Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The Inevitability of Tinkering

In the 80s, when I completed my high school, the only source of information was books – personal or in the library of a school or college. To know about anything, you had to seek access to these books.

Also, the only source of physical material or gadgets or such consumer goods was the corner shop. If you wanted to have something, you would have to find a suitable business that sold it and you could buy it off them. As a consumer in the 80s, the economy was controlled by what is referred to as the ‘license raj’. You could only buy something which local companies with the government license to manufacture things within the country, could sell you. Having access to consumer goods manufactured abroad required you to shell out big money in the ‘grey’ market.

Cut to the 90s and one of the two aspects mentioned above changed drastically. I got employment in a modern S&T institute of India that provided easy Internet access. Now, besides the library, the Internet was an easy and copious source of information at the touch of my finger tips. With the evolution of Internet and subsequent birth of Yahoo, Google and such search engines, access to information grew exponentially. Ideas in one part of the world could flow to you almost overnight.  Those ideas impacted social as well as scientific, academic and every other activity in the country. However having access to information was one thing and having the ability to implement those ideas through physical, tangible things was quite another. Access to tools, implements and material was still regulated and hard to come by.

In the mid 2000s, things started changing such that access to physical objects became easier. Internet banking coupled with Ebay, Flipkart, Amazon and such e-commerce sites, changed things almost overnight. So much so, that majority of well-healed Indians found it easier to shop on the Internet than go to a physical store to fulfill their material needs.

In the second decade of this millennium, the access to Internet as well as Internet assisted material purchasing mechanism has led to something quite dramatic – the democratization of access to information as well as material objects has percolated down to people of all ages specially in schools and colleges. A cookery enthusiast in North India in the 90s would find it near impossible to cook say, the 'Paniyaram', a South Indian delicacy, which requires a special vessel. Today one can fulfill that need over Flipkart/Amazon almost instantly. While we may rue the harmful impact of Facebook and WhatAspp on the lives of young people, an aspect of this ease of access, that is undeniable in importance, is the flow of ideas regarding what a kid of comparable age is doing in countries across the globe! She is not only Facebook’ing or WhatAss’ing, but is also putting the Internet to good use towards enhancing her STEM education. Young people in India are not insulated from such ideas and activities.

Given this scenario, what should our schools and colleges do? They could remain mute spectators to this development and pretend that they are the sole repository of knowledge and scientific skills only to find the rug pulled from under their feet, so to say. Thankfully, the Government of India has shown alacrity in recognizing the growing trend of ‘making’ things on your own and ‘tinkering’ in general. The idea of ‘digital manufacturing’ that is staring in our face will leave us further impoverished unless we wake up to it's potential as well as the threat it poses. Digital manufacturing refers to the concept of transaction of blueprint/design of a product over the Internet assisted by local manufacturing facility that reduces transportation costs and delays and allows people in any corner of the country to have access to material and products of their choice, unlimited and unshackled by the physical distribution mechanisms.

The Government of India has started ‘Atal Tinkering Labs’ in lot of schools (~ 5000 schools as of July 2018) but given the limited resources, it cannot reach each and every young person in the country. But every young person can see what is happening in their more affluent neighborhood and across the world and if she can afford, she would start making things on her own, cocking a snook at the established ‘centres of knowledge’ and reduce them to mere certificate distribution centres.

The inevitability of being useless and redundant is facing our schools and colleges and they better sit up, take note and adapt. The biggest stakeholder of the school and college ecosystem - the teacher is facing a big threat of being sidelined and rendered useless, unless they learn and adapt the new skills of tinkering. It is no longer good enough to be a physics teacher. All the physics you can teach has already been hijacked by the coaching centres in Kota. What is required is a physics teacher who can not  only teach the concepts but can demonstrate them with a physical implementation. This physical demonstration does more to instill the concepts in a young mind than rote learning. If the teacher does not adapt, the young person in your school may not know more than you but with access to the Internet and Internet assisted banking and e-commerce means they can certainly do much more than you do or has ever done.

These Atal Tinkering Labs started in a small number of schools will only grow. The way computers got introduced in schools in the early 90s should give us a clue. From being objects of novelty then to an established subject today, is how the ‘Tinkering and Making’ activities in schools will also grow. I predict that in a few years, 'Tinkering' will become as mainstream a subject as computer science in schools. How do we want to use them? How do we want our young children to use them? Currently, the Atal Tinkering Labs, without much mentoring support, finds itself with students copying projects off the Internet, the teachers being clueless about state of the technology feel their students have just invented something! While one may frown upon this practice, the fact is at least these students are getting exposed to working with their own hands - a very welcome development in this country!

Eventually, one hopes that the real objective of the Tinkering Labs which should be to enhance science learning, will be understood. That will help absorb 'Tinkering' as a necessary skill/subject in each and every school and that alone has the potential to invent new solutions to solve problems of the Darbhangas and Mumbais of India - deaths due to manual cleaning of sewage drains, farm problems and distress, lack of clean drinking water, roads and flyovers taking years to complete.

The inevitability of tinkering and making things on our own, is surely staring at us and we better prepare now or become complacent, ignore and eventually become redundant – the choice is ours!

Update: This blog is now published on Swarajya Magazine: Tinkering Labs: Why Schools Must Sit Up And Take Note


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