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Stories About Us - Time Out Bangalore-June 2011
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Lab is a many-splendoured thing

There’s no room for mouthfuls of scientific terminology and long-winded theorising at Curiouscity, finds Priya George.

Consider a pendulum with a mass M, suspended at a distance L from a pivot. The moment this object, a bob, is displaced from its resting equilibrium position, the restoring force due to gravity will cause it to move in one direction, and this force, combined with its mass, will impel it in another. The period of swing “T” of this pendulum is a factor of “L”, the local strength of gravity “g” and, to a small extent, the amplitude of its swing, “theta”. “M” has no bearing on “T”. If you’ve employed this approach to explain oscillating masses to your kids, it’s fair to assume that by the time you get to “resting equilibrium position” and “restoring force due to gravity”, the young ones have assumed recumbent positions on the couch, removed from fanciful notions of amplitude and period of swing.

Instead, you might want to consider the method adopted by Shonali Chinniah and her associates at Curiouscity when they attempt to unravel the physics behind pendulums to kids: they suspend a bucket using 20 feet of rope from a tree and let it swing away. Later, they hand out potatoes of various shapes and sizes to the children and ask them to replicate the exercise, thereby demonstrating that “M” indeed has no effect on “T”. “We teach children how to observe, explore and come to their own conclusions after an experiment is conducted,” said Chinniah. “Our approach to teaching science is very hands-on; experiments are conducted by the children.”

Curiouscity was founded two years ago by a handful of scientists and teachers with the specific purpose of bringing science to kids without muddling their heads with jargon. “This isn’t meant to change the way science is taught in schools,” Chinniah quickly clarified. “We are only attempting to add to a child’s learning.” To this end, the programme that Curiouscity conducts doesn’t involve an exam. “Although I believe that memorising is an important aspect of learning, I feel learning should involve as much theory as practical knowledge,” she said. Co-founder Sukanya Sinha, a professor at the Indian Statistical Institute, insists that teaching children observation and encouraging curiosity is crucial. “We want to inculcate a questioning temperament that they can apply to everyday life and not just their studies,” she said. “The focus is to get children to experience science first hand.”

Curiouscity addresses the needs of children aged eight to 12 – they hold two-hour sessions through the year where children are encouraged to come up with ideas, find solutions to problems and design experiments. “We are not trying to better the kid’s grades or make him a science genius, we are trying to build a curiosity for science,” Chinniah said. “As long as a child picks up whatever he can in a class and tries something at home and is able to apply this learning in different ways, that’s learning enough.”

As soon as an experiment reaches its conclusion, the participants gather around to discuss the results and attempt to understand the underlying science. “The idea is to create an atmosphere where the kids can approach everything from scratch,” said research scientist and Curiouscity co-founder Utpal Chattopadhyay. “Hopefully, what they learn will stay with them for life.”

(June 2011) 

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