Ramji Raghavan

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow Since 2008


This profile was prepared when Ramji Raghavan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.
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.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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