Indian social innovator uses hands-on science education to nurture curiosity and creativity among poor children
(MA XUEJING / CHINA DAILY)
The best way to encourage a child’s learning is to feed his or her own natural curiosity, and that is what Ramji Raghavan has aimed to do in India with his concept of “Aah! Aha! Ha-ha!”
“Aah! Aha! Ha-ha!” is the mission of Raghavan’s nonprofit organization, the Bangalore-based Agastya International Foundation. Since 1999, it has set out to use hands-on science education to spark curiosity (Aah!), nurture creativity (Aha!) and instill confidence (Ha-ha!) among poor rural and urban children and teachers in India.
“Creativity is very important, yet it is not encouraged in school systems,” said Raghavan.
“The Aah! is important. When you go for that, your mind is awakened, your curiosity is stimulated, then you will be wondering how it happens,” he said.
“This is not simple, there is a lot of math and physics in it. But if you do find out by yourself, you will experience the famous Aha! effect. The third element is that you must love what you do, so that is the Ha-ha! element.”
Today, Aah! Aha! Ha-ha! has spread to over 10 million children and 250,000 teachers in India through Agastya’s 60 science centers, 200 mobile science vans and a 70-hectare campus visited by more than 500 students every day.
Agastya has initiated various educational programs like peer-to-peer training and won recognition in India and globally, including the 2013 Google Global Impact Award in India for its mobile learning program, Lab-on-a-Motorcycle.
Raghavan, now in his 60s, first had the idea many years ago to found a school to nurture creative thinking. He completed his own schooling in Rishi, a beautiful, sheltered valley in rural Andhra Pradesh, and was deeply influenced at a young age by the school’s founder, the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. At Rishi Valley School, Raghavan learned the importance of self-awareness and of transformation coming from within.
“But I was not practicing it,” he told China Daily Asia Weekly. Besides thinking about establishing a school, he also had the dream of becoming a successful businessman like his father, who was the CEO of many companies.
Raghavan, a London Business School graduate, reached the position of vice-president at financial services giant Citibank, with experience in markets including India and the US. He later became the director of the Europe-based Cedel Group in London and had an enviable life with his family in the upscale Kensington district.
“But I was tired with routines … I need freedom,” said Raghavan.
He also recalled that when he met Krishnamurti again in his 20s, the philosopher told him a story about a 40-year-old who had the chance to become Supreme Court Chief Justice but walked away to pursue something more important to him. The story planted a seed in young Raghavan’s heart, giving him the power decades later to find the essence of his life.
“To be an Indian, we are getting the rain, but someone needs to make the soil spongy. So, what we are working on is trying to make the mind spongy — to absorb,” said Raghavan, explaining that the government has provided a good environment for the organization to grow, to educate more people and to spark their creativity.
The literacy rate in India has been growing consistently over the years and stood at 74 percent as of the 2011 census, according to a report from India’s Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. Female literacy levels are around 65 percent, whereas the male literacy rate is over 80 percent.
Raghavan said that, rather than filling a glass with water, the organization seeks to raise the level of the ocean by a millimeter: It focuses on education for underprivileged children, making them question and wonder — just as Albert Einstein, at the age of 5, started to wonder about the invisible force in the world when he received a magnetic compass from his father as a gift.
“Almost everything you see has science in it,” said Raghavan, explaining why science experiments are a key element of Agastya’s education programs. Agastya, on its campus, also has its own model-making workshop called Vision Works, to design different experiments and models.
“Once you get the culture of innovation in the organization, these things begin to grow,” he said. “Just like the Chinese saying, ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom’.”
Raghavan considers the campus development to be one of Agastya’s major milestones so far. Located several kilometers from Kuppam, in the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh, the campus site was barren wasteland when it was bought in 2000. “There was not even a blade of grass,” he said.
Over the years, besides building the campus, Agastya has transformed the land into an ecology park with many Indian traditional medicinal plants. People can come to learn Ayurveda, one of the world’s oldest medical systems.
“Even a hundred years from now, long after my time, whether anything lasts or not, hopefully the campus and the greenery will still be there,” said Raghavan.
He said the foundation did not have enough money to build the campus initially, which inspired him to launch mobile science vans. Each van carries a set of equipment for scientific experiments and serves as a science lab for children and teachers. The idea was later expanded to the award-winning Lab-on-a-Motorcycle program.
Raghavan said many of his ideas come from people who participate in Agastya’s programs. One example was in 2000, when the foundation was planning a science fair in a village. The plan was to train government teachers to teach science experiments to children.
“We had to do the training on the weekend, so teachers did not come,” said Raghavan. “But the children were going to come on Monday — 5,000 children!”
Just as he was desperately trying to find a solution, a couple of Muslim girls approached him and said he could train them first, and then they would bring their friends to pass on the training.
The fair ended as a great success, Raghavan said. Afterward, he decided to develop this peer-to-peer teaching model into a program called Young Instructor Leader. There are now about 15,000 such young leaders, teaching other children. They have won science prizes even at a national level, despite coming from poor family backgrounds.
Similarly, Operation Vasantha centers, a night-time village community-run program, arose from Raghavan’s interview with a village girl, Vasantha, who enjoyed spending her nights teaching children. The centers are now in 400 villages.
But Raghavan said this is not enough, given there are some 600,000 villages across India. Interestingly, 70 percent of the teachers in this program are girls, making it an effective project for female empowerment.
Raghavan makes time to visit villages as often as possible and interview children and teachers to get direct feedback on Agastya’s impact.
One of his interviewees told him the science learning program had helped her build confidence. She later became the first girl in her village to attend an engineering college, inspiring some of her friends to do likewise.
Raghavan’s efforts have been recognized by organizations outside India, from international companies to academic institutions. He looks forward to cooperating with countries like China, including inviting Chinese innovators to share their ideas through the Imaginative Innovator series, a joint project between Agastya and the INSEAD Singapore business school.
Raghavan said his ultimate goal is to build a movement that creates curiosity “at a scale that has never been done before”.
Founder and chairman, Agastya International Foundation, India
1982: Postgraduate diploma in development studies, International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, Netherlands
1978: Master of Business Administration, London Business School, UK
1975: Bachelor of Arts in Economics, University of Delhi, India
1999-present: Founder and chairman, Agastya International Foundation
2016-present: Member, Central Advisory Board of Education, Government of India
2008: Member of Prime Minister’s National Knowledge Commission (Working Group on Attracting Children to Science and Math), India
1997: Director, Cedel Group, UK
1979-1992: Citibank, rising to vice-president
1978-79: Consultant, A.F. Ferguson & Co (accounting firm)
Awards and recognition
2017: Vocational Skilling Excellence Award, Rotary Club of Madras East, India
2016: Sandbox Catalyst Award, Deshpande Foundation, India
2016: Innovation for India, Marico Innovation Foundation, India
2011: People’s Hero Award, Confederation of Indian Industry (Southern Zone)
2009: Ashoka Fellow
Why do you put such emphasis on hands-on science experiments?
There is research that says the human brain, on average, retains in its long-term memory no more than 5 percent of a normal lecture, any lecture; 10 percent of what you read, 50 percent of what you see and hear, 70 percent of what you discussed with someone, 80 percent of what you have personally experienced, and over 90 percent of what you teach to others. Our foundation should focus on hands-on experiential learning.
What is your education philosophy as a father?
My daughter has not seen me as a banker because she was 7 years old when we came back to India. I was pretty rough, ruthless and money-oriented. She has seen me as a very different person at Agastya. I told her: “Don’t chase money, chase creativity. Don’t follow money, let money follow you. Be a good human being.”
Year of birth: 1955