We have often heard of people falling sick after drinking contaminated water. But while the thought might make many of us reach out for packaged drinking water or invest in a water purifier, it made a group of young class XI students take notice and attempt to find a way to get safe drinking water without spending too much money.

“These are children who have seen problems around them and decided to work on it. They are using simple solutions, questioning the usual practices and figuring out new ways to tackle the problem. And they are keeping the costs low so that it can be implemented by almost anyone," says Vijaya Shyamsundar, programme director, IBM Watson Education.

The water-purifying project is one of several projects that IBM is mentoring as part of NITI Aayog’s Atal Innovation Mission. The students who are being mentored come from schools across the country and receive primary guidance from their teachers. But for the more advanced projects, IBM has offered its expertise in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to guide the children. A group can have two-six students working on a project.

“We have a huge number of youth who are going to be the future of the country. It is very important for the country to create a number of job creators, rather than just job seekers. The Atal Innovation Mission is our first step towards that," explains Ramanan Ramanathan, mission director, Atal Innovation Mission. As part of the mission, NITI Aayog has also been setting up several Atal Tinkering Labs (ATL) in schools since 2017. These labs are, as the name implies, meant for schoolchildren to “tinker" with do-it-yourself kits and equipment—electronics, robotics, open source micro-controller boards, sensors and 3D printers and computers.

IBM’s involvement is aimed at inculcating and encouraging scientific thinking among the youth. The software firm continues to mentor professionals and students outside the ATL as well, but this is one of its few programmes for school students.

“Technology is changing at a rapid pace. Be it the Internet of Things (IoT) or cloud, so much is being discussed and innovated upon. It is our responsibility to make sure that as the children grow, they will have the right design thinking, computational thinking, and be more adaptive to the new technology that is coming in. A little hand-holding is required for them to be successful from a young age," says Gaurav Sharma, vice-president, IBM India Software Labs and Growth India South Asia.

The mentorship IBM provides with the Atal Innovation Project is in three parts. First, the company has selected volunteers from its network of experts to mentor teachers to help the children in schools. They discuss topics such as ideation, design thinking, how to facilitate enquiry-based learning and about technologies like IoT devices, or building a prototype.

Second, some of the students working on top projects—like the water-purification project—may get a chance to intern with IBM. The students will also get to interact with experts from IBM who can help them bring their ideas to life by discussing, ideating and understanding what the challenges are, how these are being defined and what technologies can help solve at least some part of the problem. IBM plans to include about 1,000 of its India employees in the ATL mentor network.

Third, the scale of the programme required a network between teachers, students and mentors. The ATL programme aims to reach one million students and it is not possible to assign one mentor to each student. So, IBM has designed ATL InnoNet, a platform through which a network of mentors can come together to help teachers in schools.

The networking platform provides insights such as who would be the best mentor for a project, keeping in mind the topic and the students’ area of residence. The ATL InnoNet also lets mentors discuss ideas with another mentor in a different city. For example, mentors have received help from other mentors with regard to reference materials and resources, etc.

“Our idea is to foster creativity and curiosity among the children. And we wanted to make sure that we are giving them the right kind of collaborative opportunity for both students and mentors. Sometimes we learn even while discussing with co-mentors or teachers, or even the students," adds Sharma.

Mentor Me is a series that looks at how companies and individuals have taken steps towards mentoring and being mentored.

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