Media Arts Lab
Perched on the highest point of the Kuppam Campus, amid the song and chatter of tropical birds, is Agastya’s flagship building that is home to the library and MediaArts Lab. The library provides a peaceful place with stunning views for students and teachers to conduct research using the growing digital and analog collection. The MediaArts Lab is a natural extension of Agastya’s multisensory approach to learning. The value added is unmistakable: a picture is worth a thousand words, and seeing really is believing.
It began with a brief photography workshop, conducted for a handful of Agastya’s instructors by Vasant Nayak. Photographic and multimedia artist, Vasant is a former instructor and graduate director at the renowned Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland, USA.
Hungry for more, following the initial photography workshop, Agastya’s teachers longed to use photography as a tool for teaching and for learning. As they began to understand the theory, equipment was needed to put all they had learned into practice. Nayak and his wife, U.S. immigration lawyer, Sheela Murthy, are major contributors to the MediaArts Lab through the MurthyNAYAK Foundation. Their funds have provided equipment and supported the lab’s programs. With the acquisition of digital camera equipment, computers were needed to download, integrate, manipulate, and edit the images and videos. The computers required additional hard drive space for image and video file storage. And color printers made it possible to examine, critique, and display images.
A fully outfitted production studio provides space, equipment, and instruction to students in the use of simple still and video cameras. Quality gear for photography, videography, sound recording, and digital editing equipment is also available for trained staff to produce promotional materials and document activities. There is an electronic piano and sound studio for creating and editing video soundtracks and audio projects. A projector and sound system allow for the work to be shared with larger audiences.
Instructors and caretakers of the MediaArts Lab are quick to make it clear that technology is only a tool, not the end-all, be-all that some sectors of society declare. Agastya’s strength lies in the simplicity of its ideas and methods: low-cost experiments, hands-on learning, and spreading these techniques through science fairs and mobile labs – whether delivered by van or bike or a method not yet employed. These are at the core of Agastya. These are what make Agastya unique and what draw us in. But technology can record and disseminate these ideas and methods around the globe accurately and efficiently, so that they can be used more widely for the benefit of children who otherwise have little to augment and support their appetite for learning. Here, instructors have the resources to produce short films on science experiments and ecological wonders, with help from instructors and staff skilled in these areas.
Society’s unfettered seduction by technology has prompted seminars on Agastya’s campus with experts in media from Mumbai and the United States. Brainstorming sessions have led to projects and systems that bolster rather than detract from Agastya’s core programs. Interns and graduates from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) are brought in to further Agastya’s teachers and children toward these goals. Agastya’s iCommunity project falls under the direction of the MediaArts Lab, as well, teaching digital literacy to village students who otherwise have no access to computers or the internet. They learn enough to at least understand what these tools are and the basics of how to use them, should they be able to further their studies or get work where they are used.
The MediaArts Center can help teachers document an experiment that requires days of observation under specific conditions, making it a lesson accessible to children who are on campus only for an afternoon. Master educators can instruct Agastya’s teachers on classroom techniques, taping their performance in the classroom and providing constructive feedback as they review the recording together. The lectures or demonstrations of visiting scientists can be video recorded to provide lesson templates today, and to archive for future teachers, or for those too far away to attend the master class. Young Instructor Leaders (YILs) can make attractive displays to accompany their entries in national science competitions, or to make enticing posters for science fairs. They are instructed in design and communications in the MediaArts Lab, and taught to integrate their photos, text, and graphics technically and aesthetically. The media instructors also have been working with children to collect stories from their parents and grandparents on folklore, home remedies, and other pieces of information that might otherwise be lost forever. They are preserving it for posterity.
A program sponsored by GE brings to campus Indian artists who still use traditional photographic methods and teach children in village schools about the chemistry, physics, aesthetics, and the magic of the camera, film, and darkroom. This background helps them to understand terms still used in photo software programs, like dodging and burning, which otherwise have very abstract meaning. The children learn quickly how to remove film from a camera and prepare it for processing in the total darkness that is required. They learn about India’s rich history of great photographers, using the very same techniques.
While the Agastya Foundation benefits from the expertise of the staff in the MediaArts Lab, who record, document, and archive certain events, first and foremost its purpose is to benefit the rural children. It does so directly, and by supporting Agastya’s instructors who dedicate their lives to teaching the children here.