to inadequate production and distribution of anti-venom serum. That is when he mobilised the Irula community to form a snake catchers’ cooperative, who under licenses from the Wildlife Department, extract and freeze-dry venom from snakes and sell it to anti-venom producing laboratories before releasing the snakes back into the wild.

In 2018 Romulus was awarded the Padma Shri for nature conservation. In one of the interviews following the award Romulus said “I believe that touching a snake opens people’s minds and changes it forever.” I can totally vouch for that!

Thank you Rom for helping to open a new world, and for being a continuing inspiration!

–Mamata

What’s in a Moth?

When is a butterfly not a butterfly? When it is a moth!

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Butterflies have always hogged the limelight with their beauty and colour. Moths have always been the Cinderella, perceived as drab and uninteresting, and usually overlooked. Yet, moths greatly outnumber butterflies by a ratio of 10:1 and there are more than 12,000 species of moths.

There’s a lot in a moth for Dr Shubhalakshmi Vaylure, the first woman in India to study moths! “Why moths?” she was often asked when she started her research over 15 years ago. In fact, as she related in an interview, once she was asked why she chose to spend the nights studying moths (not quite suited to being a girl!) when she could study butterflies during the day, she replied “Well, someone’s gotta do this unpleasant night shift.”

It is that approach – Passion, Persistence and Push that sums up India’s Moth Lady!

Shubhalakshmi started by studying zoology and entomology in college, which is also when she signed up with Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) as a student member to use the library, and volunteering, joining nature walks and trails. After graduation she joined the Conservation Education Centre of the BNHS as an administrative assistant. At the time BNHS was the only institution in Mumbai which was offering a master’s degree through research, and she signed up for this.  Isaac Kehimkar, an eminent butterfly expert, suggested she study moths as they had not  been much studied in India. And that is where it all began. On completing her master’s degree, she became an Education Officer at the CEC, and went on to head the Centre.

As fellow environmental educators and Fulbright scholars, Shubha and I have met several times, and her energy and enthusiasm have been inspiring and infectious. Over the years I have been following Shubha’s journey and have seen how capably she has combined her passion for nature with smart use of technology and successful entrepreneurship.

Shubha is one of the pioneers of Citizen Science in India which empowers and enables ordinary citizens to be part of wildlife and environmental research by observing, collecting and sharing local data.

In 2014 she started a social enterprise Ladybird Environmental Consulting. The first project that Ladybird undertook was the development of three mobile-based applications iButterflies, iTrees, iNaturewatch birds under iNaturewatch Urban Challenge, a citizen science programme that worked with schools in Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata and Hyderabad to collect data on their city’s flora and fauna. Following this she set up iNaturewatch Foundation, to continue such urban biodiversity citizen projects.

For those who are inspired to become citizen scientists, and follow in the steps of the Moth Lady, a great start will be Shubhalakshmi’s book Field Guide to Indian Moths. The culmination of 15 years of research, this reader-friendly field guide features descriptions of 733 species of moths, supported by over 1000 colour photographs. Shubha also coined for the first time, common names for several of the species. Way to go Shubha!

What better way to mark this week which is designated as National Moth Week.

–Mamata

Reading Word Pictures

I am re-reading Markus Zusak’s ‘The Book Thief’, set in Nazi Germany in World War II. It is about a girl who steals books and is fascinated by them, but cannot read too well.

Which got me thinking of the ASER (Annual State of Education Report) test results, which year after year show children in India are simply not reading at the required level. Reading is the most important pathway to learning, and if our children don’t read, they can’t learn.
Which then brought me to techniques for teaching reading more effectively.
Research avers that reading and learning improve if children visualize what they are reading. They not only are able to understand better, they are also able to relate better to the text. But it is not something all children will do automatically. Sometimes, they need to be encouraged and supported in doing this.

Continue reading “Reading Word Pictures”