Although Agastya's roots are firmly planted in Indian soil, its reach is increasingly global. Its innovative teaching methods have sparked curiosity in millions of Indian children, but also have caught the attention of scientists and educators from around the world, who hope to replicate Agastya's success in their own countries.
Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) are among Agastya's most enthusiastic international supporters. With a foot in both worlds, NRIs are well positioned to see Agastya's potential to transform education in their native India, and in the world beyond. One such supporter is Dr. Sridhar Jagannathan, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who now serves as Vice President of Technology Strategy and Partnerships for Intuit, Inc., the software firm.
Dr. Jagannathan learned about Agastya by accident, during one of his many business trips to India. One day in Bangalore, he came upon a newspaper ad for an Agastya science fair at the military grounds. He had never heard of the Agastya Foundation, but he had some time, and decided to check it out. What he saw made a big impression:
"So I went over there, and I was surprised to see streams of buses coming in, and kids getting off and standing in long lines to enter this really large tent… There were lines and lines of tables with kids standing by and older kids teaching younger kids on what a particular experiment was. To me, that was revolutionary. I was absolutely fascinated!"
Ramji Raghavan was there that day, and the two started chatting. Dr. Jagannathan told him, "I love all of this, but I see a flaw. You know, the earth is covered by 75% water, and I hardly see anything water-based out here, and I think you should focus on water, as well." Ramji agreed, and called his team together for a brainstorming session that very evening.
At the meeting, Dr. Jagannathan sketched his vision of a Maritime Center for Agastya, where children could explore a series of experiments about water, the mechanics of water, wave propagation, and so on. They talked about building a tsunami tank to simulate the origins and effects of these powerful ocean waves, like the Indonesian tsunami that struck India in September, 2009. That model has been built, and Dr. Jagannathan is working with the Agastya team to make other experiments that will illustrate why ships float, even if they are made of steel or concrete; what it takes to make a person float; and what causes boats to become unstable, and capsize.
Why was this high-level computer executive so interested in water? As Dr. Jagannathan explains, this stems from his background as a naval architect and ocean engineer, and his long experience with seaborne structures like ships and floating platforms -- not to mention some highly unusual and creative applications of his skills: designing a floating launch pad for space rockets, a floating golf green, even floating bridges and airports. That explains his fascination with water -- but what was it about Agastya that captured his imagination?
Experiential learning was a big part of it. Agastya encourages experimentation and lets students indulge their curiosity, Dr. Jagannathan explains, contrasting this with the traditional model of education, that forces students to approach learning from a theoretical standpoint before they understand things on a practical level.
"The traditional model has it absolutely backwards, which is why we've got people who drop out of schools, who are bored, who have dysfunctional kids -- and the reality is, the Steve Jobs of the world, Bill Gates of the world, they were restless in their class because the structure of education is a recipe for boredom. It's the way in which we kill people's imagination."
Hands-on learning stimulates curiosity, he says, and is the antidote for boredom. "People learn because they are curious," Dr. Jagannathan argues. He'd like to see children come home from school excited and energized, not stressed and anxious about the enormous books they have to memorize for their next round of exams:
"The greatest fun of school should be learning. 'Mom, I learned something wonderful at school today! Let me show you!' The kid takes out a catapult and says, 'I learned how to make this stone go from 100 feet to 1,000 feet!' Now, there is a 10X in innovation, right? We have killed out all creativity and fun of learning, and we need to bring it back -- and Agastya is a great tool to bring fun back into learning."
How does Dr. Jagannathan know that hands-on learning works? Through experience.
As a visiting professor at IIT Madras, several years ago, Dr. Jagannathan taught airfoil theory to aeronautical engineers.
"One of my assignments was: I want you to build paper airplanes… build a paper airplane and see how far you can fly them. People were quite stunned, at IIT…it's relatively formal. People were surprised to see the professor and his students flying planes. People need to have fun, and when they have fun, they will learn at an amazing pace -- and so I think Agastya's message of learning through fun is the key."
Well said. It's just the kind of creative thinking that is helping the Agastya Foundation to transform education in India, one child at a time.