Small steps toward a paradigm shift

Simran Luthra

Concept map made by kids on what research means to them.
Concept map made by kids on what research means to them.
Few things are more satisfying and gratifying than when recommendations made in policy documents transcend paper and make it into reality and action. The National Curriculum Framework position paper on teaching of Science 2005 asserts “… that for any qualitative change from the present situation, science education in India must undergo a paradigm shift. Rote learning should be discouraged. Inquiry skills should be supported and strengthened by language, design and quantitative skills … greater emphasis on co-curricular and extra-curricular elements aimed at stimulating investigative ability, inventiveness and creativity, even if these elements are not part of the external examination system.” The paper also recommends a massive expansion of non-formal channels (for example, a truly large scale science and technology fair with feeder fairs at cluster/district/state levels) to encourage schools and teachers to implement this paradigm shift.

Paradigm shifts, such as the one described above however, do not occur easily. It is only through the efforts of individuals that the collective gets impacted. Two such individuals are Purvi Vora and Sangita Kapadia who run this delightful initiative called CaL or City as Lab.

City as a Lab (CaL) was founded on the belief that there is a researcher in every child. CaL is an annual, city-based research project undertaken by school children for 3-4 months, which culminates in a one-day conference event. As the name of the project suggests, it consists of authentic inquiry and research using their city as a laboratory.

The finalist group presenting their paper at the CaL conference last year.
The finalist group presenting their paper at the CaL conference last year.
CaL is a collaborative project, in which students from standards 6-9 get together in teams of two to four and work on their research question. Every school nominates teachers to guide students through the process; the participation of teachers is integral to the success of students. Thus, registered students and teachers actively participate in CaL and they are extensively supported by staff and coaches of Reniscience Education.

CaL also has several indirect participants – local experts who can fill content gaps, subjects of the research itself, institutions that support individual projects, paper reviewers, etc. Thus CaL brings together students, volunteers, teachers, the public at large and experts who review and assess the work of the students and provide feedback.

To be more specific, by participating in this one-of-a-kind project:

  1. children develop key 21st century skills of collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and information fluency
  2. teachers become proficient in project-based-learning
  3. students build authentic research skills and develop an inquiry temperament
  4. students learn to write in context, with a definite purpose and for a specific audience
  5. students develop a greater awareness of their city and engage as active citizens

CaL started as a pilot project in 2014, with 182 kids across 15 classrooms. This year they have more than 800 kids registered from 30 schools and are working with about 40 teachers, all this without changing the format of the project. What is lending CaL this sort of popularity? What was the genesis of this initiative? What is its current vision and how can teachers be a part of this space? Read on to know more from the team who shared details about their unique project.

Children collecting data.
Children collecting data.
Simran: What was the genesis of CaL and who are the people behind it?
Purvi: In 2006-07, I was working in a New York City public school, teaching science. At the time, I had an opportunity to be part of a professional development program called Urban Advantage that partnered school teachers with institutions across the city like museums, zoos, aquariums, parks, etc., in order to promote project-based learning. I worked with seventh grade students on understanding certain behaviours of gorillas at the Bronx Zoo. That experience stayed with me even after I moved back to Mumbai. Here I met Sangita, a science teacher driven by experiential learning. Both of us started Reniscience Education where we had the opportunity and freedom to design our own programs. It was then that we developed and piloted City as Lab in 2014.

Simran: The NCF 2005 and many other progressive documents refer to critical thinking as an important skill to be developed. Your project uses research as a tool to develop critical thinking. Could you share how the two are related?
Sangita: Critical thinking is a broad skill that encompasses many smaller skills like separating fact and opinion, analyzing information, synthesizing information, reflecting and improving one’s practice, co-relating cause and opinion, etc. The research process encompasses all these skills and provides teachers with several opportunities to teach them. For example, students have to CREATE their questions based on what they observe in their communities or cities, they HYPOTHESIZE the outcome, they have to DESIGN a data collection plan aligned with their research question, they have to COLLECT, ORGANIZE and DOCUMENT data, they have to ANALYZE the data to make sense of it, they have to CONCLUDE and check their conclusion against their hypothesis. They have to write a RATIONALE that forces them to look at the big picture and GENERALIZE their outcome….and while doing all of this, they have to constantly use the feedback given to them to improve their project. All these verbs that I have capitalized are nothing but higher order thinking skills, according to education theory. What is this if not critical thinking? And the best part is that students do all of this naturally and with enthusiasm because it is in pursuit of an answer to a question they care about.

Simran: I noticed that the research projects students have undertaken with CaL are not limited to science, but also social issues. Was this deliberate?
Purvi: It was deliberate. We never intended CaL to be only about science. We definitely want to encourage a scientific temper in terms of using evidence and data to make claims and enjoy the systematic investigation of key issues, but the topic of investigation can be social, political, environmental and of course, scientific.

In the end, if the questions are not meaningful to the students asking them and they are not connected to students’ lives, then we will not see the kind of ownership we currently do with CaL, nor would we stay true to our organization’s goals of promoting learning that is empowering, relevant, and joyful.

Students discussing their ideas for possible research questions – Collaboration is KEY in CaL.
Students discussing their ideas for possible research questions – Collaboration is KEY in CaL.
Simran: Where does the teacher fit into all of this?
Sangita: The project is facilitated by school teachers and Reniscience Education provides support in the form of professional development, lesson plans, feedback and coaching, and assessment rubrics. Although CaL was our brainchild, we have had a team of amazing educators with us since the pilot year who have helped us implement, evolve, and grow.

Simran: Who else has partnered with your journey so far?
Purvi: Since our vision is to build a network of experts/institutions, we are most proud of the partnerships we have built over these two years. CSMVS (The Prince of Wales Museum), ORF (Observer Research Foundation), ASB (American School of Bombay), Robinage (a children’s newspaper) and TIFR (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research) are some of our major partners. We have also had the support of organizations like WSD (Welfare of stray dogs), AURED and Axis Bank who have only been too happy to support students participating in CaL with their specific research questions on stray dog population, noise pollution and financial literacy respectively. One of our goals is to develop a database of such supportive organizations and experts who can support children in the future.

Simran: Can you share a little about the event last year where students showcased their research projects?
Sangita: Last year, we had 182 students attending the conference. They participated in a hands-on science lab led by TIFR. Bittu Sahgal, noted environmentalist and activist was our Keynote speaker. In the afternoon, the top ten groups presented their projects to a panel and an audience of other finalists and invited guests while the other students got a tour of the Shivaji Chhatrapati Museum where the event was held.

For us, the most rewarding part of the entire process was listening to the kids present their research in front of 200 students and adults on the day of the CaL conference, answering panelists’ questions with confidence that demonstrated complete ownership of their project and their learning. We were also particularly proud of the fact that presentations were in Hindi, Marathi, and English.

Students go on a community walk to observe their surroundings to help generate research questions relevant to their city, in this case, Delhi.
Students go on a community walk to observe their surroundings to help generate research questions relevant to their city, in this case, Delhi.
Simran: How do you think this year’s event will be different from last year’s?
Purvi: This year, we will have the top 10 groups present to a panel but the next 10 groups will have an opportunity to do posters. We are also planning a few different workshops for the students this year and we are more organized in terms of the museum tour with engaging activities like a scavenger hunt, etc.

We will not be inviting all students this year since the hall cannot accommodate them. Hence the decision to invite the top 20 rather than top 10 groups.

The position paper says: “No reform, however well motivated and well-planned, can succeed unless a majority of teachers feels empowered to put it in practice.” So far plenty of teachers have gotten involved in the project and the project also seems to be one that puts the teacher at the heart of things instead of at the periphery. Alpana Mandal, a Mumbai-based teacher who was part of CaL last year shares her experience with CaL.

Alpana: “I decided to take up CaL for two reasons. One, I wanted kids to experience the scientific thought process outside the textbook, in real world scenarios. Two, I wanted to do activities with them that would build rational thinking and logical analysis. This was the perfect opportunity to do both.”

Simran: What kind of support did you receive from CaL?
Alpana: CaL gave us model lesson plans which I shamelessly used without any changes! In fact, Purvi and Sangita also came to my class and helped me with the first lesson to get us chugging since we had started late due to other school commitments.

Simran: How was the experience for the students?
Alpana: The kids were totally dedicated and that made it so easy. First of all, I had made this a program they could opt for. So the 25 kids who participated did not feel as if this was forced upon them. They were aware of their surroundings, learnt from the stories of previous CaL questions and came up with so many research questions all by themselves! All we did was shortlist the questions and ask them to make groups based on the questions they found most interesting.

The vision that Purvi and Sangita have for CaL is to build a network of institutions/experts that supports authentic research and inquiry in all classrooms across the country. If their vision and mission excites you and you would like to attend the event in December or be a part of CaL next year, follow their FaceBook page – www.facebook.com/cityaslab. You can also email them at cityaslabindia@gmail.com.

Reference
Position Paper: National Focus Group on Teaching of Science, 2005. http://www.ncert.nic.in/new_ncert/ncert/rightside/links/pdf/focus_group/science.pdf

The author is with an organization that works towards improving the quality of education in Indian schools. She is passionate about educational research in gender, language, social sciences and human rights. She can be reached at simranluthra@gmail.com.