BALAJI SAMPATH

India,

In order to address low success and retention rates of rural children in schools, Balaji Sampath is spreading a new way of teaching science; one that encourages proactive learning at a level students can understand and effectively prepares a new generation of logical thinkers to shape the future of India.

This profile below was prepared when Balaji Sampath was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2005.

INTRODUCTION

In order to address low success and retention rates of rural children in schools, Balaji Sampath is spreading a new way of teaching science; one that encourages proactive learning at a level students can understand and effectively prepares a new generation of logical thinkers to shape the future of India.




THE NEW IDEA

Balaji is revolutionizing the way science is taught in India by introducing “Science Dialogues” into middle and high schools. Balaji’s methods are helping children change their perception of science as a difficult subject only for the very intelligent—a belief which has implications for their success completing school and consequently, their careers. Founded on the concept of “learning by doing,” Balaji’s curriculum is focused on helping students internalize concepts, an alternative to the traditional technique of rote memorization without adequate comprehension. The curriculum is currently implemented in schools by a team of volunteer demonstrators, most of them high-school dropouts. It brings the material to life through dialogues and lessons drawn from daily life, using simple tools kits and specially designed reading material incorporating stories, illustrations and experiments, often in fun cartoon forms. By overhauling the framework of traditional teaching techniques, Balaji is attempting to form a whole new generation of thinkers who can apply well-internalized, progressive principles to all aspects of life and become catalysts in the advancement and development of the nation.

In order to change how science is taught, Balaji realized he needs to address the knowledge base and perceptions of teachers. He is therefore restructuring intervention and incentive programs for teachers to encourage them to teach and learn at the same time.




THE PROBLEM

India’s public school system suffers from archaic teaching methods and few resources, especially in rural areas. School districts may have success in enrolling most of their children in schools, for example 95 percent in Tamil Nadu, yet have alarmingly high numbers of children who do not finish school. In rural areas, 13.5 percent of children drop out of primary school, 34.3 percent drop out of middle school, and 75 percent drop out of high school.

While there are a number of socioeconomic causes for such high dropout rates, the most fundamental reason is the poor quality of education and teaching techniques. The classroom is boring; especially for children from poor families with illiterate parents. Teaching is textbook-oriented and unattractive, partly because teachers are a product of the same system, lacking the confidence and comprehension to stray from the prescribed methods. The educational norm promotes rote memorization, with no encouragement to use problem-solving skills or implement learning by doing. This has a particularly adverse effect on the sciences, which are considered beyond the comprehension of average students, and remain the exclusive domain of the “very intelligent.” The elite academics who design the science curriculum have geared it towards a select few, who are then channeled into the country’s premier institutions to compete with students from abroad. To make matters worse, science is a “major” subject, so failing in science amounts to failing a class at the end of the academic year. After a couple of attempts, many students drop out of school with their self-confidence damaged. However, the reality is that they were never really given a chance to understand the material.

While some elite schools in urban India are trying to change the way science is taught, through expensively equipped labs and well-trained teachers, rural government schools continue to suffer. The problem is compounded by other disadvantages like the lack of qualified and motivated teachers and lack of basic infrastructure and adequate training for those teachers who are committed. The government, under its Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (Education for All) program, has recognized the need for change and has allocated resources for teacher training and new learning materials, but has not successfully implemented a strategy for improvement. Most teachers and schools are unable to utilize the government’s resources effectively because they lack creative suggestions of what is possible.




THE STRATEGY

Balaji uses a volunteer base of rural young people, most of them high school dropouts, who are trained in his simple but revolutionary teaching techniques and then sent to schools to teach classes and demonstrate methods to the teachers. Balaji’s program has been approved by the Tamil Nadu government, where he is working in 400 schools, and is poised to expand to the states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

Balaji has developed his low-cost curriculum and teaching materials with the help of a network of friends and former colleagues from his engineering school and an institute for education in the United States. This network of support, which also supports his initiative financially, is based on a group called AID-India which he helped build during the years he lived in the United Sates and now has 40 chapters in the U.S. and abroad. Balaji develops his materials after initial classroom sessions to learn how children understand different concepts, then tests and revises his teaching tools to make sure they are applicable in varied environments, especially in schools with low-income children.

Balaji’s “reach-and-teach” strategy involves a package of learning materials to communicate concepts based on children’s current levels of learning. These learning aids incorporate visual communication such as flip charts and videos, explain simple experiments with low-cost, easily available materials, and use dialogue sessions and an illustrated storybook series to reinforce concepts. Balaji’s Eureka Science Experiment Kit, a collection of 300 low-cost experiments covering all the topics, is very popular among students and teachers. In effect a mobile lab, the Eureka Kit, along with a training manual for teachers, is offered to schools at a minimal cost of Rs 5,000 (US$120). The focus of Eureka Kit experiments is to illustrate concepts rather than measure them, which Balaji believes robs students of the magic and visual appeal of science when introduced too early. Measurement comes at a later stage once the excitement of “doing science” is built up. Another popular teaching material is a series of affordable comic cartoon booklets explaining science concepts. One favorite is The Case of Walking Dog: An Isaac Newton Mystery, based on Newton’s Laws of Motion.

After he developed the teaching materials, Balaji created a program to train volunteers to disseminate and demonstrate his techniques and the use of his materials in schools. He used existing volunteer networks, primarily the Tamil Nadu Science Forum, with 15,000 volunteers across the state. Using some of these volunteers, Balaji formed small teams of high school dropouts who he trains to teach classes and sessions, demonstrating simple experiments using a “dialogue” approach. The volunteer begins the dialogue with a classroom by asking students to express their perception and understanding of a concept—for example, the ecology of the village pond. The volunteer then questions the basis of this understanding, and through simple experiments and subsequent discussions, lets the child navigate his or her own way to a logical, scientific conclusion.

At the same time, Balaji is working with teachers and plugging into government teacher training programs to enable educators to internalize his techniques. He has found that teachers are keen to upgrade their skills and incorporate new methods. Balaji plans to introduce a system of rotating teachers between schools, understanding that teachers fail to develop innovative methods because they teach most topics in just one class per year. It is only the following year that they teach the same topic again. Balaji’s vision is a system by which teachers rotate between different schools, teaching the same class in each school every semester. After a few classes, the teachers develop a better understanding of how children in different age groups think and what inputs they need. The teachers become more confident in their own abilities to teach their specialized topics. Balaji envisions supporting this program with the help of volunteer correspondence and encouragement by mail and Internet.

Balaji is training various citizen sector organizations to implement his techniques in their respective regions of focus, and is working directly with the state government and UNICEF. He is complementing his curriculum by establishing libraries and organizing science fairs in villages and reaching out to the most rural areas through science vans which move from village to village demonstrating his techniques. His curriculum is already being replicated in a few elite urban schools.




THE PERSON

Because his parents were often transferred to different locations for their government jobs, as a child Balaji was exposed to a number of schools across the country. In all these schools, one thing remained constant: his problem understanding scientific subjects because of ineffective teaching. Balaji’s family encouraged him to question the situation, and very early in life he devised his own system of analysis and arriving at solutions.

India’s problems, especially the riots of 1992, affected Balaji deeply, making him realize that he wanted to work for the public good. He became convinced that there cannot be any movement without volunteers. While a student at the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, he started volunteering in a small nearby village, coaching children in various subjects, especially mathematics and science. The village volunteer group he created in order to help him with his work was motivated enough to raise the money to start proper tutoring centers.

Higher studies took Balaji to the United States, where he started organizing fellow students and friends to raise funds for citizen sector organizations in India—knowing that such fundraising would help him start his community work once he returned to India. An initial group of 400 swelled to 1,000 and then more, evolving into chapters of AID-India across the world, which support more than 200 projects. Between 1995 and 1996, he helped mobilize considerable funds through this channel for a number of citizen sector organizations in India. He also works closely with “Asha for Education,” an organization of immigrant Indians in the United States who support significant educational initiatives in India, including the work of some Ashoka Fellows.

Balaji returned to India after a doctorate in electronics and communication engineering from the University of Maryland and lived in villages to learn how best he could help upgrade the education system and create a level playing field for rural children. Having spent years trying to understand the basics of science, he naturally turned to this topic for his current work.




RELATED: