Trash to toys: redefining science education

arvind gupta 06.02.2014

 

“Work while you play and play while you work”.

Arvind Gupta is an Indian toy inventor, science expert and science communicator. He gained popularity in the 90s for his  show in Doordarshan’s kid’s programme “Tarang” , which went on to define childhood for most of us. He developed low-cost science teaching aids and scientific toys using locally available materials. The use of ordinary  and readily available things for doing science and turning them into joyous products appealed immensely to children. Arvind Gupta’s first book, Matchstick Models and other Science Experiments, has been translated into 12 Indian languages by various popular science groups and more than half a million copies have been sold so far. His work has set a high benchmark for development of play-way methods in education. For his life long contribution to popularize science and promote scientific education, he was awarded Padma Shri by the Government of India in 2018.

In this post I am sharing some excerpts from an interview with Arvind Gupta where he shares his views on science education, his journey so far and his future plans.

 

You are credited as a leading toy inventor and populariser of science through revolutionary methods of teaching. Why do you design toys? How did it all begin and what motivated you to turn into a toy inventor?

I was involved with the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme (HSTP). The HSTP tried to revitalize the learning of science in resource starved village schools. Here science was learnt through low-cost science experiments. In 1978, I took a leave from my job and spent a year with the HSTP. Within the first month I designed a homespun Mecanno using matchstick and cycle valve tube. Children could easily make 2-D; 3-D shapes. This would help them understand a great deal about structures. I also designed toys to drive home several principles of science. Later I gave up my job and took to designing low-cost science teaching aids and toys on full time basis. I feel deeply privileged to be able to earn a living out of my hobby and passion.

 What were the difficulties you faced initially when you decided to come up with the initiative of designing toys?

There were several difficulties. I had left the mainstream after an IIT degree and taken a path less trodden. Because my parents were unschooled so they were not too ambitious and did not make “demands” of me. They let me do what I wanted. This has been a great blessing. In 1986 I wrote my first book MATCHSTICK MODELS & OTHER SCIENCE EXPERIMENTS. It got a thumping response – got translated into 12 Indian languages. This was a great moral booster. Since then I have been deeply involved in converting throwaway stuff into joyous toys for children.

Your “toys from trash” have enticed millions of children of all age groups across the world. How do you come up with such innovative ideas?

I worked as a loner – a “freelancer” for 20 odd years and I conducted workshops in over 2500 schools. In 2003, I was invited to work in a Children’s Science Centre incubated by IUCAA (Inter-University Centre for Astronomy & Astrophysics) located in the Pune University. Here I work with a small but very passionate team which has documented close to a 1000 toys for the benefit of the children of the world. Our 400-sqft room is full all kinds of stuff – bottles, tubes, wires, pipes, lids, broomsticks – odd stuff and we are tinkering the whole day. We are indeed privileged – we play the whole day and get a survival wage at the end of day. This is any day more preferable than rotting in a MNC office.

 You have invented and designed so many toys till now from basic materials available in our surroundings. Among hundreds of toys you have designed which one would you consider as the best one or the one which is close to your heart.

I have simple loved the Simple Electric Motor. You need a 1.5-volt torch battery, two rubber bands, 2-safety pins and 1-metre of insulated copper wire. If you have a battery then it costs Rs 7/- and just 10-minutes to make this splendid motor. When I made it first in 1990, I would wake up at midnight run the motor for 10-minutes and then only I could go to sleep peacefully!

 The Scenario of science education in India has not been so impressive in recent years. Students these days are mostly into cram learning, finishing their syllabus on time and securing marks in exams. What are your views on the landscape of science education and learning in India?

Things are changing. There is a shift in paradigm from mugging to learning through activities. In many schools children even at the primary stage are encouraged to learn through projects by make science models.

Also, the internet is rapidly changing the whole landscape of learning. Amazing stuff like Ted Talks and wonderful experiments are available for free. Any learner with an internet connection can access the most wonderful resources – books, experiments, videos all for free. So, boring teachers and schools will hopefully become outdated soon. Children will have a real choice to choose from the very best. There is enormous hunger in children for good science. Today, every single day 12,000 books and 50,000 videos are downloaded from our small website http://arvindguptatoys.com

 How do you think your scientific toys and the numerous science teaching aids that you have developed will help improve and promote better science education?

Science is bit like learning to swim. No matter how many books you read – unless you jump into water and flagellate your hands and feet you are not going to learn swimming. This is also true about science. Learning takes place from the concrete to the abstract. The children need to mess around with simple, low-cost stuff to imbibe the basic elements of science. And once they have the experiential base the theory will just fall into place. The Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme demonstrated that creative, activity based science learning need not be the exclusive preserve of the rich countries. With imagination and determination we could successfully implement it in our village schools.

 Sir, share with us something about your future plans and ideas while you are working here in the Children’s Science Centre, Pune.

I have worked in the Children’s Science Centre, Pune for the past 10-years. These have been the most productive years of my life. In the past 4-years 25-million children have viewed our science videos. I have turned 60-years and  thereafter, I plan to translate a lot of great books on science and education into Hindi.

 What message do you want to leave for the youth and our readers?

We have only one life. Life is too short to live anyone else’s stale dream. So, live your own dream.

 

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