Shared Experiential Learning Centres: An Experimental Idea
In 2018, I had the opportunity to be part of an Indian delegation to Israel, organized by the Vision India Foundation. The intent behind the delegation, called the World Governance Expedition, was to expose a multi-disciplinary group of young change-makers and leaders to Israeli innovation, systems and processes in a number of sectors like engineering, business, education, justice, governance, history, defence among others.
During this visit, we were exposed to the ‘Perach Tutorial Project’ whose primary work is to pair up students from under-privileged or disadvantaged backgrounds to university students, who mentor them (both with respect to academic as well as non-academic pursuits), give them personalized attention (often in an informal setting) and serve as role models for the children, with the aim of promoting personal development and student motivation. Beginning in 1974 through the initiative of a PhD student and a Professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science, the initiative now involves about 15% of all university students and provides mentorship to over 50,000 needy students annually. In fact, Perach and its activities are now being emulated in over 20 countries across the globe.
While the mentorship activities are interesting in their own regard, in this article, I would like to focus on another aspect of Perach’s work for students - its Havayeda Teva Science Centres. These are interactive science centres which aim to make learning fun, demonstrating key concepts and inculcating essential skills through a host of interactive games, models and exhibits. Interestingly, our introduction to Perach itself took place in a Havayeda Centre in Tel Aviv, one of 9 centres across the country. The centre was equipped to engage with students from a very young age, starting with games which promote critical thinking, problem-solving and lateral thinking (some of which, us full grown adults were struggling with), as well as older students in high school, with interactive tools to breakdown and demonstrate complex topics across the sciences, geography and even math.
In the hour or so that we were unleashed upon the place, I interacted with exhibits on pulleys, gravitation and even great circle flight paths! These centres see a footfall of over 200,000 annually, where children can experiment and experience the wonders of science in an informal, playful setting as opposed to theoretical chalkboard lecturing. That one hour quickly got me thinking about what role these centres had to play in promoting the famous Israeli culture of innovation.
As a fairly privileged student, growing up in Tier-I Indian cities, I did get a fair share of field visits to science centres and museums, where I got a similar experience. I even had the luxury of seeing a lot of key concepts in action through regular classes in the school science labs, and owe a good deal of my understanding of science to these experiential sessions. However, I am aware that many do not share these privileges, even in urban settings and particularly those enrolled in public school systems and rural settings. Havayeda Centres in Israel are also located in peripheral areas and under-resourced neighborhoods, so as to increase access to students who need it most.
There is significant scope for a similar idea to make a considerable difference in the education landscape in India as well. Given India’s stressed resources in the education sector, centres like this could provide students access to complementary and effective learning environments, that could not only improve learning outcomes but also start to bridge the gap between the privileged and the underserved.The Atal Tinkering Labs offer a similar environment, but the intention is slightly different in that the labs are set up for a school and its students, and the requirements may also make it difficult for many schools to participate. One model to explore may be to establish these labs as shared centres similar to the Havayeda Centres, for scheduled use by clusters of schools requiring this infrastructure. In order to promote proper use, upkeep, maintenance and management, these may be established and operated by local authorities such as municipalities, so as to adopt a decentralized approach rather than an onerous top-down model with greater numbers to oversee. Community or private support in establishment, management and even ownership may be explored.
These are just some of the ideas to operationalize a system of shared centres to promote experiential learning and skill based education to Indian students who really need it. A system like this can have significant benefits not only for the education system but even for the economy and society as a whole. Further research and development of ideas around this concept is certainly required, and this is only intended to be an exploratory note. I hope to see the benefits from this or a similar model in Indian Education systems soon!