by Yellow Scope Science Education Consultant, Meghna Pant
Working with Yellow Scope and volunteering as a science educator at Oregon National Primate Research Center has nurtured my passion for promoting science education. I have also come to realize that organizing hands-on activities to stimulate learning does not always require fancy lab equipment.
Living so far away from India, the home I grew up in, I also aspire to give back when I can. Thus, armed with scientific knowledge and few basic supplies, I decided to initiate some sort of outreach activity during my vacation in India this year.
When Kelly and Marcie heard about my plans, they generously donated a Yellow Scope Acids, Bases and pH kit along with extra supplies to support my cause. What unfurled was an enriching, as well as a humbling experience, for me. Read on to learn more about my outreach story.
I am thankful for the day my parents decided to settle down in this village after retirement! Understandably, the factors that contribute to the beauty of this place – its isolation - also limit the educational and employment opportunities.
If families have the money, there are plenty of excellent residential and day schools scattered throughout the region. However, most families cannot afford these private schools. They rely on the affordable government schools, which are doing their best to educate the students, but would do even better with extra funding or other resources.
The educator in me decided to explore running a pilot science program at one of these government schools – Rajkiya Inter College, Naukuchiatal, for grades six to twelve.
I knew I needed the support of the teachers if I wanted my small outreach activity and future projects to materialize. My father, a retired professor of electrical engineering, arranged for me to meet with the school principal and teachers.
I floated my idea of incorporating hands-on science activities in the classroom and proposed a set of acid-base chemistry experiments. They were very interested and we decided that the middle school students would benefit the most from this activity. The date and time were fixed and I came away from the meeting feeling encouraged and happy!
The preparation and execution of this outreach activity was more challenging than I initially thought – even with my PhD experience and writing curriculum for Yellow Scope. The language of instruction in this school was Hindi, which is the official language of India. Even though I grew up in North India and speak Hindi at home, I have never studied science in Hindi.
In school, I studied science in English, and while this helped me easily transition to grad school in USA, it’s a little embarrassing when I view it from a cultural perspective. I had to look up what Acids and Bases are called in Hindi. Acid = “Aml (um-la)” and Base = “Kshar”. These two words have now possibly become two of my favorite words in Hindi.
Around 50 unsuspecting children waited for me in the practical lab. They had no idea why they had been called away from their normal classes, but I am sure they were happy about it. There were almost equal numbers of boys and girls in the class. While the teachers explained to the students why I was there, I prepared the samples to test for aml and kshar.
Before starting the experiment, I did a quick background knowledge check. “Do you know what Aml is?” Few answered, “It taste sour”! “What about kshar?” “It tastes bitter!” “But, how can you tell them apart without tasting?” No answer. “Well, I will show you how you can tell them apart using color changes!”
Interest, amusement and curiosity - I saw it all on their faces. These students had never before done any hands-on science experiments!
I demonstrated how lemon juice turns pinkish-red when you add red cabbage powder solution to it. They were amazed to see that the white laundry detergent turned greenish-blue on reaction with red cabbage solution.
However, I think the thing that piqued their curiosity the most was the red cabbage itself! They took my word for it that cabbages in the United States can be red in color; in India they are only green!
I had foreseen this problem (not being able to buy red cabbages in India for future experiments) and prepared another pH indicator from a kind of black bean, locally known as “bhatt”. This indicator turned pinkish red when mixed with acids and brownish-green when mixed with bases.
We divided the students in groups of five and set them up with a 6-well plate and a dropper pipette. The wells of the plate contained vinegar, lemon juice, laundry detergent and window cleaner. I went around with the pH indicators (red cabbage juice and bhatt juice) and asked every student to add indicator to one of the wells using the dropper pipette. Then I asked them to tell me what they had aml or kshar - acid or base?
By the end of the activity, the whole room was filled with the words aml and kshar. Even when the students cleaned their plates and left, the words stayed with me. I hope the students will think of them too whenever they see laundry detergent or eat bhatt.
Overall, this outreach activity was a great learning experience for everyone - students, teachers and me. I now have a better understanding of the scientific background of these students and the resources available to them. I have also been meeting with higher education professionals to discuss steps that can be taken to further promote science education in this region. I am excited about the future!
I am grateful that I was able to share my first outreach experience in India with you all. Who knows if this was the first of many?!
I am grateful to the principal and teachers of Rajkiya Inter College, Naukuchiatal, for allowing me to conduct this activity with their students. I would also like to thank my parents who helped me put my outreach plans into action. And a big shout out to Kelly and Marcie at Yellow Scope for donating supplies that made this activity possible!
Meghna Pant, PhD
Yellow Scope Science Education Consultant