VASCSC: Dr. Vikram Sarabhai’s Vision for Science Education

As we approach Dr. Sarabhai’s birth anniversary (12 August), time to pay tribute to a great visionary, scientist and institution-builder.

His role in the nation’s space and atomic energy programmes, in creating institutions like ISRO, PRL, IIM-A, ATIRA is well known, as was his zeal for the planned use of science and technology in the development of a newly-independent India are known. His passion for science education however, needs to be more widely discussed.

Dr. Sarabhai was keenly aware that creating a scientific temper and promoting scientific thinking among the population was fundamental in our progress as a nation. He felt that science teaching needed to be innovative to achieve this, and also that the best scientists should engage with young minds, and inspire them towards science. His own background of being home-schooled in a very open learning environment, where exploring and innovating were the key, may have been the foundation of his conception of science education.  

Vikram Sarabhai as a boy, with his model train

It was in this background that in 1963, Vikrambhai got scientists of the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) involved in a project called ‘Experiment for Improvement of Science Education’, to take science to citizens. These early efforts were institutionalized in 1966, with the creation of an institution called the Community Science Centre (CSC), whose foundation stone was laid by Dr. Sarabhai’s guru, the Nobel Laureate, Sir CV Raman.  The famous lecture ‘Why the Sky is Blue’ was delivered by Sir Raman at the Centre on this occasion.

CSC was the trailblazer in the country, and the country’s active Science Centre/ Science Museum movement owes a lot to the pioneering work of this institution. CSC was re-named Vikram A. Sarabhai Community Science Centre (VASCSC) after the passing away of Dr. Sarabhai.

To quote VASCSC’s website, ‘The core of the Centre’s philosophy is to take school and college students out of the rigid framework of textbooks and encourage them to think, explore and create. Over the years, the Centre has combined formal and non-formal techniques to formulate many innovative methods to give students a better understanding of Science and Mathematics, which not only make the process of learning enjoyable but also sustained and long-lasting.’  It aims to bring teachers, students, research workers, administrators and the community together for a better appreciation and understanding of science.

VASCSC has been the pioneer of several innovative science education programmes, including interactive science exhibitions, open laboratories, math-lab, science playgrounds. These are today the backbone of many a science education programme in the country.  The educational kits and materials developed by it are of a very high quality.

A landmark initiative of VASCSC was the Science Express, done for the Department of Science (DST), which ran for several years. This was an innovative science exhibition mounted on a 16-bogey train, specially designed by the Indian Railways. Launched in October 2007 by DST, Science Express covered over 1,22,000 km across the country, receiving more than 1.33 crore visitors at its 391 halts, over 1,404 days. It has thus become the largest, longest running and most visited mobile science exhibition, probably in the world and has created several records in its wake’ (DST). The exhibition has six entries in the Limca Book of Records.

Mrs. Mrinalini Sarabhai wrote of Dr. Sarabhai: ‘‘He often said that on retirement he would like to spend time with young children talking to them about science.’ Sadly Dr. Sarabhai died young, so he could not fulfill this dream. But the initiative he started at the CSC has indeed contributed to the vision of transforming science-education in India

–Meena

I am privileged to be a member of the Governing Council of VASCSC.

Vikram Sarabhai Centenary

A Life Too Short: A Tribute to Dr. Vikram Sarabhai

Vikram Sarabhai Centenary

A Life Too Short: A Tribute to Dr. Vikram Sarabhai

Vikram Sarabhai Centenary

A Life Too Short: A Tribute to Dr. Vikram Sarabhai

International Day of Women and Girls in Science, 11 February

Gagandeep Kang: Virologist, Professor, Department of Gastrointestinal Sciences at Christian Medical College, Vellore, India.  First Indian woman to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.  At the forefront of COVID science.

Kiran Majumdar Shaw: Chairman-MD of Biocon India Group known for its breakthroughs in clinical research. The first Indian company to export enzymes to the United States and Europe, the first Indian company to gain the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the manufacture of a cholesterol-lowering molecule.

Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath: Chairperson at Centre for Neuro Sciences at Indian Institute of Science, who leads research that will help us understand and cure Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Tessy Thomas: Expert in ‘solid propellants’, which fuel India’s Agni missiles developed by Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO). Called Agniputri by media, after the missiles she has helped develop.

Ms J Manjula:  DRDO Outstanding Scientist, and Director, Defence Avionics Research Establishment.

Minal Sampath, Systems Engineer working on India’s mission to Mars. Anuradha TK, senior-most women officer at ISRO. Nandini Harinath, Project Manager Mission Design, Deputy Operations Director, Mars Orbiter Mission, ISRO. And the many other Mars-Mission Women.

Inspirations, one and all. And they are not the only women-achievers in science and technology.

But still such a minuscule number!

Not just India, but the world and Asia too have this challenge of attracting and retaining women in these fields.

For instance, worldwide:

  • Only 35% of all higher education students enrolled in STEM-related fields are female.
  • Only 28% of all of the world’s researchers are women

Recently, UNESCO Bangkok brought out a report on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education for girls and women in Asia, 2020. The report points to a cycle which hinders girls for pursuing STEM education and hence careers in science.  It highlights the reality that right from a young age, girls receive messages that these subjects are not suitable for girls. One of the issues is that girls do not see any role models of successful women scientists around them. Even when girls do take up this stream of education, there are several barriers to success—from discrimination, to having to handle multiple responsibilities outside the job, to glass ceilings.

It is in recognition of these challenges that the United Nations in 2015, decided that ‘In order to achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, and further achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution A/RES/70/212 declaring 11 February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science’.

The theme for this year is ‘Women Scientists at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19’. Indeed it is a matter of pride that so many women are indeed there—whether as researchers, as doctors, healthcare professionals or in manufacturing vaccines and medicines.

The journey has started, but there is such a long way to go. Leaving 50 per cent of humanity’s brainpower and entrepreneurial energies out of the search for fundamental scientific truths and putting these to the service of humanity, seems a sad waste indeed!

Make a resolution today to encourage a girl in science. Take her to visit a Science and Technology museum. Buy her a science kit. Take her on a visit to a Scientific Institution on its Open Day. Tell her stories of women-scientists. Gift her a book about science and scientists. In fact, gift a few boys some books about women scientists too!

Do anything, but do something…

–Meena

PS: Two books by women, to get the reading list started:

The Spark that Changed Everything. Veena Prasad. Hachette.

Fantastic Adventures in Science—Women Scientists of India. Nandita Jayaraj, Aashima Freidog. Puffin Books.

The Artful Microbes

2020 has been a year dominated by a microbe. In our imaginations and our nightmares, microbes are demonic creatures which have brought the world to its knees, and are out to destroy us. The year has served to reinforce a general belief that bacteria and viruses are villainous creatures behind disease and death.

However, as all of us who have gone through middle-school biology know, on the balance, microbes as a class do more good than harm.  To recall, microbes are microscopic living organisms, too small to see with the naked eye, There are five main groups of microbes: bacteria, viruses, fungi, algae and protozoa. While some of them do cause disease, many microbes are beneficial, and many, many others do neither active harm nor good but are an intrinsic part of the ecosystem. Bacteria and fungi in the soil are essential for decomposing organic matter and recycling old plant material. Some soil microbes form relationships with plant roots and help provide the plant with important nutrients like nitrogen or phosphorus. In fact, we could not digest food without gut bacteria. They protect against infection and even maintain reproductive health. We would not have bread or yogurt without microbes. Scientists say that nearly fifty percent of the oxygen that is present in the atmosphere is produced by bacteria.

But listings are boring and a picture is worth a 1000 words! And that is what the work of the American Society for Microbiology does for microbes through its annual ASM Agar ArtContest. The results of the 2020 edition were just announced. And they help us appreciate microbes–not through a recital of benefits, but by creating art with them!

First Prize: “Strands of Antisense” by Riley Cutler, Mississippi State University Starkville.

This annual contest is for ‘art created in a petri dish using living, growing microorganisms. Creators use either naturally colorful microbes, like the red bacteria Serratia marcescens, or genetically modified microbes, like the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae transformed with violacein genes, as ‘paint’ and various types, shapes and sizes of agar as a ‘canvas.’

The contest has been gaining popularity and this year’s edition had close to 200 countries entries from 29 countries across the world. It vindicates Fleming (yes indeed, the discoverer of penicillin) who was probably the first agar artist but whose art form was not appreciated in his time. He would fill Petri dishes with agar (a medium used to grow microbes), and then use a lab instrument called a loop to introduce different types of bacteria on different parts of the agar. He created many ‘paintings’ by culturing microbes of different natural colours—brown, violet, pink, yellow, orange etc., in Petri dishes, planned in way to create colourful patterns. It is not that simple either. Because he had to find the right colour of bacteria and dexterously introduce it on the exact spot on the dish. Further, different bacteria grow as different speeds, and hence have to be introduced at different times, with the end result in mind. And the art is ephemeral, because soon one bacteria will grow into another’s space and blur things out.

Second Prize: “Microbial Peacock: Balaram Khamari. Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, Puttaparthi, India

Agar art thus is not just about creating beautiful things where they are least expected. But today, is also being recognized as a part of the art curriculum in some countries, and incorporated into biology curricula in some, since it has the potential to help students learn so much about microbes in such a hands-on way.

Thank you ASM, for showing us beauty where we least expect it, for helping us to put things in perspective, and for providing a platform for art to take wings! In 2021, may we too be able to do this in our everyday lives! May the year bring victory over the ‘bad’ microbes!

–Meena

Though these words did not make it to any listings, here are two words without which it is impossible to study microbes:

agar

agar (noun) · agar-agar (noun)a gelatinous substance obtained from certain red seaweeds and used in biological culture media and as a thickener in foods.

Petri dish

A Petri dish is a shallow transparent lidded dish that biologists use to hold growth medium in which cells can be cultured, originally, cells of bacteria, fungi and small mosses. The container is named after its inventor, German bacteriologist Julius Richard Petri. It is the most common type of culture plate. The Petri dish is one of the most common items in biology laboratories.

Pics from: https://asm.org/Events/ASM-Agar-Art-Contest/2020-Winners

Trash Toy Story

The Matriarchs were groomed in the eighties with regard to ideologies, ideals, ideas and their chosen vocation—education and what is today called sustainable development. There were many khadi-clad people who inspired them and several of their generation. One such inspiration was Dr. Arvind Gupta, who received the Padma Shri last week.

Arvind Gupta, an alumnus of IIT Kanpur, has dedicated his life to popularizing science and making science education accessible–through demonstrating how everyday, low-cost materials can be used to teach science. His core belief is that children learn best ‘by touching, feeling, cutting, sticking — pulling things apart, putting them apart..’ and his mission is to empower educators to create simple toys and educational experiments using locally available materials—the ‘Toys from Trash’ approach.

We stand testimony to the fact that adults too find this fascinating—I can recall informal sessions at our Centre, where he would enthrall  all of us with a series demonstrations using drinking straws, balloons, ball-pen refills, match sticks, rubber bands etc., and suddenly things we had learnt years ago in our science classes, made sense at last!

In today’s world, when we increasingly think that quality education means high-tech, high-cost kits and labs and aids, the Padma Shri should in fact reinforce the message that quality education has little to do with money, and much more to do with the ingenuity, creativity and commitment of educators and teachers. A good way to encapsulate his message to educators is his motto:

‘The whole world is a garbage pit
Collect some junk and make a kit.’

Thank you Arvindji, from two people you have inspired!

Meena

PS: Do view his TED Talk: Turning Trash into Toys for learning, rated among the best education related TEDs by many.