Science for all

Print edition : November 04, 2011

A workshop for chemistry teachers in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, conducted by Vigyan Prasar to mark the International Year of Chemistry. - PHOTOGRAPHS: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Vigyan Prasar has been hugely successful in its efforts to inculcate scientific temper with humanism in Indian society.

HAVE you ever come across a possessed godman who performs miracles by burning a dry coconut with water? Or a saint who offers you ashes by rubbing his fingers on a coin? For a gullible devotee, the world seems to be steeped in magic and only those blessed with divine powers can understand it.

Magic it is, but not of the kind these godmen and saints propagate. They are the magic of chemical reactions that nature itself has encoded. Dry coconut burns when water is poured over it because of the sodium kept hidden in it. Ash is produced when fingers dipped in mercuric chloride solution are rubbed against an aluminium coin. This is then passed off as divine ash, or vibhuti, to the devotee. In an underdeveloped and semi-literate society like India's, scientific explanations of such miracles are unpopular.

It is this mindset that Vigyan Prasar, under the Department of Science and Technology of the Government of India, has been trying to change for the past 22 years. This, it does, through popularising science at every level of society. The year 2011 marks the International Year of Chemistr, and therefore, Vigyan Prasar has been encouraging experiments that denounce miracles. This it does by conducting workshops among chemistry teachers and through its literature and voluntary science clubs across the country. The scientific temper sought to be promoted thus is not devoid of humanism.

In fact, performing plain experiments is not Vigyan Prasar's only calling. It focusses on sensitising people against all forms of social evils and training people in the rural areas to work scientifically. In a developing country like ours, scientific temper would not only help promote development, but would also address social concerns like literacy, superstitions, and empowerment of women and children, said T.V. Venkateswaran, a scientist at Vigyan Prasar.

It is for this reason that Vigyan Prasar has adopted an approach that would seek to promote scientific temper with humanism in its Palampur declaration of 2011. The preamble to the declaration says: The spread and adoption of mankind's knowledge has been uneven due to prevalent schisms across the world and control over such knowledge by the elites. In such a bleak situation, fatalism prevails, reinforcing obscurantism, irrationalism and a retreat from reason. To advance in the scientific age, we must understand the meanings and imperatives of scientific temper which in essence is humanity's assertion of being in charge of its destiny and not a passive victim of the malevolence of stars'. Scientific temper thus becomes an imperative for a brighter future for our country.

The declaration says that scientific temper should be seen as the method of science that encompasses all human knowledge cutting across the natural and social sciences. Scientific temper is incompatible with theological and metaphysical beliefs. While science is universal, religions and their dogmas are divisive. Scientific temper cannot flourish in a grossly inegalitarian society where 50 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line and almost 70 per cent of our people, especially women, are functionally illiterate. Social justice, widespread education and unrestricted communication are prerequisites for the spread of scientific temper and, therefore, optimising the results of science and technology.

Science clubs

It is for this reason that a unique programme of voluntary science clubs has been conducted across the country. Volunteers who wish to open science clubs in any residential colony, school, or village can register their names with Vigyan Prasar, which then gives them resource materials to experiment and break common myths. It also introduces club members to the world of machines and electronics. Vigyan Prasar has not been supporting the clubs financially but only gives them the resource materials so that trained teachers can impart scientific knowledge. There are around 11,000 science clubs in the country dealing with subjects such as biodiversity, machines, chemical reactions, and water filtration.

VIGYAN PRASAR'S CAMPAIGN among children has helped them watch the solar eclipse safely.-

The experiments in the science clubs are contextual. We see what the social conditions in the area are and based on necessity, expose the people of the area to specific experiments. For example, if there are many godmen in the area, we train our volunteer to expose their magical tricks through chemical experiments in front of the people. In areas where there are high levels of water contamination, we impart knowledge about processes like evaporation and condensation to purify water. This is also taken up at a community level, said B.K. Tyagi, science club facilitator and scientist at Vigyan Prasar.

The thrust is on taking scientific experiments out of the esoteric domain of laboratories. We try to encourage experiments with the resource materials available in our vicinity, including those with which children play all the time, said Venkateswaran. Vigyan Prasar has been organising workshops for chemistry teachers in various places so that they can motivate schoolchildren to perform small experiments outside the laboratories. That in itself has proven to be a huge challenge as the teachers rely on textbooks instead of developing a scientific attitude, say scientists at Vigyan Prasar. Scientific temper means thinking scientifically, innovatively. But unfortunately our education system has been one that relies on rote learning. Our struggle is against that form of education of which not only students but also teachers are a part, Venkateswaran said. So, Vigyan Prasar, in its workshops, gives chemistry teachers a scientific kit. The kits have been prepared after long consultations and are in consonance with international standards.

Similarly, Vigyan Prasar has been focussing on gender-based programmes as a strategy to root out social evils. The primary areas of focus are water and health care, which depends on factors such as nutrition, livelihood, income generation, sanitation and hygiene. Technological communication is also one of its primary agendas; programmes such as technologies for rural artisans, small farmers, rural women and tribal people show that Vigyan Prasar gives top priority to welfare measures for the marginalised sections.

Birth of Vigyan Prasar

It was the need to sort out archaic superstitions regarding astronomical phenomena such as solar and lunar eclipses that led to the birth of Vigyan Prasar. One of its biggest successes has been the increasing number of eclipse watchers, an activity that was almost unheard of 20 years ago. It was through sensitisation programmes on national television, the Vigyan Prasar website, and popular literature that people got over their fear of eclipses and became interested in looking at them scientifically. Arwind Ranade, a scientist at Vigyan Prasar, says that it is for this reason that sensitising people about astronomy remains one of Vigyan Prasar's main responsibilities. Teaching children about telescopes, and encouraging them to perform experiments at exhibitions and workshops is part of this.

A VIGYAN PRASAR science club where women perform experiments outside the laboratory.-

Vigyan Prasar has tried to address the needs of the disadvantaged groups. One of its recommendations goes thus: Vigyan Prasar, a national institute for science and technology communication under the Department of Science and Technology, is committed to add its might in preparing materials appropriate for the unreached and disadvantaged groups on themes and topics related to science, technology, environment and scientific outlook. Initially the focus of efforts would be directed at members of women self-help groups, neo-literates and semi-literates, slow learners/first-generation learners and school dropouts, National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGA) workers, elected members of local selfgovernments, and so on.

When inclusive growth is the need of the hour, Vigyan Prasar's concerted efforts are slowly leading to the transformation of India. As a facilitator and resource facility centre, it has not only helped reach millions who are the least exposed to governance models, but has also induced people to think on the basis of reason. Only a cultural revolution can result in a true transformation, and Vigyan Prasar, by encouraging scientific temper in a superstition-bound country like India, is actually doing that. And this work is done in partnership with renowned institutions such as the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, and voluntary agencies such as the Tamil Nadu Science Forum and the National Institute of Open Learning. Science programmes on Doordarshan and All India Radio have multiplied, thanks to the increased focus on audio-visual learning. Information regarding experiments can be downloaded free from the Vigyan Prasar website.

Vigyan Prasar has achieved many successes, but it faces many challenges too. Reaching people in their mother tongue has been a problem. To promote scientific temper, we have to go beyond the 21 official languages. We have done some programmes in the Gondi and Bhil tribal languages, but that is not enough. We need to find good literate volunteers among these communities. This is very difficult. It is important to go beyond elementary science and popularise science in people's thinking, said Venkateswaran. The interest in science is gradually declining as India is growing. We have to put in an organised effort to tackle this.

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