Can science be fun? Ask members of the Gram Vidnyan Manch and the answer would be a resounding `Yes!' The Manch is an organisation of like-minded individuals devoted to popularising science, mainly among children. And what better way to do so than through something that children are most familiar with - toys!
This concept of science as a fun activity is best showcased in the two small rooms on Karve Road which make up the display space of the Manch. Colourful globes jostle for space with telescopes on tripods, aeromodelling kits share the shelf with telescopes, a Newton's cradle of suspended metal balls sits comfortably with magnets and spinning tops.
``The idea goes back to 1986 when, as part of the Lok Vidnyan Sanghatana, some of us took part in a science popularisation procession held under the aegis of the department of science and technology,'' says Suyash Dake, the Manch's managing trustee. This procession was to move through various villages in Maharashtra, trying to popularise scientific concepts with slide shows and charts. Interestingly, it was found that toys and models based on scientific principles which, although primitively-fashioned, were very popular with children. While the movement could not sustain itself, the idea of scientific toys survived.
``In 1992, 11 of us who were serious about promoting science among laymen, decided to form our own organisation. We had computer professionals, artists, journalists amongst us; our only common bond was a love for science and the fact that all of us had come to Pune from smaller towns and villages, which is why we called the organisation `Gram Vidnyan Manch.' While there are many takers for applied sciences like engineering or medicine, those opting for pure science have decreased. The love for pure science needs to be fostered from a young age and hence the focus on schoolchildren,'' explains Dake.
Science forms an important part of school syllabi so was there any need for a separate forum to address the needs of schoolchildren? The Manch obviously thought otherwise. ``In schools, where the examination culture pushes children to the wall, creativity or experimentation in science gets lost completely. The child does not think of questions like `what if?' or `why'"?
It was to instill this element that the members decided to conduct regular workshops on scientific subjects in various schools over the state. Workshops, however, seemed to have a shortlived fascination for schoolchildren. In keeping with its primary aim, the members of the Manch hit upon the idea of toys and models to promote science. ``While there were a few individual manufacturers of such scientific toys, they weren't enough. We, therefore, decided to launch our own manufacturing unit, by reinventing toys using some of the prototypes of the toys used in the 1986 project''. Accordingly, under the supervision of Nilima Kirane and Anuradha Joshi, a separate manufacturing unit called Thirdwave Scientific Products Pvt. Ltd was launched on March 1994.
Dake, Kirane, Joshi and Neeta Anavkar have decided to dedicate all their time to their venture. ``There were no precedents to follow. It was a leap in the dark for us. We started by marketing these products at exhibitions and schools. Although many students and parents showed tremendous interest in the toys, shops did not seem to be as responsive''.
Their first break came during the solar eclipse in October 1995 when, following the tremendous interest generated by the media and the scientific community, Thirdwave decided to manufacture mylar goggles, special glasses through which to look at the eclipse. ``We sold almost 4.5 lakh of them then and were able to spread awareness about our activities,'' says Dake. The products made at the Thirdwave workshop in Karvenagar include telescopes and binoculars, microscopes in the biology section, mathematic models, kaleidoscope and periscope kits in the optics section, inverting tops and hovercraft toys in the physics section, magnets and chemistry games.
While Dake admits that the response at schools has been largely discouraging, the Manch hopes to change this through a variety of its projects lined up for the coming year. ``We plan to have a toy club where students can select one activity kit based on a scientific principle from within their syllabus and look for other things that operate on that principle. We hope it will work.'' This novel venture seems like a step in the right direction.
Copyright © 1999 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.