Ramji Raghavan’s vision is to build an India of tinkerers, problem-solvers and creators who are humane, anchored and networked. In order to realize this, Ramji and his organization, Agastya International Foundation, have worked to provide teachers and out-of-school and at-risk children access to hands-on science that arouses curiosity. With a focus on moving from ‘teaching’ to ‘learning’, the foundation has developed innovative approaches like the pioneering Science Park in Andhra Pradesh, mobile science vans that go into the rural areas in neighboring Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. His work has reached around 700,000 children and trained 40,000 teachers.
The New Idea
Ramji realized that there is a conspicuous deficiency for the disadvantaged in India – and this deficiency begins with life skills that education should provide. His vision was to create change through a movement rather than an institution – an approach that is very different from the existing strategies of education.
Understanding that to sustain the movement, he would need to take his model to the people rather than putting the onus on them to use it, he pitched his entire strategy on creativity and innovation at their doorsteps. It was all aimed to create a sense of excitement for learning among children in rural areas, and to train teachers to better harness this excitement for learning in the classroom.
While many other players in the field of education have sought to innovate on the existing rote learning methods of the Indian government schools or completely reach children through non- formal education, Ramji’s innovation lies in the way he makes science come alive to students that would never otherwise have access to the materials, knowledge and excitement that comes with seeing science in front of one’s own eyes or doing experiments with one’s own hands.
This innovation first came alive in the Science Park that Ramji has developed in Kuppam (a dry and arid South Indian town on the Andhra Pradesh – Karnataka border). Here Agastya International Foundation has built an innovation laboratory that has pedagogy and curriculum to take experiential science with a telescope, models of the solar system and a large number of simple but ingenious experiments to demonstrate various aspects of science. This park is a model of how reforestation (of arid land) can be used for education. Thus trees and foliage have been planted to become educational mazes. The park also has a life science centre and other innovative technological spaces that children can come and have fun in while undergoing experiential learning. The science park is the axle of innovation that feeds ideas and experimental designs to the next link the in distribution chain, the mobile labs and fairs. Ramji envisions a complete national network of mobile science education that has an exponentially increasing reach beyond the science park that he has established.
Further Agastya holds several science fairs in the science park and in the community. These fairs are held and facilitated by 14- to 16-year-old "young instructors". This is an opportunity to increase their own self-belief and develop leadership and communication skills by teaching other children. The young instructors not only enjoy teaching other kids, but develop much deeper clarity of concepts, and strong regard in their communities. In general it has been noted that for children who participate in these fairs confidence and curiosity increases, while learning and retention happen at a much faster speed than through traditional and restrictive instructor-listener approach. For many poor children who have not seen a lab or performed an experiment, the experience of an Agastya science fair is life-changing. An example of this is a science fair held in the city of Hubli (Karnataka) were 10,000 children attended the fair that was facilitated by 140 young instructors.
One of the most innovative and successful idea nurtured by Agastya International Foundation is that of the mobile science labs. These labs are essentially remodeled vehicles (donated by leading scientific institutions in India) with state of the art equipment and technology, as well as two energetic instructors, trained by some of India's top scientists and educators, who engage about 100 children and five teachers with simple learning tools and experiments. The Mobile Labs, synonymous with creative learning, are replacing boring lecture based lessons with stimulating hands-on and fun learning. And the total cost of this is under Rs. 100 ($2) per child. These mobile labs, which have made science education accessible to thousands of children are currently deployed using a regional strategy in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharastra and Tamil Nadu. His hub and a spoke model of using the labs to increase the reach of his curriculum has not only made learning fun, but has ensured that millions of people can access digital technology. Ultimately, the Mobile Labs' appeal is not just as a resource but also an innovative approach that local teachers can learn and use even after the labs have moved on to the next village. Thus ideas such as a home laboratory for single-teacher schools and a film on hands-on experiments to be broadcast over satellite have emerged from the mobile lab experience.
Ramji believes that in order to ensure a systemic and lasting change to the way children can access science and life education, teachers and educators should also be roped into the excitement. This insight has been the cornerstone to the Foundation's teacher training programs aim to diffuse and propagate creative-thinking and problem-solving skills. Agastya team employees out of the box approaches to transform teachers, for example, by offering modules that integrate learning and knowledge across subjects, creating dialogue and interactive spaces between student, parents and teachers and bridge the gap between teacher training and the school classroom. This has truly been a transformative space, resulting in teachers innovating in their teaching methods in school, using low cost materials to create excitement and retain children.
The results of all of this are increasingly becoming visible, as seen in increases in students' questions, spurt in model-making and promotion of science centres by education authorities. In some villages, out-of-school children who work during the day make time to attend mobile-lab classes in the evening, showing a hunger for learning and a burgeoning creative spirit. Proactive governments like the Karnataka government are expanding their operational funding for mobile labs etc.
In fact, Ramji has been invited by the Government of India to explore joint possibilities of expanding the successful Agastya approaches to other inaccessible rural setups of India. He sees the government as one important partner for disseminating curriculum and finding new spaces to expand his science parks. Innovative ideas such as using the railway networks etc are being explored. In doing so the focus has also been to provide an affordable education model that can be scaled and replicated anywhere in the world.
As the Indian government has a strong focus of resources on a small, educated urban elite group of the engineers and scientists, it continues to ignore the country's largest population—the rural communities, which generally lack access to adequate primary and secondary education. It is estimated that 13 million children under the age of 15 are not enrolled in school, most of whom are from rural areas, and a majority of whom are girls driven into bonded labor or domestic work due to extreme poverty. Additionally, a dropout rate of nearly 60% between grades 1 and 9 indicates that even those that make it to school often don't make it through.
While there is rapid advance of the Indian economy, these marginalized children are still far from being educated and empowered. Thus the gap between the urban and rural communities is still growing.
This inaccessibility to education could be attributed to two main factors. Firstly there is a gross inadequacy of existing knowledge infrastructure. According to the statistical yearbook of the Education, Government of India, 31% of the schools in rural areas do not have a roof on their head, leave alone laboratories and other knowledge and skill enhancement facilities. Distances to schools in many places are also very large and inaccessible.
Further the quality of teaching staff is also very low. Most teachers receive little or no training. This coupled with extremely poor compensations and disproportionate teacher – student ratio has resulted in extremely low motivation and skill in teaching staff.
Secondly, even if students circumvent the lack of infrastructure, the rigid curriculum and pedagogy followed is responsible for lack of retention. The focus in most of these schools is on rote rather than hands on learning. Further the emphasis is on passing exams rather than actually understanding and imbibing knowledge or unlocking creativity and curiosity. The resultant fallout is that the education is boring, rigorous and very often that alien to the child.
There have been a few initiatives attempting to try to break these moulds. However they have either died down or not taken off beyond a point; some of the glaring reasons being that they were rigid in their approach, involving children, parents and communities only as recipients rather than change agents themselves. Hence the momentum of these initiatives could not be sustained.
Beginning with promoting creative ways of learning science and stoking the spirit of inquiry, the Agastya Model expanded to promote Integrated Humanistic Education which involves experiential learning of ecology and environment, art and culture, science, and through this integrates the theory behind these experiences.
All of Ramji’s work has been based on fostering a spirit of creativity and problem-solving skills among children and teachers to produce changes in rural communities, such as raising productivity, reducing poverty, and generating sustainable development in harmony with the environment. Agastya International Foundation has incorporated interactive, hands-on, experiential learning—delivered with care, love and commitment.
Ramji currently has a regional hub and spoke stratergy in terms of using the Kuppam science park in Andhra Pradesh as the distribution and innovation area for new experiments to mobile labs and science fairs. When he spreads the idea at a national level the science parks will act as experimentation centers to develop regionally relevant curriculum such as working on water evaporation in desert climates and tectonic plates in earthquake zones. The curriculum and experiments will then be distributed to district based science centers that will also act as rallying points to teach the teachers, be they peer educators or professionals. There would be about 600 of these district science centers acting as hubs for spokes of mobile labs nationally. Finally the mobile labs will be both road and rail based to take advantage of the existing transportation infrastructure.
This three tiered strategy of using the parks as pedagogical development axels, the district science centers as the distribution hubs and the mobile labs as the spokes that reach to all students on a national level is already being adopted by the federal government. Through his participation in the working group on the National Knowledge Commission Ramji has partnered with the Indian government to spread his strategy nationally, the government has already sent consultants down to his science park in Andhra Pradesh to figure out how to set up similar programs on a regional level in Rajistan and Gujarat. He will use the government to leverage his approach as a universally accepted method to disseminate and develop this type of science curriculum.
Ramji is also looking to partner with existing citizen sector organizations to host the district science centers where he can introduce his methodology. He is finding that the most fruitful area of collaboration is with private entrepreneurs who have identified his work as both pioneering and innovative enough to pledge significant financial backing. In this manner he will continue to build a broad coalition at the national level of government, citizen, and private sector organizations that all have a stake in seeing his approach succeed.
From the beginning of Agastya Foundation, Ramji has recognized that in order to actually revolutionize the education system to function in a new way he would have to involve all stakeholders including government, children, teachers, parents, educators, sponsors and community members in the process. The science park at Kuppam is an example of the manner in which he has been able to partner regionally. The entire land was donated by the government of Andhra Pradesh, the entire learning pedagogy has been developed in with help from leading scientists, technological experts, and academicians from India and around the world. Scientific and technological institutes like ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) have also provided infrastructure support. Further Ramji has been able to build financial partnership with both the state government and leading corporate and philanthropic support.
Supported by Ramji, the Agastya team has also activated the benefited communities themselves to be the vehicle of change. The teachers undergoing training and the peer instructors of the science fairs are a brilliant example of the beneficiaries reinvesting in their own learning. This creates a virtuous cycle education where teachers are more open to experimentation and learning along with their students.
Further Ramji has been able to build a support network for Agastya International Foundation of an eminent group of advisors from business entrepreneurs, scientist and biologists, a Nobel laureate, to academicians and government officials. Further he has successfully nurtured a second line of leadership to take forward the work and mission of Agastya International Foundation on a national and global scale.
Ramji Raghavan had all the right beginnings of making it on the top of the corporate ladder. He did his masters in business administration (MBA) from London Business School, came back to India and joined Citibank. He worked for Citibank in many nations, becoming vice-president of mergers and acquisitions in 1993. He then left Citibank to found a broker dealer firm in New York with a Mexican billionaire and returned to London later as an advisor to the CEO of Cedel Group, a leading clearing agency for global securities. By then, however, traditional ways of thinking were breaking down in his mind.
Ramji was a product of Rishi Valley School in Andhra Pradesh, a school which is still known for its holistic education. He had been influenced considerably by the philosophy of this school and that of its mentor, J. Krishnamurthy. This emotional association to his mentor kept pulling at him. Hence in London, he renewed his association with Gopi Warrier, chairman of the Ayurvedic Company of Great Britain and a deeply spiritual person. "Gopi told me that I lived in a closed world," quoted Ramji (in an interview with a national journal). "He asked me to come out into the open world and get in touch with society." Ramji came back to India with a firm resolve to start something along the lines of Rishi Valley School.
He was looking for people to assist him in his project. His father K.V. Raghavan, former chairman of Engineers Indian and a major influence in Ramji's life, helped out with his experience and contacts. P.K. Iyengar, a relative and former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, was one of the first people they asked for help. Iyengar persuaded Ramji to give up the idea of a school.
Iyengar firmly believed that starting another school was not of much use. Rather what was needed was to change the ways of thinking of large numbers of people in the villages. He believed that by bringing scientific thinking into the villagers, one could transform rural India. Starting a school was easy. To change the mindset of large numbers of people was not.
However this was a challenge that greatly excited Ramji, and together with Iyengar and other thinkers he began to sow the seeds of the Agastya legacy. Using his firm resolve and great networking skills he managed to enthuse the then chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Mr. Naidu, who donated the land at Kuppam, which was the launching pad of the Agastya movement.
It is these skills coupled with his visionary foresight that Ramji is using to achieve the vision of Agastya Foundation, to spark the scientific temper, spirit of enquiry and learning in every child in India!