Rancho, the character played by Aamir Khan in the 2009-Bollywood blockbuster ‘3 Idiots,’ remains one of the most endearing characters ever to grace the silver screen. His unique approach to education, quest for innovation and finally the decision to serve his local community without fanfare are just some of the facets that we look for in everyday educators.
If a vast majority of teachers in India knew how to impart the joy of learning like Rancho, this country would have a generation of students imparting real change in local communities. That’s one way of building a nation from the ground-up.
Fortunately for the people of 42 Mouza (a cluster of villages on an island 12 km away from Cuttack, Odisha) there exists 22-year-old Anil Pradhan, a local boy, whose International Public School for Rural Innovation (IPSRI) in Baral village is imparting the joy of science, technology and innovation to young rural students for free.
Pradhan, the son of former Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel and the former principal at a local Kendriya Vidyalaya, always had his eyes set on bringing education and the spirit of innovation to the masses since there were none in his area.
Travelling 12 km on his cycle to school every day as a young student, Pradhan understood the value of education and more importantly, innovation, very early on in life. Traversing those uneven roads on his cycle from Baral village to Cuttack would often result in damage to his cycle, and finding innovative ways of fixing it was a daily affair. This is where his quest for innovation began, among solving other day-to-day problems.
Speaking to The Better India, 22-year-old Pradhan also credits his parents for inspiring him.
“My father SK Pradhan taught me lessons that made me what I am today. His dedication and commitment towards his fellow countrymen are what drives me to do something for the people. Meanwhile, my mother, Sujata Pradhan, inspired me to become an educator considering how she battled tough odds to complete her higher education. The lack of good educational practices in remote locations is what made us to start a school,” he says.
Pradhan, however, found his calling after school when he enrolled into the Veer Surendra Sai University of Technology (VSSUT), Sambalpur, where besides studying civil engineering he got into the varsity’s robotics society. Among a plethora of projects, Pradhan was part of the VSSUT Student Satellite team that constructed a satellite to monitor the Hirakud Dam—the longest major earthen dam in the world. He was also part of the team that designed a robot with the ability to climb electric poles and fix basic problems—a task wrought with danger for humans.
“This team gave me the confidence that I have today. After successfully developing India’s first multipurpose student satellite, I found anything can be done if we constantly work on it. Being a student of civil engineering, I learned about mechanics, electronics and programming too,” he says.
Beyond these innovations, he also developed a device in university which could reduce the amount of electricity consumed by factories and residential buildings by 60%, and this innovation was listed by infrastructure major L&T as among the top seven student projects.
His achievements, including the establishment of IPSRI, earned him the 2018 National Youth Icon Award from the Government of India. He is also a “Mentor for Change” at Atal Tinkering Labs, the nationwide government-run centres for school students to acquire innovation skills and develop ideas that could transform India under the Centre’s Atal Innovation Mission.
Even the National Council of Science Museums appointed him “Innovation Mentor” at the Regional Science Centre in Bhubaneshwar, the youngest one.
Despite all these accolades, which could have taken Pradhan anywhere he wanted in life, he decided to come back home and establish a centre for learning and innovation.
“I was born in 42 Mouza and left the area to receive a good education. But I don’t want people to migrate towards the cities for a decent education. They should have that facility at home, especially for underprivileged students who don’t find good schools nearby. I also found that the conventional school curriculum puts a burden on students. Such a system does not produce creative and innovative students who can find solutions for society. To address these concerns, I started this school,” he tells The Better India.
He first pitched the idea of IPSRI to his mother Sujata, who was a principal at one of the Kendriya Vidyalaya schools. There were questions of whether this initiative would work.
“Understanding how to set up a school, my mother played a fundamental role in helping me. Once the basic structure was in place, I converted it into an Innovation School. She assisted with the development of the teaching methodology. Initially, the funds to start this school were offered by my parents, but eventually I also invested all the scholarship money and rewards I had received in the past,” he says.
Construction began in the early months of 2017 on a 2.5-acre plot that belonged to his family. With his mother installed as principal, the school today has two 3D printers, drilling machines, laser cutters, wrenches, screwdrivers and a lot more.
“The objective of this school is to develop innovative students who will be skilled enough to solve real-life problems through science, technology and innovation. Our lessons are more practical. The teaching methodology is quite innovative which makes students learn complex subjects in a simpler and creative way. Having said that, we can’t impose the same curriculum on every child. Every child is different and capable of doing something different. Rather, we have a set of experiments which helps a child understand his capabilities in a particular field,” says Pradhan.
When the school was initially set up, Pradhan and his mother found it had to convince parents into enrolling their child. Locals would send their children to dilapidated government schools because aside from a semblance of an education, they would also receive state-sponsored mid-day meals. While Pradhan and his mother decided to offer free education, delivering food is a constant challenge. “For nutrition we have prepared a chart and that is kept with the parents there in the village. They use tiffins provided by us to pack their food,” says Pradhan.
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Nonetheless, their ideas about education soon began attracting interest. Starting with just three students, today the school has about 250 students enrolled with them from Pre-Nursery to Class VI.
“The daily operations of IPSRI are funded by my dad, brother Sunil Pradhan (a Deputy Engineer at Bharat Electronic Limited), VVSTU alumni, people from various non-profits and personal donations from people. Unfortunately, I have not received any support from the state government as I was too busy educating students across Odisha. Scheduled meetings were often missed due to my hectic schedule,” adds Pradhan. Every year, the school plans to add one grade to their roster.
What’s particularly interesting about the school is their approach to education. For starters, they conduct no exams, and no marks are assigned in the conventional sense. Instead, questions are posed to these students, and depending on their response they are graded on a graph which depicts either an improvement or drop in their academic performance.
“We also have set of activities which includes playing, crafting and experimenting which helps us know, to what extent a student is inclined towards a particular field,” says Pradhan.
Besides teaching them basic science and math concepts through practical applications, students are also encouraged to innovate. For example, one lesson entails students learning innovative gardening hacks with plastic bottles, which allows them to observe a seed, nurture it and see the growth before them. Besides teaching them how to utilise plastic waste instead of just dumping it, students learn the basics of biology and the art of taking responsibility (for their plant).
“They use CDs to learn about pie charts, colour association to learn the world map and they even have the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals painted on their staircase,” says this Edex report on the school. Students are encouraged to memorise all the UN sustainable goals by serial number.
Today, the school (affiliated with the Odisha state board) has 16 teachers/volunteers who are either college graduates or in their final year helping Pradhan fulfil his vision. “We don’t look for degrees in a (teacher) candidate. Rather, we look for teaching proficiency and their desire to educate students. We have our own innovative training methods too,” adds Pradhan.
What does Pradhan hope for his students? “In my school, a calm and quiet student who doesn’t seem so studious can do miracles one day,” he says.
For the future, meanwhile, Pradhan has some ambitious plans up his sleeve. There are plans afoot for mobile schools that would travel from one village to another, while based on IPSRI model, he hopes to build institutions of higher education where innovation is fundamental.
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As the popular saying goes, “education is a gift, it shouldn’t be a burden.” Pradhan is determined to facilitate that spirit and give these children from low-income households in his area an education that actually means something.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)
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