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Science Outreach: The Catharsis of an Undergraduate

 

“The first rule of NatPhil is that you do not talk about NatPhil.”

Pretty much like the 1999 cult classic Fight Club, I signed up for an underground fraternity during my sophomore year. It all started when a senior of mine, Muhammad Hamza Waseem, expressed his desire to mentor some juniors in science and outreach. Freshly battered down by my low grades, I had become skeptical of the educational system and had resolved that the only way to stand out was to do things that would matter in the long run. As it turned out, most fortunately, Hamza was in search of some ambitious yet dissident individuals. I fit right into the description, and thus became part of a covert group called “Natural Philosophers”, or more informally, NatPhil. The NatPhilers belonged to diverse engineering disciplines, and while they were not too rebellious to initiate a Project Mayhem, they joined forces for various interdisciplinary projects.

One such project was about science outreach: an initiative which aimed at teaching science to primary school students through interactive demonstrations. The key motivation was to present science as a lively discipline to the students, allowing them to explore it beyond their textbooks. We had observed (partly through our personal experience) that because the current educational system focused little, if at all, on developing analytical skills, only a few students choose science as a profession. Therefore, we wanted to see how, or if, using an unconventional approach for teaching science could impact the students.

The outreach sessions comprised brief lectures and interactive demonstrations. Designed according to the school curriculum, the lectures gave a brief overview of the science topics under discussion in the class. The experiments augmented the lectures and were of two kinds. Most of them were like a DIY (do-it-yourself) kit: portable, interactive demonstrations consisting of an assortment of electronic components and sensors connected together. For wet experiments, simple materials like filter paper and charcoal were utilized to build minimalistic yet intriguing demonstrations.

We decided to conduct the outreach at a primary school that was easily accessible to us and a good place to experiment with our idea. Designed for grade four students, the outreach was conducted for three months. The hour-long sessions were conducted once a week to a class of about 24 students by either Hamza or me, while other volunteers either kept up with the lecture or goaded the less concentrated students on to do the same. After the lectures, we presented the science experiments to the students in groups. The volunteers performed the experiments and encouraged the students to make observations. These observations, in turn, helped the students in linking the sessions to their science curriculum.

While the outreach had let us refine our teaching skills, it proved to be an entirely new experience for the schoolchildren. Although other outreach programmes had been organized at the school, ours allowed students to have hands-on experience of activities which would otherwise demand dedicated labs. The joy that the science demonstrations promised the students helped us, in turn, in bribing their attention to the lecture. Fortunately, they found the demonstrations rewarding enough, and their ever-increasing enthusiasm stood testament to their budding interest in science. Moreover, the outreach stirred a fascination with engineering as many of the students expressed the desire to build the experiments on their own.

Our experience was not devoid of some rather unusual incidents. For instance, when we asked the students why they felt aversion towards science, one of the students stretched his arm and, by pointing at his elbow, expressed his plight, “Itne hath jitne bare jawab hote haen” (The answers are as long as my arm!). On another occasion, we modelled the earth using a tennis ball with a straw as its axis. The ‘axis’, however, was somewhat adrift from its intended orientation due to incorrectly drilled holes. We had hoped that the students would overlook this seemingly minor glitch. Yet, much to our chagrin, they announced their first observation to be “Is ka to axis terha hae” (its axis is out of place).

We conducted a survey to analyse the impact of the outreach programme in reshaping the image of science for the students. Only three students from a class of 24 declared that they liked science before the commencement of the outreach sessions. However, within three months, the figures were swapped; only three students claimed that they did not like science (I hope that they were not the same three students from before the session).

NatPhil concluded with the end of my sophomore year. The outreach, however, is alive and well; it is currently being organised by IET On Campus UET Lahore. Most of the NatPhilers still participate in the programme, but the movement itself has evolved ever since. It has established a team of science communicators who, apart from contributing to the above-mentioned outreach, regularly volunteer in other educational and outreach causes as well. The best outcome of the outreach, however, is its role in successfully invoking a fascination, if not a passion, for science in young students.

As I plan to commence the third year of this outreach, I extend my gratitude to NatPhil — Muhammad Hamza Waseem, Ali Khalid, Hasnain Irshad, Syeda Rabia Hussain, Maheera Abdul Ghani, Iqra Naveed and Anass Nazeer — to whose dedication and spirit of community service this programme owes its stellar execution.

 

Featured image: An experiment demonstrating the formation of colours. The knobs can be turned to change the colour formed inside the paper cone by varying the intensity of red, green and blue LEDs. Photo by volunteers of the outreach team.

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