Building grass-roots student innovators

A programme to create tinkering labs is an attempt to augment current systems of education with a vision to nurture a million children to become neoteric innovators


Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Ineed to bring my mother’s washing inside every time it starts raining, which is several times every day! Can there be no way to do it automatically?” says a class X student. “Can we biologically purify air in our home, can we grow the good microorganisms in our home to purify home air?” asks another student, this one from class IX. The answers are an unequivocal “yes”.

While very few of us would ask or ponder over such questions going about our daily lives, these and many similar “out-of-the-box” questions are considered by students and children when they are given the chance to explore problems and unusual solutions. Children are born inquisitive and imaginative, and often require only a platform to nurture their creativity.

With the Atal Innovation Mission (AIM), NITI Aayog is all set to provide an environment of creativity and innovation for the children of the country, starting with the newly launched initiative to establish 500 Atal Tinkering Labs (ATL) across competitively selected government and private schools in India.

Mark Twain is said to have exclaimed, “I was born intelligent, but education ruined me.” Whether he actually said so or not is debatable and probably unverifiable at this point, but this statement could point to the lack of space for open-ended imagination in most educational systems. ATLs are the beginning of an experiment to provide a failure-friendly space to school students to identify physical problems, experiment with possible solutions, and potentially come up with viable solutions.

Over the past few decades, manufacturing worldwide has evolved from a labour-intensive set of mechanical processes of traditional manufacturing into a sophisticated set of information technology-based processes of advanced smart-manufacturing. Countries are now entering the fourth generation of industrial revolution, more popularly called the generation of Industry 4.0., where the physical world meets digital worlds. It is driven by an amalgamation of emerging technologies like data volumes, computational power, Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, design, advanced robotics and cyber-physical systems.

The global maker’s movement, which is a recent phenomenon, is paving the way for this fourth industrial revolution. Empowered by low-cost and rapid prototyping tools such as 3D printers, electronics and communications kits, and easy-to-learn graphic user systems, makers harness the physical and digital worlds to create solutions to everyday problems. A maker’s space, or a tinkering lab, is a place where such makers iterate through the stages of their proposed product. If necessity is the mother of invention, failures on the way serve to midwife the birth of success. Local problem-solving and product-making necessarily goes through several failed experiments. These “failures” are more than just the proverbial “stepping stones to success”.

The ATL programme, part of the broader global maker’s movement, relies on the premise that innovators are not born, they can be created from the ground up, by following a systemic approach of design thinking, which is about defining the problem you want to solve, ideating, brainstorming, creating prototypes, testing solutions and re-vectoring based on user feedback. Students in ATLs will be trained to use rapid prototyping, engineering equipment and encouraged to identify the local problems of their community and come up with solutions. It will encourage “learning by doing”, which includes the freedom to fail. Schools will be encouraged to have cohorts of students from across classes VI-XII, to encourage collaboration and teamwork. They will also be encouraged to bring together a pool of mentors from the industries to engage with their students.

ATLs will also engage students from the community, thereby spreading the mission of innovation to a larger population, with adequate safety measures in place. The goal is to create ATLs as open-ended innovation workspaces where students can go beyond the school curriculum and pre-defined science experiments. It is hoped that this programme will transform students from being trained to become just a “planner” to becoming a “doer” who can imagine and implement creative solutions. Such experiences will have an impact on the overall personality development of students, and help them evolve as confident young leaders, who will be ready to build constructive solutions to Indian problems.

The government recognizes that we need to start doing things differently, move away from “spray & pray” mode to targeted interventions, move away from the top-down approach of introducing policies of innovation. AIM, NITI Aayog, is experimenting with this new and bold approach of building innovators from the bottom up. Such a programme to create tinkering labs or “maker spaces” for high-school students has not been tried on this scale in any country around the world. It is an attempt to innovate on augmenting the current systems of education with a vision to nurture one million children in India to become neoteric innovators.

In the spirit of learning from experiments, AIM looks forward to learning from our pilot and including the lessons to design the next phase of the programme, to take it to every district in India. ATL is a first step in the long journey for India to metamorphose from a developing nation to a developed nation, and to contribute heavily to the fourth industrial revolution. It will promote innovation at a young age in schools, and multiple such initiatives will create an environment that is conducive for innovation to our overall education system. The next article in our series will describe another programme of the Atal Innovation Mission, NITI Aayog, focusing on the transformation of young innovators into entrepreneurs, through incubation centres.

Ayesha Chaudhary, Unnat Pandit and Dandapani Varsha are with Atal Innovation Mission, NITI Aayog.

This is the second part of a series in which NITI Aayog officials examine each of these various programmes in greater detail.

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