Interview: Educator Connie Chow talks about the importance of hands-on education

31 Jul Interview: Educator Connie Chow talks about the importance of hands-on education

Educator and social entrepreneur Dr. Connie Chow of The Exploratory, Ghana, visited our Creativity Campus in Kuppam. As a part of our Sarga Samvaad initiative, the molecular biologist conducted two interactive workshops on viral structure and immunity that incorporated mathematics, art, and drama. Chow talks about her experiences during the workshop and her views on hands-on education and interactive learning.

How was your experience of interacting with children and staff at the Kuppam campus?

Fortunately, for me, this is my second visit to the Kuppam campus. The children are appreciative of and wide-eyed about the experiences offered to them. The staff was warm and welcoming, and very generous with their time. This visit confirmed to me once again what a magical place Agastya, and in particular Kuppam is – where the staff members exemplify and are devoted to opening minds and hearts, and where everyone can be serious about play.

It was lovely to reconnect with some of the staff I’ve met before, like Mr. Naresh who’s child-like excitement about making science tangible is infectious and delightful, and Mr Bala and his team who made my stay comfortable. I had insightful conversations with the team about education philosophy, and challenges of scale and measuring impact with the director, Mr. Kumar, and gathered new knowledge on hands-on science resources from Mr. Manju. I flitted about the new interactive exhibits and buildings such as the Sensorium like a child myself. 

Admittedly, as I could only speak English, so there was a linguistic challenge. Lucky for me, the multilingual staff members were able to translate (and I’m sure amend) for the students, and our mutual appreciation for science compensated for language barriers.  

What did you think about the children’s responses during the workshops? 

For the virus and immunity workshop at the BioDiscovery workshop, the children were initially hesitant and quiet. Once Ms. Chaya Devi began to translate and explain, and especially as they started to fold and assemble the printed viral capsid we provided, they became very engaged and even more focused than before, and were not shy about asking questions or asking for help from the instructors, each other and myself. They came alive when they had a chance to design and assemble 3D models of viruses out of play dough and simple materials, thanks to the help of staff members from the art center. They were all proud of their handiwork.

During the afternoon when they were given roles and asked to dramatize the process of viral infection and immune surveillance, they again exercised their creativity, and showed full involvement. It was gratifying to see (A bit of manageable chaos is a good sign!). The enthusiasm, smiles and answers during the reflection period suggested that the hands-on activities, and allowing students’ imagination to come into play, helped them learn about a complicated process. 

I’ve had the opportunity to walk in and observe a couple of student workshops in the Physics building as they were coming to a close, one where they were measuring the specific heat and another with younger students where they explored center of gravity using beautiful paper cutouts of birds and animals. Based on their body language – how they leaned in to observe, beamed and showed each other as they balanced the cutouts on their fingers, and enthusiastically raised their hands to answer questions – it was clear that students were in an open environment that is conducive to learning.

What did you think about our Kuppam campus?

It’s an educator and learner’s dream, bustling with activity and joy! The use of indoor and outdoor space, such as the math playground and exhibits at the physics center, and invitation to gather leaves and materials from outside the buildings, aptly remind students and teachers that learning extends beyond the classroom, the textbook and the individual’s mind. The whimsical sculptures and drawings everywhere invites imagination. 

As a molecular biologist, I am especially drawn to the new developments associated with the BioDiscovery Center. The DNA model is going to be a remarkable experience for students and teachers, as it helps one visualize the various components of its structure. It was wonderful to witness the collaboration between the art center and Ms. Rashmi Jejurika, where an introduction to a scientific concept inspired their use of simple objects to create a prototype to elucidate how DNA is packaged. Again, it is an example of the power of combining arts and science. I can’t wait to see the completed model the next time I visit.
Each component of the Kuppam campus is well knit and can work together to create unique learning experiences. It is also a tranquil place that allows for contemplation and rest, with its criss crossing paths, gorgeous views of the surrounding hills and colorful sunsets. I’m in awe of the care taken to rehabilitate and re-wild the area, and the variety of vegetation that are being tended to.

Last and definitely not least, the luxury of indulging in delicious healthy food prepared and shared with other visiting scientists, educators and interns, made for a satisfied body and fulfilling conversations ranging from physics to design to gender in science.  

4.What is your opinion on hands-on education?

Just like Agastya’s founders and educators, I am a strong proponent of hands-on, minds-on learning, and that is the main focus of The Exploratory as well. While learning about theory alone has worked for a certain population, hands-on education can make learning accessible to more people and invite new ideas, better thinking, when coupled with the right facilitation to advance the zone of proximal development. Through hands-on and experiential learning we can encourage students to trust in their own observations and build the confidence to communicate their ideas, engage in peer learning, and to make the connection themselves between concepts and experience to strengthen their learning. The more varied the ways a concept  is introduced, the more we open up students to make connections to their prior knowledge, so ideas and concepts come alive. 

How do you think children can effectively learn practical application of concepts?

The opportunity to engage in hands-on learning is of course foundational, as it brings two-dimensional ideas to life. Connecting scientific concepts to children’s experiences through stories and phenomenon in their environment is especially helpful. I know the Young Instructor Leaders program, and a program at the Innovation Center offer students the opportunity to solve problems in their community, using science and more. Similarly, the Solve for Ghana design challenge, one of the programs that The Exploratory holds, offer children an opportunity to see themselves as problem solvers, be creative, and understand in a concrete way how science and technology are tools that are of benefit to their society, creating an incentive to understand the concepts well enough to apply them in real life.

What do you think about Agastya’s work towards science education?

Agastya sets up an exemplary and enviable institutional model where robust educational philosophy and practices are realized to make science intellectually and materially accessible to a wide range of students and teachers, in particular those from rural and under resourced settings. It’s openness to experiment, invent, improve its offerings; to assist and also stay ahead of what the official educational standards demand; the organization and the staff’s attitude toward collaboration, are all to be applauded. 

As a scientist who appreciates the importance of arts and humanities in the education of the whole child, I feel Agastya’s commitment to making the arts center an integral part of the experience of students is essential. Much like the invitation to teachers and students to view everyday objects as opportunities and tools for investigation in science, the same applies to the creations there. In particular, the skills of observation and lateral thinking that the projects at the art center build, its emphasis on creativity, collaboration and empathy, coupled with practical skills and understanding of scientific concepts, are just what the field of science education, and education in general needs.

It has been a rich learning and rejuvenating experience for me professionally. I’m grateful for the chance to learn, experiment and look forward to bringing the ideas from Agastya and implementing some of them in Ghana at The Exploratory.