For the past year, intermittently, I’ve been working on a production and distribution plan for an educational activity kit called ‘Universe in a Box’ (http://www.unawe.org/resources/universebox/), designed to teach astronomy and universal frame to 4 to 10 year old children from across the world. The initial part of the project, carried out under an internship with EU UNAWE at Leiden University from January to June 2012, was largely planning (http://www.slideshare.net/scratchpost/internship-presentation-universe-in-a-box). I’ve continued to work on the project from here in India, and production of 50 prototypes began in November last year. They’re ready to be sent out to educators in over 20 countries—and some have already been dispatched! A really amazing company in Thane called Curion Education (http://www.curioneducation.com/) have worked with UNAWE to produce the prototypes.
An ex-colleague of mine, Swapneel Rane, recently started teaching at Elia Sarvat English High School in Malad, Mumbai, through the Teach for India (www.teachforindia.org) program since June 2012. I asked him if I could do a workshop with his 10-12 year old kids—about 30 of them because I wanted to use the box directly with children to see the response and educational effectiveness. A lot of science is not taught in his school—the need is mostly to focus on math and English literacy—and he said yes yes yes!
The night before the workshop, I sat with the box and handbook and planned about 10 activities I wanted to cover in the 5-6 hours I had with the kids. A bit nervous, I woke up early and reached school, which was in an area of Mumbai I hadn’t visited for a while, but lived in for 5 long years. I met Swapneel and his colleagues, and two friends Nash and Guru who came to help out.
The class was a really sweet one with super incredible kids. They were well-engaged and in the first few hours we spoke about the moon. How big is the moon? How far is it from Earth? Why do we always see the same face on the moon? How do craters form on the moon’s surface? What are the moon’s phases: why and how do we see them? We ended the first session with making a moon flipbook of lunar phases. The children were broken up into teams and given a sheet of paper. They needed to figure out how to divide the paper into 30 pieces and then draw the whole lunar cycle from new moon to new moon to make an animated flip book. While they did the activity, we went around to demonstrate and ask them questions on what they are seeing from Earth. The kids enjoyed working in teams and we had to facilitate only one group.
The second session got challenging as the children were very restless after their break. The school does not have a ground or compound to play, so the children had bounds of bounds of energy to release in the classroom :) So we needed a super interesting topic, and the children picked Aliens. We started to learn about the different planets in our solar system. Some of their characteristics, their size, how far they are from the Sun, and what they are made of. We then handed out clay to groups of two or three children and they were asked to make their alien from a planet of their choice. At the end of 30 min, they have to come in front of the class and introduce their alien and the planet its from. The class then gets to ask questions to see if the alien can really exist on the planet. For example, to live on mercury your skin needs to be made of something extra special, to live on mars you have to eat something other than plants and legs are no good on Jupiter because it is a gaseous planet. Out of the 10 groups, 4 aliens lived :) Such an activity covers a lot of skills: applying the knowledge you just learnt about planets, critical thinking, as well as presentation.
That’s all we had time for: about 30% of what I had planned (nice learning for a first experience). At the end of the session, the teacher Swapneel asked the children to write three things they enjoyed, three things they didn't like and three things they learnt. The children's comments were very positive and they thoroughly enjoyed the activities on the moon, and the aliens were a big hit! They also mentioned that they learnt team work. Some children did not like that the class was too noisy (it was extremely hard for me to control the noise levels).
But this helped me identify a major pitfall. Practical activities are designed for smaller classroom sizes. Universe in a Box works incredibly well with smaller groups of 10 children, or the class should be divided into groups of 10 children. Or perhaps bigger really well disciplined groups.
I’m increasingly becoming a fan of inquiry-based and practical learning and imagine a future where primary and secondary school science is not taught only from text books but from learning boxes with all sorts of materials, including books :)
Inspirational experience and I thank the kids, Swapneel, Mary, Adithya and Nash and Guru! And Cristina (http://www.sterrenlab.com/) for showing me the awesome Alien activity in China last year :) And Curion Education for the lunar phases flipbook! And of course, Universe Awareness for getting this resource out there into our small but marvelous world.