Anjum Unwala: Simplify Science
Mid-Year Public Progress Report
Anjum Unwala is partnered with Lok Mitra to encourage critical thinking through science. As a graduate of Finance and International Business from New York University. With Lok Mitra, Anjum has strengthened the community science center, started a Frisbee team and assisted with the coordination of a local children’s festival ‘Rang Mela’. As she says, “The villagers often ask me if I receive some sort of certificate for completing the Fellowship, but I don’t see the need for a piece of paper when the experience itself is the reward.”
Lok Mitra & Community Background
Twenty years ago, Chaitanyabhai and Sonalbhen Bhatt, found themselves searching for a village in the Sorashtrian area of Gujarat to start a kindergarten, or bal mandir. They settled on Dhedhuki, a community of mostly uneducated farmers whose land was both nutrient and water deprived. Gradually, Chaitanyabhai and Sonalbhen’s work expanded beyond the early education of Dhedhuki’s toddlers to a primary school, children’s creative arts group dubbed Killol and to watershed work in Dhedhuki and surrounding villages. Eventually, these work areas combined under the heading of the new community organization, Lok Mitra, which has become a mainstay of this rural region.
Today, Lok Mitra works with the people of eleven villages, including Dhedhuki, but their impact extends far beyond both those villages and their original fields in education and watershed management. Although Lok Mitra currently works on income generation solutions for struggling regional farmers, they also continue to run Bal Mandir, Killol, Dava khannu (or pharmacy), and a newly added Alternative Education School for 7th grade pass students who have fallen through the cracks of the Indian education system. Six months ago, Lok Mitra also added the Science Room and Mobile Science Centers to its education portfolio for primary school students in order to promote critical thinking and an appreciation of science that is often lacking in schools where science resources are not available or used.
Lok Mitra employs a shramdaan policy in their endeavors to encourage the villagers to work in the projects that benefit them so as to give the locals rather than the organization ownership of the results. This participatory approach is noticeable not just in the income generation and watershed areas of Lok Mitra, but also in Killol, where the children are responsible for their activities and conduct under the guidance of a teacher. Shramdaan, however, is just one, albeit important, aspect of Lok Mitra’s philosophy, which in innumerable, yet often subtle ways, has benefitted the villagers. Lok Mitra, particularly Chaitanyabhai and Sonalbhen, encourage an outside-of-the-box approach to problem solving within the community for social good.
My community in Dhedhuki as well as the surrounding villages never ceases to amaze me. The Dhedhuki villagers, immediately welcomed me into their homes with an endearing mix of curiosity and kindness as well as a love for stuffing guests full of plate sized millet bread called rotla. The two room village houses shelter both livestock and families in a manner typical of Soroasth, and doors are best left opened so that neighbors can wander in and out of homes to visit at ease. The notion that I can enter my neighbors’ homes at will and uninvited, a concept previously foreign to me, is intriguing and also helpful in my pursuit of understanding the struggles and successes of my community. In my first few months in Dhedhuki, much of my time was spent chatting with women or playing pickup games of Ko and Kappadi in the streets with village children in an effort to form friendships with them despite my poor Gujarati language abilities. Although many of the village children now pursue education beyond the 7th standard, the lack of education among many village women and, therefore, its negative impact on the women’s confidence as well as their ability to guide their children in school is one that I find extremely troubling.
Initially, my project was to expand the use of the newly created Science Center (located conveniently in a room donated by the Dhedhuki Primary School) and the Mobile Science Cars to both Dhedhuki primary school students and non-Dhedhuki primary school students. Because science education in India, particularly in villages, is so weak due to a lack of laboratory resources, Lok Mitra found it necessary to provide laboratory equipment in both the Science Center and the Mobile Science Centers that corresponded to both textbook experiments found in 5th-7th grade science textbooks and experiments teachers and students created. Teachers would bring their classes to the Science Center for the entire day to do science experiments with the assistance of myself and a Lok Mitra teacher. If that was not possible, any teacher and two of their students could come to Dhedhuki to cycle a Mobile Science Car back to their school to do experiments in their own classroom. Additionally, my project included the unique component of encouraging village members to utilize the Science Room and Mobile Science Centers to promote critical thinking to solve their problems.
However, over the last six months the response from the teachers has been relatively weak and the Mobile Science Cars have only been taken by a few schools, in situations where it is unclear whether the teachers actually utilized the materials in the Cars. Although the Science Center and Mobile Science Cars should help students understand science, particularly the science in their everyday lives, I believe that in its essence, the emphasis on science is just a method to encourage critical thinking within village students who are rarely taught to think on their own. The proper utilization of both these resources could provide students with important life skills and a better understanding of both math and science.
Since my “actual” project has gotten off to a late start, I have spent the last six months trying to build relationships with Dhedhuki’s school children, their families, and other villages’ children. This included trekking through the Little Rann of Kutch with Dhedhuki’s school children as well as five other villages’ primary school students, assisting in the planning and implementation of the children’s festival ‘Rang Mela’, traveling with the Killol children for their holiday-card selling trips, and cooking with four teenage boys who are part of Lok Mitra’s newly created school. Additionally, Rushi Sanathra, my partner Indicorps Fellow and I have started an Ultimate Frisbee team in our village to encourage teamwork and sportsmanship in the school children.
Although my main focus is advancing the hands-on science education in this village, I have also been assisting my co-fellow Rushi Sanathra on Lok Mitra’s income generation program which uses the process called “MOVE”, or Market Oriented Value Enhancement. The income generation program works with the poorest families in three villages to help them start their own small businesses to supplement their income. In this project, I have been working primarily with women, as they tend to be more open to discussing issues with me.
Encouraging critical thinking in students through science and math is, I believe, the overarching goal of my project. However, that also means it is a work in progress since critical thinking is a concept which is not easily taught in an area where memorization is the standard. I spent much of the first half of my fellowship building bonds with the students and their families and I hope that those relationships will increase the interest in the Science Room and the Science Cars. Over the last few months, I have taught in a Diwali science camp in the Science Room to 5th, 6th, and 7th graders from Dhedhuki and surrounding villages. I have also taught science experiments to Dhedhuki’s Primary School students in the Science Room, and helped two students cycle one of the Mobile Science Cars to their village school where I also taught science experiments for a few days.
The bulk of my time in the Science Room, however, has revolved around the Science Club, which a Lok Mitra teacher and I started in the Dhedhuki Primary School. Originally, the Science Club centered on explaining every-day science in the students’ lives, but gradually it has evolved into more of a science workshop. In this science workshop atmosphere, the teacher and I do science activities, such as making kaleidoscopes, and creating math tools which they do not have the opportunity to make in school. Although the adults in the community are not involved in the Science Club, a fact which I hope can change, several of their children help arranging the science equipment within the room and organizing the experiment materials. They also will try the science experiments or activities the teacher and I hope to do with the Science Club or in the Science Room.
At this point in my Fellowship, I feel incredibly pressed for time since my time in Dhedhuki is limited. The other teacher and I have planned the following workshops and camps for the next few months in the Science Room and with the Mobile Science Cars:
• April 15-May 5 8th Grade Science with the current 7th graders during the Gradation period in which the teachers are grading exams and, therefore, not teaching any new material
• May 10-May 22 Science Camp for 5th, 6th, and 7th graders from Dhedhuki and neighboring villages
• May 23-May 24 Science Room and Mobile Science Car Workshop for teachers to explain how to use the materials in the Science Room and Mobile Science Cars
• June 15-July Taking several Science Club students on a tour to different schools to have them teach science experiments during school to other students
• April-July Continuing the Science Club twice a week
• Ultimate Frisbee practice every Saturday, at least one tournament in Ahmedebad in April or May
• Assisting with MOVE-the income generation process
Trying to translate my reasons for becoming an Indicorps Fellow is rather difficult since they seem abstract in retrospect. I knew the NGOs Indicorps choose to work with were pre-screened and also had concrete projects that interested me. Community immersion, meaning living with and like the community you are working with (be it with village or slum), also attracted me to Indicorps.
I was aware that issues of poverty affect broader concepts of education and income generation in many communities, particularly those in developing nations. However, because my exposure to those issues was limited to viewing them in the third person on CNN or reading about them in the Sunday newspaper, I believe I felt pity for those communities rather than understanding. During my Fellowship, because of the stress placed on treating my community like my family, I have replaced the pity with an attempt to understand the struggles the villagers have daily, and how it affects their mentality and traditions.
Although I realized the fact that I am American would affect the villagers’ perception of me, I didn’t realize it would imply to the villagers that I am only able to use a computer and speak English. The culture in my region encourages blunt honesty that can be rather insulting to outsiders. If anything, trying to move past this has made me reevaluate my own tendency to stress other people’s opinions of me over my own, yet I also appreciate the villagers’ frankness. Adapting to the physical hardships of rural India is relatively easy when there is no other option. Managing the daily mental struggles of working in a wholly different community, however, is where the challenge lies. Dhedhuki has not only pushed me to improve upon my flaws, but has also made me realize my own ability to adapt to different situations and contribute in difficult circumstances. The villagers often ask me if I receive some sort of certificate for completing the Fellowship, but I don’t see the need for a piece of paper when the experience itself is the reward. My community also often asks me where my life will be after Indicorps and Dhedhuki to which I say, “I don’t know, but I hope it leads me back to India.”
Anjum Unwala, August 2009 Indicorps Fellow