The Agastya International Foundation runs the largest science outreach program in the world, touching thousands of teachers and millions of Indian children since it was founded in 2001. Over the years, Agastya has built an ever-expanding network of science centers, making it easier for more children to experience the magic of science and the inquiring spirit of Agastya. For children living in isolated rural villages, however, such travel is usually out of the question; aside from the many logistical hurdles, it is simply too expensive.
The solution seems obvious now, and elegantly simple: if the children can’t get to Agastya, Agastya will go to them. This is precisely the role of the mobile labs, crisscrossing thousands of kilometers of road each day, ribboning the landscape of rural India. Each mobile lab is loaded with science models and low-cost experiments, bringing them to under-resourced schools. Two knowledgeable, enthusiastic Agastya teachers accompany each van to show how the models work and explain the science behind them.
The teachers aboard Agastya’s mobile labs bring more than subject-matter expertise; they expose these poor, rural children to an entirely new way of thinking, awakening an infectious spirit of inquiry. Children are encouraged to be curious, to ask questions, and to explore the world using their own five senses and a rational frame of mind. The bright flash of a chemical reaction becomes a teachable moment, a chance for teachers to move from wow! to why? and how?
The teacher from Agastya might explain using a three-dimensional model, showing the structure and composition of the molecules that flashed. Students begin to understand concepts that were harder to decipher on the pages of their textbooks. The model is passed around, as the children turn it over in their hands, examining all sides. Through this hands-on, experiential learning, all of their senses are engaged and they discover how and why things work the way they do. In short, Agastya’s mobile labs bring science to life. Abstract concepts become real – understandable in a way that’s almost unthinkable in the world of rote learning and exams.
The first time an Agastya mobile lab comes to a village, the reactions are unpredictable. Children are drawn to the bright-colored, fanciful murals on the sides of the vans, but they often take their cues from adults, who tend to be more skeptical and reserved at first. In the early years, teachers reported that it was hard to gain the trust of villagers in some of the more remote areas. Locals were on their guard. Who were these outsiders and what was all this strange equipment? Were the science demonstrations some kind of trickery? In one tiny hamlet, villagers tried to break the windshield of the mobile lab, convinced the Agastya team was up to no good, and apparently frightened by the unfamiliar technology.
Persevering, Agastya’s mobile lab teams have gained the trust of the rural communities they serve. And now, when the village children see an Agastya van, they flock around it excitedly, eagerly anticipating the magical world of science to which they have grown accustomed. During night visits, adults see for themselves what the fuss is about. Communities and the village elders learn about the importance of ecology, the value of Ayurvedic plants, and other lessons useful in their lives. Whole families gather at a central location, often illuminated only by the lanterns the vans carry. They learn from Agastya’s instructors and share their own knowledge about the local plants, as well. They participate in some of the same experiential, hands-on learning as their children, lowering their suspicions and having fun, in spite of themselves. Each time a mobile lab visits, the rate of scientific literacy goes up, and parents become more supportive of their children’s education.
Mobile labs are a cost-effective way to spark the imaginations of millions of children in rural India. In a single year, a mobile lab can reach 9,000 to 10,000 children, for a total of more than 20,000 exposures, and 300 exposures for teachers. With the ever-growing number of mobile labs on the road, Agastya can serve more children every year. And as Agastya’s presence spreads to other regions of India, millions more children will be reached. The mobile labs radiate outward from Agastya centers, bringing scientific enlightenment and cultural education to an entire generation of India’s rural children.