A Day for Sea Monkeys

My generation grew up reading comics usually borrowed from lending libraries. Foreign comics were very expensive and there were few parents in our circles who allowed us to buy them often. Maybe once or twice a year.

These precious comics therefore, were read and re-read and savored cover to cover. The last few pages would often carry ads for a fascinating variety of knick-knacks and gimcracks, of which the most fascinating were the quirkily illustrated ads for ‘Sea monkeys.’ Just add the contents of the package to a tank of clean water the ads promised, and lo and behold, in a few seconds or minutes (I forget which), your tank would have these fascinating little creatures swimming around.

Digging a little deeper, I found that in fact sea-monkeys are in a way manmade creatures. They were ‘invented’ in the 1950s and are a hybrid breed of brine shrimp  (Artemia NYOS, a hybrid of Artemia salina) created artificially by a person called Harold von Braunhut. Traditionally used as fish food, von Braunhut felt that brine shrimp could easily be maintained in home aquaria, and used to foster a love of nature among children and help them observe nature. He set about experimenting and found a way through which his hybrid shrimp could be preserved in dry conditions, and brought back to life when they came in contact with water. He patented the process, which is still a secret today. Sea monkeys are translucent and breathe through their feathery feet. They start life with one eye, and then in the course of time, develop two more. Von Braunhut named them ‘sea monkeys’ because of their monkey-like tails. Initially, these creatures lived only for a month or so, but with the help of marine-biology experts, he was able to create creatures which live up to two years.

Von Braunhut introduced them commercially in 1960 under the name ‘Instant Life’.

But marketing the concept and the product was not easy. No toy shops or pet shops would stock them. So von Braunhut came out with the idea of advertising them in comic books, to be bought directly from the company. Sales took off and never looked back! Generations of children in the US have kept sea-monkeys and become acquainted with the wonders of nature through observing them, caring for them and nurturing them. They are still very much an in-demand product.

Sea monkeys did not just find their way into homes and hearts. 400 million of them accompanied astronaut John Glenn to space. Sea monkeys even had their own TV show in the ‘90s revolving around the adventures of three microscopic sea monkeys which are enlarged to human size by a Professor. They have also featured in several TV shows and movies including The Simpsons. Needless to say, there are also several internet fora which discuss these creatures. Sea monkeys have their own Day too—May 16th is marked as National Sea Monkey Day in the US.

Sea monkeys continue to be ‘manufactured’ and sold, and are quite popular even today. They are available on the company site http://www.sea-monkeys.com/, as well as on Amazon, including in India. I am not sure if they are still advertised in comics though!

I have to confess that in my confused mind, for a long time I thought sea-monkeys and seahorses were the same. It was only many, many years later that I realized they were completely different. Sea horses are more bonafide– any of about 50 species of marine fishes allied to pipefishes.

Happy belated Sea Monkey Day!

–Meena

Image: Shutterstock

Of Textbooks and More

Exactly 80 years ago this April, ‘Academies and Societies’ which I suppose was a catalogue of learned scientific publications, listed ‘Modern Inorganic Chemistry’ (Tamil) by N. Ananthavaidyanathan, published by Annamalai University and priced modestly at Rs. 2-8.

The Reference!

A lot of family history behind this entry, as the afore-mentioned Ananthavaidyanathan was my grandfather. He was a Professor of Chemistry at Annamalai University having joined it in the mid-1920s, when it was still Sri Minakshi College, and he saw the growth of the College and its sister institutions into Annamalai University in 1929 .

The book was written in response to a competition organized by the University, to come out with the first Tamil under-graduate science textbooks in the country. My grandfather’s ‘Modern Inorganic Chemistry’ won the prize.

My grandmother told us tales of the days and nights and weeks and months of work that went into the book. With no precedents of modern scientific writing or references in regional languages, my grandfather had to coin several names for chemicals, for processes, for phenomena. Being the conscientious, old-school scholar he was, that involved a lot of research and consultation. With Tamil type-writing skills not easy to find, and moreover, the problems of typing chemical formulae in the typewriters of those days, it was a physical challenge as well as an intellectual one! My grandmother helped him proof-read draft after draft.

The hard work paid off, and his was the first college-level chemistry textbook in Tamil.

Annamalai University is an institution with a hoary past. Rajah Sir S. R. M. Annamalai Chettiar, In the early 1920s, set up three educational institutions– Sri Minakshi College, Sri Minakshi Tamil College and Sri Minakshi Sanskrit College—in the temple-town of Chidambaram, and these soon became intellectual centres. The purpose of setting up the educational institutions was to educate the poor, and to give a fillip to literature in Tamil. And I suppose it was in pursuit of the second aim that the competition was organized.

Sir Chettiar was an enlightened industrialist and banker with a deep interest in education. He contributed generously to philanthropic causes and set up institutions. He was one of the founders of Indian Bank. He counts Shri AC Muthaih (who served as the Chairman of SPIC and the President of Board of Cricket Control of India), and Shri PC Chidambaram (former Finance Minister of India) among his grandsons.

In 1928, Sir Annamalai agreed to hand over the group of educational institutions he had set up, to the local government to establish a University. On 1 Jan, 1929, Annamalai University was established under a State Act–India’s first private University.

In its time, the University has been the centre of Tamil, of intellectual debate, of students who questioned the status quo of their day, of strikes, of agitations and of academic excellence. Today it is one of the largest public residential universities in Asia

We are an ‘Annamalai University family’, with my grandfather having taught there for several decades. My father studied Physics there—he had to choose between studying Physics and Chemistry, but my grandfather would not let him join the Chemistry faculty because he was the Head of the Dept., and did not want any controversy about his son being a student in the same department. My brother studied Engineering there. My father and brother both served the Defence Research and Development Organization all their lives, and my brother was honoured with the Padma Shri for his contribution to Agni and Prithvi Missiles. So I suppose I have much to thank Annamalai University for!

–Meena

First Lady Teacher: Savitribai Phule

I have often written in this space about ‘women warriors’. Women who have dreamed, and have made their dreams a reality, even in the face of adversity and opposition. These remarkable women are to be found in every age, and in every part of the world. And they continue to inspire, as well as to remind that what we take for granted today, was fought for, and achieved, by someone before us. One of these is the right of girls to education. This is a good week to remember a woman who paved the path for this—Savitribai Phule.

On 3 January 1831, a girl child was born in Naigaon village in Maharashtra. She was named Savitri. Her parents Lakshmi and Khandoji Neveshe Patil were Malis (traditionally vegetable growers and sellers), an economically and socially backward community. A girl child in such a community meant that she was not sent to school. The story goes that one day her father caught her leafing through the pages of an English language book and he was incensed; believing that only upper class males had this privilege. But this planted the seeds of the resolve in the young girl that she would, one day, learn to read and write.     

Savitri was married off at the age of nine. Her husband, Jyotirao Phule, also from the same community, was only 13 years old himself, and he was studying in class three. But fate may have decided that this couple would one day change the way of things.

Savitribai entered her husband’s house as an illiterate child. Jyotirao, a man ahead of his times, believed that girls had an equal right to education. He himself began teaching his young wife at home, in the face of great disapproval from the family and the community. His friends Keshav Bhavalkar and Sakharam Paranjpe also contributed to her education. Perhaps it is these early mentors who inspired in Savitri the resolve to become a teacher herself. Jyotirao supported Savitri’s journey from becoming literate to getting higher education outside the home. She enrolled for teacher training programmes, first in Ahmednagar in an institution run by Cynthia Farrar who was one of the first unmarried American women sent overseas as a missionary, and who lived and worked in India from 1827 until her death in 1862. Savitri also trained at the Normal School in Pune. She was now ready to embark on her life’s mission of educating and empowering girls.

After completing her training she started teaching girls in Maharwada Pune. Not long after that, in 1848, Jyotirao and Savitri, along with Sagunabai, a revolutionary social reformist, opened a school for lower-caste girls in Bhidewada in Pune. The curriculum included traditional western mathematics, social studies and science, as well as vocational training. Savitribai was the teacher. It is believed that she was the first Indian woman teacher. The school had only nine students to begin with, and it was a struggle to keep them in school. Savitribai offered stipends as incentive, and held parent teacher meetings to encourage and support the parents.

In a time when it was not at all common to send girls to school, this was in itself a bold step. Opening a school for lower-caste girls invited huge backlash, especially from orthodox high castes. The Phules were undeterred and determined. Over the next few years, they opened a series of schools in the Pune area for girls and for lower-caste boys and girls. This raised more hostility, which even manifested itself in throwing of stones and dung at Savitri as she walked to school. It is said that she used to carry with her two sarees, so as to change out of her soiled clothes after she reached school. Jyotirao and Savitri, who until 1849, had lived with Jyotirao’s father, had to move away due to the strong opposition from the local community. But the couple courageously continued with their mission; going on to set up 18 such schools in the region.

It is believed that when they had to leave their home, the young couple was given refuge in the home of Usman Sheikh. His sister Fatima held the same views on education as Savitri and had also studied at the same teacher training institute. She started teaching with Savitribai, and is believed to be the first Muslim woman teacher of the nineteenth century. She continued to teach at the Phule’s schools all her life. The two women shared a long friendship based on mutual respect and synergy.

Education was not the only cause that drove Savitribai. Supporting Jyotirao’s strong crusade against the practice of Sati, child marriage, untouchability and other social evils, she also worked tirelessly for freeing women of many of the social fetters that bound them. She spoke up against the practice of widows having to shave their head. The Phules opened a care centre for widows, rape victims and their children, and girls who escaped female infanticide and sati. The Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha provided a refuge for them to live, and raise their children, in safety and dignity. Later the Phules adopted a boy from here as their son.

Savitribai expressed her views not only by her actions but also through her words. She wrote poems extolling education as a means to a life of dignity. One of her poems in Marathi with the title Go, Get Education urges “Sit idle no more, go, get education, end the misery of the oppressed and forsaken. You’ve got a golden chance to learn, so learn and break the chains of caste.” Her first anthology of poems Kavya Phule was published in 1854.

In 1897 the bubonic plague broke out around Pune. Savitribai and her adopted son Yashwant set up a clinic to take care of affected patients. While tending to the patients, Savitribai herself caught the infection, and succumbed to it on March 1 1897.

Savitribai’s life was a tale of true grit and perseverance, and she was a pioneering crusader for equality and justice, especially for women. Today she is described as “India’s first feminist icon”. An article in the Oikos Worldviews Journal sums up her contribution thus ‘Indian women owe her. For in today’s world, whether an Indian school girl reading English, an Indian woman who reads, an Indian woman who is educated, or an educated international desi woman, her education as an Indian female grows from the garden planted by Savitribai Phule’.

–Mamata

A Shout-out for the Environment: NEAC

India has always been a little ahead of the curve in its thinking about environmental issues. Four decades ago, it recognized that raising public awareness and educating key target groups as well the future generations on environmental issues, were key to a sustainable future. It designated a Centre of Excellence in this area way back in 1985–viz the Centre for Environment Education.

In 1986, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (as it was then) launched another unique initiative called the National Environmental Awareness Campaign (NEAC). The unique feature of this was that it called upon various types of organizations to plan their own Environmental Awareness programmes for their own local communities or other target groups, and implement them with the support of small grants from the Ministry.

Every year, NEAC started on Nov. 19th. Nov 19 to Dec 18 was marked as Environment Month in the old days in India—Nov 19 being Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s birthday, and she certainly had a big role in setting the environmental agenda for the country, and was a voice for developing countries on these issues at global forums.

NEAC was unique that it was conceived as a pan-national programme, at a time when there were not very many such. Even in the first year of its launch, it already touched almost every state and union territory. And it was unique in its proactive involvement of a variety of agencies as implementers. NGOs, educational institutions, professional associations, scientific bodies, community-based organizations—all were welcome to put in proposals, which were scrutinized and passed. There was a degree of trust which is not often seen.

And there were few constraints on media and methods for outreach—from street plays, to seminars to drawing competitions to films to essay-writing to teacher training to door-to-door campaigns to wall-painting to bringing out booklets and posters to….. The NEAC probably saw a flowering of outreach methods which was unique. And it reached every nook and corner of the country—from women in remote forest villages, to students in the Andamans; from famers in Assam to small industries in Gujarat.

NEAC
NEAC Campaign. CUTS.

The numbers were mind-boggling. From the involvement of 120 NGOs in the first year, it went to 9784 implementing agencies in 2006-2007. A total of 13,336 campaigns are reported to have been conducted in 2014-15. And each of these reached hundreds of people.

And the administrative backbone also evolved with the growing numbers. To begin with, there was one central Committee set up by the Ministry to scrutinize and pass the proposals. Slowly, the concept of Regional Resource Agencies (RRA) took root—reputed NGOs or academic institutions which were well networked in specific areas were given the responsibility to set up their own expert-committees and pass the proposals. Within 10 years of the programme starting, there were 27 such RRAs, making for very decentralized operations.

The amount of money involved was not high. Each implementing NGO got about Rs. 30,000 to implement the programme. But the energy, creativity and outreach it gave rise to were truly remarkable.

The NEAC has been more or less been given up in the last few years. Environment Minister Anil Madhav Dave in a written reply to Parliament said that the NEAC could not be conducted during 2015-16 and 2016-17 due to lack of funds.

Nov 19 is almost here. It does not seem that there is much action on this front this year either.

There were a lot of problems with NEAC, with the key ones being: Were the funds being utilized properly? Did the kind of awareness programmes being done make a difference?

Many evaluations of NEAC were done, the latest one being in around 2017. But the report of the evaluation is not exactly locatable. So has NEAC been dropped due to lack of funds? Because it was not making a difference? Because something else has taken its place? It is not clear.

The one thing that is clear is that with environmental crises looming, the need for environmental awareness and education have never been greater. OK, if the NEAC was not effective, let’s revamp it. Surely the evaluation report should tell us how to do it. But let’s not forget that building public opinion is critical to saving the world!

–Meena




RIP Dr. SM Nair: Father of Natural History Museums

There are the pioneers, and he was among them. Museology is not a widely-known or popular field of study even today. Way back in the 1950s, it was even less so. This is the time at which a young boy from Kerala, after finishing his B.Sc in Trivandrum, travelled all the way to Baroda to pursue his M.Sc in the subject, at the M.S. University. He went on to do research on the Bio-deterioration of Museum Materials, and was awarded the first Doctorate in Museology from M.S. University for this work.

Dr. Nair started his career as an academic, first teaching at his alma mater in Baroda, and then moving on to Department of Museum Studies, BITS Pilani.

Mrs. Indira Gandhi, then-PM, and a leader who took great interest in the environment, had been very impressed by the Natural History Museums she saw during her visits to Europe. She wanted to create similar ones in India. She conceived of a plan for one in New Delhi and one in Bhopal. She put together an eminent team of museum professionals and scientists to take this idea forward. One thing led to another, and Dr. SM Nair, only 37 years old at that time, was chosen as the Project Director for this initiative in 1974.

Dr. Nair and Mrs. Gandhi at NMNH
Dr. Nair and Mrs. Gandhi at NMNH

Four hectic years followed, when the conceptualization, planning and execution was done by a dedicated core team including Shri D.P.Singh, S.K. Saraswat, B. Venugopal and several others. Dr. Nair visited the best Natural History Museums around the world. He got several artists and model-makers trained at the best centres in the world. And the National Museum of Natural History opened its doors to the public on June 5, 1978 (Environment Day). Subsequently, Regional Museums of Natural History came up in Mysore, Bhopal and Bhubaneswar  under Dr. Nair’s guidance.

The stuffed rhino that greeted one on the ground floor of the FICCI building where NMNH was housed, will surely be in the memories of many a Delhi school child. The rhino had died a natural death at the Delhi Zoo, and was stuffed and kept here.

The effort in NMNH was always to make the experience interactive for children. For those times, when most museums were static displays, this focus was unusual. The Museum also had a major thrust on outreach and extension. It had an active teacher training and orientation programme, which reached out to thousands of educators in its time.

Dr. Nair had a personal connect with every exhibit and activity at NMNH, and continued to take an interest in it even after his retirement in the late ‘90s. What he must have gone through on 26th April 2016, when the news of a fire breaking out in the museum and destroying the entire collection, can only be imagined.

Dr. Nair continued to be active in his mission of Environmental Education long after his retirement, working at WWF-India and Centre for Environment Education.

Not just at a national level, he was extremely respected internationally, serving as Chairman of Natural History Museum Committee of ICOM (international Council of Museums) and as

a Member of the Joint Museum Committee of the lndo-US Subcommission on Education and Culture.

Among his books are ‘Endangered Animals of India and their Conservation’, brought out by the National Book Trust, and  ‘Bio-deterioration of Museum Materials’ by Agam Kala Prakashan.

We knew Dr. Nair since the mid-eighties, as one of the fathers of the Environmental Education movement an India.

He mentored us first as a member of the Governing Council of CEE, and then as a senior colleague. Even today, old-timers in CEE-VIKSAT recall his contribution to these institutions with great respect—when it was a struggling NGO, he spotted the potential of the team and gave them a project to develop labels and take-away materials for the NMNH exhibits. This not only paid salaries for a couple of months, but gave them their first project from a national-level, government institution. This project was a critical stepping-stone.

We have also known him as the father of a colleague, Meena, who was inspired by him to follow in his footsteps in a career in Environmental Education.

NMNH and other natural history museums excited the imagination and curiosity of generations of children. NMNH may no longer exist, but Dr. Nair’s legacy lives on.

Dr. Nair passed away last week. May his soul rest in peace.

Dr. SM Nair (1937-2021).

–Meena

The Montessori Touch

Source: ageofmontessori.org

What do a young Jewish girl and her diary; and a young man and his online encyclopaedia have in common? What is the link between the Google Guys, one of the richest men in the world, and a Nobel Prize winning writer?

It is the name Maria Montessori!

All these renowned names, spanning different periods of time, began their education in a Montessori pre-school. And all of them attribute a large part of who they are, and what they achieved, to the strong roots of the philosophy and practice of the Montessori system of education.

Anne Frank is synonymous with her Diary. The young Jewish girl who penned her experiences and thoughts of two years of hiding from the Nazis in an attic in Amsterdam, died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945. She was only 15 years old. Her diary remains one of the most poignant pieces of literature from World War II. It is in this diary that Anne recorded how her early education began. I started right away at the Montessori nursery school. I stayed there until I was six, at which time I started 1st grade (Montessori elementary). …My parents never worry about report cards, good or bad. As long as I am healthy and happy and don’t talk back too much they are satisfied. (But) I do not want to be a bad student. …I was supposed to stay in the seventh grade at the Montessori School, but Jewish children were required to go to Jewish schools…”

As a child Anne was always asking questions, and her father felt that the Montessori approach would give enough room for her curious mind to blossom.  She attended the 6th Montessori School of Amsterdam from age 3 to 11. She then attended a year at the Montessori Lyceum (high school) until German authorities prohibited Jewish children from attending school with Christian children. Anne spent the rest of her short life in hiding, where the diary with the red checked cover that her father gave her, became her special secret. Maria Montessori once said: A child without a secret becomes and adult without a personality. Sadly Anne never attained adulthood, but her diary with her attention to detail, her observations and her honesty bears proof of her Montessori education.

What is the first place to check when one is looking for information? Wikipedia! The brain behind the online encyclopaedia is Jimmy Wales. Another curious child, Jimmy used to spend hours perusing the physical tomes of the Britannicas and World Book Encyclopaedias. This passion bloomed into Wikipedia. Jimmy credits his ability to think outside the box to the Montessori method that his school followed. Jimmy was a  true example of an Absorbent Mind that Maria Montessori wrote about in her book of the same title.

Julia Child is known as the woman who popularised French cooking in America with her famous cookbook and her funny TV cookery shows. Julia Child worked at diverse occupations from being a copywriter, to being a research assistant for Secret Intelligence, until she discovered her passion for cooking. 

Julia’s life and work was strongly influenced by her Montessori education. She always claimed that Montessori learning taught her to love working with her hands. Equally important was Montessori’s approach to making mistakes.  “[Maria] Montessori wanted kids to develop ‘a friendly relationship to error,’ – to understand that mistakes are a normal part of learning, and that to learn, you must be willing to make mistakes, and then to move forward.” 

Julia Child’s early Montessori experiences led her to endorse that involving children in the process of cooking did much more than teach them to cook. “Influenced, perhaps, by my early experience at a Montessori school, and surely by living in a clan full of carvers, painters, carpenters, and cooks of all ages, I am all for encouraging children to work productively with their hands. They learn to handle and care for equipment with respect… The small rituals, like the clean hands and clean apron before setting to work; the precision of gesture, like levelling off a cupful of flour; the charm of improvisation and making something new; the pride of mastery; and the gratification of offering something one has made — these have such value to a child. And where are they so easily to be obtained as in cooking?

If using her hands and learning from mistakes was Montessori’s lifelong lesson for Julia Child, it was the spirit of exploration that marked Montessori’s influence on Will Wright. Wright, one of the most famous video game designers in history, is best known for SimCity. His games rarely conclude with The End, rather they let the player tinker towards perfection, with each player defining that perfection.

Wright always claimed that his schooling until sixth grade in a Montessori school “was the high point of my education”. As he wrote “Montessori taught me the joy of discovery. It showed you can become interested in pretty complex theories, like Pythagorean theory, say, by playing with blocks. It’s all about learning on your terms, rather than a teacher explaining stuff to you. SimCity comes right out of Montessori — if you give people this model for building cities, they will abstract from it principles of urban design.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, best known for his book One Hundred Years of Solitude won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982, “for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts.”

As a child he struggled to read, but when he joined a Montessori school his language skills were transformed by the phonetic way of learning. Marquez credited many of his successes to the Montessori form of education. As he said “I do not believe there is a method better than Montessori for making children sensitive to the beauties of the world and awakening their curiosity regarding the secrets of life.”

Montessori acknowledged that the only valid impulse to learn is self-motivation itself. She believed that children possess a natural motivation to learn and absorb knowledge without effort if given the right kind of activities, at the right time of their development.

Perhaps the most famous examples of the success of this approach is the story of Larry Page and Sergei Brin the co-founders of Google. Both have attributed their Montessori education as the foundation of their future professional life. We both went to Montessori school, and I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders, being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world, and doing things a little bit different that contributed to our success. They specifically credit the curriculum of self-directed learning where students follow their interests and decide for themselves what they want to learn that inspires students to become life-long learners with a love of education.

And last, but certainly not the least, one of the world’s richest men, Jeff Bezos could leap into space from a strong Montessori launch pad. He remembers: I went to Montessori school [for] about a year and a half, starting probably at age 2 1/2. … I have these very clear visual images of tracing out letters on sandpaper. I remember having a little special board that you can use to practice tying your shoes.

His mother remembers: He would get so engrossed in his activities as a Montessori pre-schooler that his teachers would literally have to pick him up out of his chair to go to the next task.

Bezos who started his amazing journey from a Montessori pre-school has come full circle by launching a $2 billion project called Day 1 Families that aims to bring quality early education to those who may not otherwise have access to it through supporting Montessori pre-schools in minority and low-income communities in America.

31 August marks the 151st birth anniversary of Maria Montessori. A century and a half later, her path-breaking philosophy and approach to education remain as relevant, if not more. The Montessori legacy lives on through the generations who have experienced the Montessori touch.

–Mamata

What Shall I Be?

In our experience of working with rural youth and those from smaller towns, we often found that when we asked them about their career aspirations, they would mention ‘engineer’, ‘teacher’, or ‘police’. With good reason, because these were among the few professionals they came across in their day to day lives. This gave us a good insight into the need for expanding horizons by introducing them to a variety of careers.  And it did make a difference. From forensic science to data science, from yoga teaching to wood-working, from optician to wildlife biologist—once the children knew about them, they were inspired to dream differently.

From Minva Aur Dumpua ke Karnaame, by V. Raghunathan, illustrated by Shilo Shiv Suleiman. Diamond Press

But never in my wildest dreams would I have thought to introduce some of the following careers to the young people. But maybe it’s time we get youth excited about some of them.

Given these COVID times, it would be good to inspire people to become aerobiologists–scientists who understand Aerobiology, the branch of biology which focusses on organic particles which are passively transported by the air, including bacterial viruses, fungal spores, pollen grains etc.! Or for that matter, to study Loimology, that is, gain knowledge of plagues and other pestilential diseases. Hygiology, the study of cleanliness could become big too

I would urge those interested in nature, wildlife or conservation to specialize in Caliology, or the study of bird’s nests– ‘calio’ comes from the Greek καλιά [kalia], a wooden dwelling, hut, or nest. Nidology means the same too, but the origin is from the Latin ‘nidus’ meaning nest. Or take up Myrmecology, the study of ants. Some could opt for Ophiology, the study of snakes.

Garbologists are going to become very important too—they study garbage, and hopefully will help to solve the world’s solid waste crisis. Given that our weather predictions are not too accurate with the monsoons more often missing than hitting on the given date, maybe more people should get into Anemology–the study of winds, and Brontology, the study of thunder. And we will always need people to take up Bromatology, the study of food. Bromotologists create new food products and also work to ensure food safety.

While I would urge young people to study Demology, that is, the study of human activities and social conditions, I would have to ensure they don’t confuse it with Demonology, the study of demons or beliefs about demons.

While not so disastrous a difference, I would still urge making the point that Mycology is the study of fungus, and Myology the study of muscles; Nephology the science of clouds, and Nephrology the study of kidneys; Pedology the study of soils, and Pedagogy the method and practice of teaching; Tribology the study of friction and wear between surfaces, and Trichology, the study of hair and its disorders.

And I would ask students to double check that they know what they are aspiring for when they decide to study Nosology—it is the study of diseases; or Trophology—it is the study of nutrition; Potamology the study of rivers; or Carpology the study fruits.

At any rate, no one can complain of lack of choices!

–Meena

Whatever you choose to be, whether a surgeon or a welder, make sure your skills are the best!

On the occasion of World Youth Skills Day, July 15.

Small Is Not Yet Beautiful

June 27 was declared as World Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) Day by the UN in 2017, to focus on the contribution of this sector to inclusive and sustainable development, both locally and globally. The importance of MSMEs is huge, but not fully registered in the mindsets of most people. Globally, they account for two-thirds of all jobs. In developing countries, 4 out of 5 new jobs in the formal sector were created by MSMEs. Many MSMEs in developing countries, especially the smallest, are often run by women.

There is no standard international definition of MSME. In India, as per changes brought in last year, the classification of units in the sectors is based on a composite of Investment in plant/machinery/ equipment as well as Annual Turnover.

ClassificationMicroSmallMedium
Manufacturing and Service rendering EnterprisesInvestment in Plant and Machinery or Equipment:
Not over Rs.1 crore; and Annual Turnover not over Rs. 5 crore
Investment in Plant and Machinery or Equipment:
Not over Rs.10 crore; and Annual Turnover not over Rs.50 crore
Investment in Plant and Machinery or Equipment:
Not over Rs.50 crore; and Annual Turnover not over Rs.  250 crore

For us, as for many other developing countries, this sector is critical in terms of contribution to employment and GDP. There are about 6 crore MSME units in India today, of which 99.4 per cent of are micro-enterprises, while 0.52 percent are medium, and 0.007 per cent, are medium enterprises. In other words, micro-enterprises dominate. MSMEs account for about 30% of GDP and about 48% of exports. They employ about 11 crore people. About 41% MSMEs are engaged in Manufacturing while 59% of them are in Service activities

The number of MSME units and the people employed have been growing for the last 4-5 years.

But the contribution to the GDP has been almost stagnant. This clearly speaks for the extremely low, and falling productivity of the sector. Studies estimate that Indian MSMEs have a productivity of at best 65% and at worst, 25% of such units in other countries.

This is compounded with the difficulties these units face in scaling up and accessing markets. And not to speak of the challenges of the external environment and regulatory environment challenges. The pandemic has devastated the sector. Not only have orders dried up, but even where there are orders, units have been hit with a reduction of workforce and huge challenges in procurement of raw materials.

In a scenario where jobs are getting scarcer and entrepreneurship is being seen as the answer, we obviously need to do many things at many levels. Speaking as someone engaged in the education and skilling sector, for me a major part of the solution has to do with Education and Training.

First and foremost, we need to get basic education right.  

And then, respect for and practice of vocational skills, as well as concepts like quality consciousness and systematic approach to doing any task have to be inculcated right from primary levels. These are not mindsets which can be added on at a later stage. They are very fundamental to a person’s make up, and influence how he/she performs any task in later life.

Skill training has to be much more rigorous than it is today. A student in Germany for instance, would spend about 2 to 3.5 years learning a skill, spending half the time in vocational school and half the time in a real factory, being systematically trained. We are ready to certify youth who go through a 3-month programme as skilled! And even pass-outs from ITI institutions or Polytechnics who spend a longer time, still have zero exposure to any real life workplace situation, and at best spend some time on old and outmoded machines. Not a recipe for productivity!

Third, MSME entrepreneurs need management education. Whether it is managing finances or people, production or marketing, each small entrepreneur seems to be making mistakes, discovering first principles, and reinventing the wheel. Surely not conducive to productivity. There are such initiatives, but they seldom reach the grassroots and the audience who really need these inputs.*

MSMEs have a huge role to play in inclusive development. They have the potential to impact the lives of the poorest, the most vulnerable through creation of local businesses. We need to act now!

–Meena

PS:  Those interested in MSMEs and Skilling should watch a webinar by National Skills Network on the subject.

  • * I am currently involved in a very interesting initiative of developing an ‘MBA’ programme for rural women entrepreneurs who are Std 8 pass and above. An initiative of Access Livelihoods supported by GIZ.

To School or Not to School?

Last week Meena wrote about the conundrum of schooling in the age of Corona lockdowns. While school-going children and teachers of all ages have been thrown overnight into an entirely alien pattern of e-teaching and learning, parents have been facing some of the biggest challenges in terms of new role and responsibilities. This period has also triggered numerous dilemmas and debates about how to provide the best possible education for children while schooling at home. Several parents have seriously started considering the merits of ‘home-schooling’.

Since the early days of formal educational systems as defined by the institution of the School, there have always been a cohort of parents who have chosen to experiment with alternative methods of teaching and learning for their children. The jury is still out on the strengths and weaknesses of this practise, but there are certainly interesting examples and experiences to peruse and ponder over. Here is a particularly inspiring one.

The story goes back to 1847; when 7-year-old Al, who had been in school for just three months, came home with a note from his teacher which stated that the young boy was “addled”, was not capable of keeping up with studies, and that he was advised to leave the school. Al’s mother Nancy refused to accept this harsh judgement about her child; she took this as a challenge and decided to teach him at home. She knew that though he was shy and retiring, but this was probably because he had a hearing difficulty that constrained his active participation in the classroom. Having once been a teacher herself Nancy diagnosed that the imaginative and inquisitive child was a ‘misfit’ because he was bored by conventional rote learning. Nancy encouraged her child’s curiosity, and love for books, and gave him the time and space to use his head and hands by exploring, experimenting and discovering for himself.

The young boy was fascinated by mechanical things and experiments. An elementary science book that she gave him when he was nine, explained how to do chemistry experiments at home. Al was hooked! He spent his pocket money on buying chemicals from the local pharmacy and collected basic equipment for experiments; when he was 10, he set up a simple lab in the basement of his house where he spent hours. Encouraged by his parents, he read voraciously, including literature and history. Thus began a lifelong passion for learning for a boy who never had more than three months of formal schooling.

Al grew up to be known as Thomas Alva Edison, one of the most prolific inventors of all times whose inventions changed the world in many ways–from the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera, as well as improving the telegraph and telephone. In his 84 years, he acquired an astounding 1,093 patents. He invented both product but also systems to support the process of invention, a forerunner of the concept of R&D labs. Edison went beyond being an inventor to also become a successful manufacturer and businessman, marketing his inventions to the public and setting up what was one of the early forms of a successful corporation.

Thomas Alva Edison’s mother Nancy died when he was 24 years old but she remained his source of inspiration through his life and career. In later years, a grown and very successful Thomas always acknowledged that his mother’s discipline for a focused life was responsible for his great success. As he said, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me, and I felt I had someone to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”

Not all of us can be a Nancy Edison, and certainly not every home-schooled child may grow up to be a Thomas Alva Edison. What interested me more about the story was not so much the great inventor Edison about whom much has been written, but Edison’s deep thinking on education that was well ahead of his times, and clearly reflected the deep impact of his personal experiences.  

Edison was critical of the education system of his day. He felt that “The present system does not give elasticity to the mind. It casts the brain into a mould. It insists that the child must accept. It does not encourage original thought or reasoning and lays more stress on memory than observation. The result of accepting unrelated facts is the fostering of conservatism [in thinking]. It breeds fear, and from fear comes ignorance.”

Edison’s entire life was an intense and passionate quest for knowledge and understanding which came not by blindly following books but by learning-by-doing. All his life he adhered to a meticulous recording of innumerable experiments, thoughts, and observations in thousands of detailed laboratory notebooks. Even when he became a successful businessman, his intense love for information, communications, and learning led him to set up his corporate office in his beautiful and well-stocked library. He even considered his childhood deafness, which increased as he got older, as an asset rather than a liability. For someone who was an inventor, he was asked why he did not invent a hearing aid. He said that not being assailed by outside noise made it easier for him to concentrate on his experiments and research.

Even when he had his own labs and research staff, Edison continued to endorse his style of hands-on learning-by-doing. One of his early experiments, in the early 1890s, was to produce bricks that were porous, but which would not absorb moisture when exposed to rain or snow as they were transported in open train cars. Edison and his colleagues spent almost a year experimenting with different materials and solutions to come up with a suitable binding solution or “muck” as they called it. Edison started referring to his researchers as “muckers”, and then on, the name stuck for all researchers who worked in his labs, who later formed an organisation called Muckers of the Edison Laboratory” or “Edison’s Muckers”.

This is the core of Edison’s strong views on education Edison believed that most schools taught children to memorize facts, when they ought to have students observe nature and to make things with their hands; in other words ”be muckers”.

Later, as a parent himself, he set up small problem solving searches for his children. One of these was “team-based research”; he would tell them what he was interested in reading about, and they would have to go through the books in his vast library and search out not only the books, but also mark the relevant pages or sections with slips of paper. The family also played indoor games where the traditional rules were often changed.

It was natural that Edison’s own upbringing and his discomfort with the education system would lead him, in later years, to appreciate and support Montessori’s positive alternative   philosophy of education. As he wrote, I like the Montessori method. It teaches through play. It makes learning a pleasure. It follows the natural instincts of the human being.”

In 1913 when Maria Montessori made her first visit to the United States for a lecture tour she stayed at Edison’s home.  Edison helped found one of the very first Montessori schools in the United States thus helping to spread the message and mission of an alternative educational system.

Edison’s inventions transformed the world in many ways, and many of these were the pioneers of the tech revolution that has changed the way we think and operate today. But Edison also concerned himself equally with the true meaning of education and the processes of learning. His work and life was guided by four simple principles, taught to him by his mother:

Never get discouraged if you fail. Learn from it. Keep trying.

Learn with both your head and hands.

Not everything of value in life comes from books-experience the world.

Never stop learning. Read the entire panorama of literature.

If only every parent could internalize, and instil, with conviction, these principles that lay down the foundation of life-long learning.

A century later, the world is grappling anew with the same question: What should be the future of education? While re-imagining the transformation of education in the age of technology it would still be worthwhile to leave space for our children to be “muckers”, and for the unfettered joy of learning.

–Mamata

The Future of Education

A year ago, when we were just beginning to understand the impact of Corona and lockdowns on our lives, my colleagues and I had a brainstorming, and jotted down what we saw as the impacts of these on school-age children. These included:

  • Loss in educational achievements due to long break
  • Increasing inequity in educational inputs– limited access of Govt School children to e-learning
  • Challenges in parental support to facilitate learning at home
  • Inadequate interaction with other children /adult
  • Difficulties in adjusting to new teaching methods/ technologies/ new curriculu
  • Inadequate educational inputs, resources
  • No exposure to outdoors, play, co-curricular activities
  • No outlet for energy
  • Less structure, discipline
  • Lower nutrition due to disruptions to mid-day meals
  • Challenges to govt. school infra of social distancing norms, sanitation, water
  • Pressure on Govt. Schools due to reverse migration, and shifting from private to govt. schools due to fall in income.
  • Timely availability of textbooks, coping with new timelines
  • Pressure of change in Academic year, exam patterns
  • Increased dropouts for various reasons, increase in child labour, child marriages etc.
  • Fear, anxiety
  • Parents stressed with loss of incomes, confinement etc.
  • Lowered access to healthcare.

In the year that we have gone through, not many satisfactory responses to these challenges have been found.

The pandemic is forcing us to focus on the short term, on questions like:

To open schools, or not to open schools?

To start classes, or not to start classes?

To conduct exams, or not to conduct exams?

But the responsibility of policy-makers is to go beyond, and think about the future shape of education, and to re-imagine it for the new world. This is where the UNESCO titled ‘Education in a post-COVID world: Nine ideas for public action’ will be useful. While it not a kunji  to give short answers to profoundly important questions about the future of education, it does give some useful frameworks to think about these questions. The nine ideas it propounds are:

‘1. Commit to strengthen education as a common good. Education is a bulwark against inequalities.

2. Expand the definition of the right to education so that it addresses the importance of connectivity and access to knowledge and information.

3. Value the teaching profession and teacher collaboration. Encourage conditions that give frontline educators autonomy and flexibility to act collaboratively.

4. Promote student, youth and children’s participation and rights. Prioritize the participation of students and young people broadly in the co-construction of desirable change.

5. Protect the social spaces provided by schools as we transform education. The school as a physical space is indispensable. Traditional classroom organization must give way to a variety of ways of ‘doing school’ but the school as a separate space-time of collective living, specific and different from other spaces of learning must be preserved.

6. Make free and open source technologies available to teachers and students. Education cannot thrive with ready-made content built outside of the pedagogical space and outside of human relationships between teachers and students. Nor can education be dependent on digital platforms controlled by private companies.

7. Ensure scientific literacy within the curriculum.

8. Protect domestic and international financing of public education. The pandemic has the power to undermine several decades of advances.

9. Advance global solidarity to end current levels of inequality.’

Excerpted from: https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/education_in_a_post-covid-world 

The world has changed. Crisis has to be turned to opportunity. We have to start to re-imagine the Future of Education–now.

–Meena