Monday, February 13, 2012

Science Expo memories

Over the weekend, I chanced upon a board at a school which was holding a science expo. The board said, “Open to all”.

So, in a bid to give “exposure” to Science to the little one, we landed there. And walked around, talking to students – who were explaining things with a lot of gusto. The little one was, of course, impressed, seeing children do stuff and explain to him was a thrill in itself. Also, to see them demonstrate concepts such as robotics, electronics was something else. I can imagine the rush of adrenaline he must have had on seeing it. More on that in a moment.

But first, a word on the exhibition itself. The Chemistry and Biology section were quite ordinary – not in terms of the exhibit itself – or on the enthusiasm of the students. What I mean here is that, as concepts go, the concepts that the chemistry and biology section were talking about are all atleast 50 years old. When I was in school (and that was not 50 years ago), we had pretty much the same exhibits then as well – the sugar and vinegar volcano, pollution, ozone layer. Or thinking about biology, the double helix, human heart and so on.

However, the physics section is where all the action is. There were programmable robots, exhibits using sensors, assembled electronic kits, solar panels, led lights and all that. The work was very impressive. And the students (all below class X) had great answers. There were a few laptops being used as part of their exhibits for control purposes. Overall very impressive. So, why the big difference between Chemistry and Biology on the one hand and Physics on the other?

The answer, in my mind is that Chemistry and Biology are dependent on school labs for putting up things. So, in order to put up a really cool exhibit on Chemistry and Biology, one needs specialized equipment in the school lab or access to it outside. Both of these are not easy, I suppose. Because schools are wont to do what the syllabus prescribes and knowing our syllabi, we may be quite behind in the times. However, when it comes to Physics, while the labs are pretty much at the same levels as the other two, a lot of items are available in the private domain quite easily. So, electronic kits, batteries, sensors are available quite easily, than, say, liquid nitrogen or a bunch of rabbits. Which is why the physics section was way cooler.

Again, more on this later, but in my mind schools need to focus on getting ahead of their syllabus and making students think ahead than just sticking to what the board says. Especially in subjects where it is not possible straightaway – like Chemistry and Biology.

Which brings me to the science exhibition of my school days. I recall us building three exhibits. One was a cardboard space station, a thermocol city and one was a magnetic door that opened when a vehicle (with a magnet)came near it. Yes, our exhibits were quite unimpressive when I see what these students had put up.

Even in those days, 80s, there were a few intrepid students and parents who put up something that was quite mindblowing by those days standards. The dads or uncles (in all probability) who dabbled in electronic components put together something that blinked with a few lights and did something quite unique and it was quite a crowd puller. I remember an automatic direction finder or some such contraption that was part of one such exhibition. I also remember someone cobbling up a fortune teller in one of those then available computers and people would not let go of the exhibit.

And there were cool electric items like fans, elevators and hydel power stations.

One thing I remember was that somehow, one of the students managed to get approval for making soap as part of the exhibit. And his stall was right next to mine. All day he just made soap – and soap making was quite a tedious process. He had a huge stove and a wok and a long ladle and he stirred all day long. For anybody who came and asked him what was his exhibit all about, he pointed them to a flow chart where he then explained which part of the process he was at. When the exhibition ended on day 1, his soap was ready. And given that it looked rather different than normal soap (his soap had no fragrance and perfume) nobody wanted it and some of the school support staff were happy to take lumps of washing soap home.

When I look back, it amazes me that this kid got such a great idea and was allowed to do it. Imagine making soap in the middle of a huge assembly hall. And now think how these things stick to our minds…Whether it is flying helicopters, robots or soap!

Whatever it is, expos are generally great for stickiness...

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