Path-Breaking Atal Tinkering Labs: Why It Is Time For Course Correction

by Dhananjay V. Gadre - Jan 4, 2018 03:55 PM +05:30 IST
Path-Breaking Atal Tinkering Labs: Why It Is Time For Course CorrectionStudents at a computer class.  (Kalpak Pathak/Hindustan Times via GettyImages) 
  • It has been more than six months, since the first ATL was rolled out. It is a good time to take stock of this programme, where is it headed and if it appears directionless, how can it be made more effective.

In the last week of December 2017, NITI Aayog announced a new list of 1,500 schools taking the total number of ATL schools (schools with Atal Tinkering Labs) to 2,500. At Rs 20 lakh per school, it represents a significant investment by the government of India in the school ecosystem and it is imperative that results in matching returns for all the stakeholders of the society.

What Is An Atal Tinkering Lab?

I have written in some detail, about the aims and objectives of an ATL, at least from the point of view of a neutral but interested outsider, in a previous article published in Swarajya Magazine. However, to keep the current content cogent and readable, I highlight some of the salient features of this programme here.

Also, it has been more than six months, since the first ATL rolled out and therefore it is a good time to take stock of this programme, where is it headed and if it appears directionless, how can it be made effective.

An ATL consists of materials and tools to make tinkering possible. In this age, tinkering is heavily influenced by embedded computers – computers that are embedded inside gadgets, everyday objects, instruments, cars, toys etc, to help make such devices perform better. Apart from various types of embedded computers, the ATL inventory includes mechanical, electrical and electronic components and various types of sensors. Further, it includes fabrication tools including a 3D printer to help put together whatever gadget, invention or prototype the kid in school, may have in mind.

“Tinkering” is an interesting way to understand the world and its problems before finding potential solutions. As children, we tinker with things – pulling them apart to see how they work or putting things together to see what happens. Becoming an inventor is not an overnight process. It often takes years of tinkering before you can invent something meaningful and useful.

The complete list of ATL inventory is available here:

Desirable Outcomes Of ATL

Skill and knowledge are important components of progress and prosperity of a society. Skill to make things, which could be used to enhance knowledge. This is the classic difference between science and engineering. To understand scientific principles and to further the understanding of science, you are often required to design and build an experiment. Thus, having skills to make things would be useful towards learning science. Science is an enquiry about ‘why?’ Engineering, on the other hand, is about manipulating the natural and man-made resources to improve quality of life, ease of living, providing food, shelter, medical care to all humans with minimum disturbance to the nature. Engineering is about ‘how?’. Science and engineering are two sides of a coin and one cannot expect to pursue one without the support of the other.

Given that an ATL consists of some great tools and components, these resources could be used to further science as well as engineering in a school environment. We could build (experiments) to learn which would further students’ understanding of science and we could learn to build to create engineering solutions to nation’s problems. For the limited scientific knowledge that students normally possess at a school level (because they are still in formative stages), expectations to create engineering solutions should be kept to a minimum. That said, one need not rule out engineering solutions at school level. But to expect school students to create engineering solutions would be to put the cart before the horse.

ATL Reality Check

It has been six months since the majority of schools, which received ATL grants until January 2017, started establishing and using the labs. Although the ATL programme has yet to achieve a steady state, it is a good time to take stock of their operation and based on the observations, one can decide whether to reset the programme and apply course correction.

Broadly, in my opinion, the ATL programme suffers from the following problems:

  1. Lack of technical guidance to run the labs.
  2. Huge disparity in ATL distribution that evades government schools and inadvertently favours private schools.
  3. Needless and undesirable stress on ‘innovation’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ at the cost of alleviating problems related to science education and improving science learning.
  4. Undesirable influence of multinational corporations and no partnership with Indian entities.

These issues are highlighted and explained in detail below

Atal Tinkering Labs Without Guidance

Undoubtedly, an ATL is a great resource in a school. As great as, say a personal computer is, towards increasing efficiency at workplace. And just as a computer is useless without proper operating system and application programs, an ATL would be ineffective without knowledgeable and specialised guiding mentors. The tools and components of an ATL are new to a school environment and existing teachers cannot be expected to teach how to use them on two counts – it is not their area of expertise and they already have a full day teaching schedule to take care of.

There is also a minor challenge on how to incorporate the ATL in regular school schedule and activities, given the constraints of time, which is already allocated to teaching course subjects and established school activities. Should an ATL be utilised as part of SUPW (socially useful and productive work) subject or should it be commandeered for conventional science education activities, is a question before the school educators. Whatever be the choice of use, an ATL must provide hands-on skills to the students (today, programming embedded computers, making things etc are considered useful and desirable skills) enabling “tinkering” and “inventioneering” resulting in improved knowledge and better understanding of textbook science that they already study, and that should lead to entrepreneurship in the long run.

Huge Disparity In ATL Distribution

From the available statistics, it appears that only about 25 per cent of selected schools are government schools. While getting an ATL is nothing short of winning a trophy for a private school, the real losers are the students in government schools who face increased gap compared to their peers in private schools. This stated problem is not due to any selection criterion but in spite of it. Government schoolteachers have no motivation to compete for an ATL grant since having an ATL does not increase their emoluments or provide them career advancement in any way.

On the contrary, having an ATL in their school is perceived as an additional responsibility and headache that is best avoided by either not applying for the grant or torpedoing the chances by making a poor proposal. The private school managements, on the other hand, have used this opportunity very nicely and cornered a vast majority of grants. This is not to paint the private schools in any negative light but to state ground reality regarding the government schools.

Undesirable Stress On Innovation And Entrepreneurship

Innovation is a much-abused word these days. It is often touted as a magical solution for all national and international problems. Worse, it is assumed that people in general are incapable of innovating and only those bandying this word about are capable of innovating!

The ATL team at NITI Aayog, instead of orienting the ATL primarily to alleviate science education problems, seems to strongly focus on innovation and entrepreneurship. How can innovation happen without strong grounding in science? Also, one should not lose focus that the ATL audience is young students and to them, any talk of innovation and entrepreneurship with Science education would create immense pressure on young minds and the entire ATL programme could degenerate just like the BE/BTech final year projects activity in engineering colleges – getting corner shops to deliver ready-made projects with mere customisation to appear having being done locally by the concerned student/s. One can already see evidence of that happening with so many private companies associated with schools to provide 'support' and we know this first hand. Left with the current focus, the ATL would only serve to create a second wave of skilled slaves ready to work for richer economies. The first such wave was the large slave army of coders we created also because the computer science teaching in schools happened in isolation and without involving science teachers and subjects.

NITI Aayog’s ATL website lists an ATL Handbook that has even more surprises. The handbook mentions the following topics to be taught to the students who get involved with ATL activities: digital literacy, ideation, design thinking, computational thinking and physical computing. We are yet to come to terms trying to understand the significance of most of these topics for school children, specially considering that there is not even a mention of science education!

Undesirable Influence Of Multinational Corporations

Under the garb of ‘bringing the best practices’ from all over the world, we in India tend to copy assiduously, specially anything Western. Any such copying without understanding the ecosystem requirements can be misleading and counter productive or wasteful at the very least. In the West and specially the US, there is a big discussion around STEM shortage. STEM refers to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, referring to an alleged shortage of workers in these fields. To address this alleged shortage, the governments and society at large, try to attract and get students interested in these subjects right during middle and high school stages. That the STEM shortage is a myth is evident from the fact that there is large unemployment in these areas indicating that there are more willing and available people and not enough jobs. But the proponents of STEM shortage theory have chosen to ignore this fact.

A small minority of people in the US, which recognises this fact, has argued that the STEM shortage is assumed and amplified to create a scare with an ultimate goal of creating a surplus of workforce so as to keep salaries down. How do the proponents of STEM shortage deal with the situation? They have coined terms such as ‘Maker’ and ‘Tinkerer’ to attract school children. And once they get interested in these subjects, tend to follow and pursue careers in science and technology. India, on the other hand hardly has any STEM shortage. Far from it, we have a glut and surplus – an unskilled and unemployable surplus. So, we do have an issue related to STEM but it is about the quality of our scientists and engineers and that is where an ATL can be of great help – to help improve science education in a radical fashion but as we have discussed above, dealing with science education doesn’t seem to the concern for the team at NITI Aayog running the ATL programme and that is really very sad and unfortunate.

The ATL Handbook as well as another document on the ATL website titled ATL operation manual has more surprises. Perusing both these documents exposes a multinational corporation angle – an outright sellout to Intel Corporation, which seems to have dictated the aim, plan and execution of the ATL programme! As an independent company, Intel or any other company has every right to promote their own vision but to use Indian taxpayer’s money is downright scandalous! As an American company, Intel is doing in India what it does in the US – promote the STEM shortage paradigm for which the real objective is to create a glut of STEM workers to keep salaries down. Let us not forget that Indians form a large percentage of Intel workforce, so creating more of Indian tech workers works in favour of Intel without necessarily helping India. That the NITI Aayog team could not find even a single Indian company or entity to partner with is not just a scandal but an insult to the many fine Indian institutions working the field of science and technology education.

We feel the ATL programme suffers from serious issues and the programme needs some sort of reset and a course correction. The first and foremost amongst the many changes it needs is to identify real objectives – (a) address science education issues, counter rote learning practices with real hands-on learning that promotes experimentation and verifiable evidence based learning, (b) promote originality and not Internet based cut-paste activities. Once these two objectives are reaffirmed, it may lead to real inventions in future and if that happens, innovation and entrepreneurship are natural extensions.

Mentoring ATLs Through “Tech For Bharat”

The problem of technical manpower to run an ATL can be addressed through specially selected and trained mentors as described in this section.

An ATL can meet the promised objectives only when suitable human resources are available to these labs, so that desirable skills could be imparted to the students and safe use of the tools can be assured under the watchful eyes of a competent instructor.

One potential solution for optimum utilisation of the ATL resources is to engage recent engineering graduates and science post-graduates, with suitable and rigorous training, to create an army of ‘Tech for Bharat’ mentor fellows, who could then be deployed in the ATL schools. Keeping the fellowship limited to a few years only has the double advantage of bringing fresh talent in the ecosystem and once the fellowship is over, the now trained and skilled mentor fellows could address and alleviate the commonly heard refrain of ‘unskilled and unemployable engineers’.

Empowering Government Schools Through “ATL On Wheels”

To create a more inclusive ATL programme that reaches out to vast majority of government school students, this section offers some solutions.

Without doubt, ATLs need expert mentors to be really useful. However, the potential goodness of an ATL has managed to evade a large number of government schools due to a plethora of reasons (lack of required space, uninterested school teachers and management etc). Only about 25 per cent of selected schools are government schools. While getting an ATL is nothing short of winning a trophy for a private school, the real losers are the students in government schools who face increased gap compared to their peers in private schools.

The solution does not lie in some sort of ‘affirmative action’ during the ATL school selection process but in direct targeting of the students in government schools. A plausible model is to create a mobile Atal Tinkering Lab. An “ATL on wheels” together with expert mentors on board, could spend an entire day in a government school before moving to another deprived government school for the next day and so on and repeating this schedule on a weekly basis. A single mobile ATL unit could cater to six schools!

Funding “Tech For Bharat” And “ATL On Wheels”

How to fund the interventions suggested above? The demonstrated shortcomings of current model of ATL operations – absence of expert human resources as well as neglect of government schools, can be addressed either with additional funds (for funding ‘ATL on Wheels’ and to pay for expert mentors) or by forging a collaborative programme between philanthropic entities (such as Tata Trusts and others) and government agencies to address the problem.

A great example where such a model of engagement of young mentors has already begun to change the face of the nation at grassroots level, is the Zila Swachh Bharat Prerak fellowship programme supported jointly by Tata Trusts and Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, under which 600 full-time fellows have been deployed to work closely with the collectors of a select 600 districts throughout India. A similar model could be worked out for the ATL programme also.

The course correction should inject strong motivation to science teachers from all over India and encouraging them to involve ATL in their teaching activities. Involving TIFR's Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education and other experts would be a good start. A national brain-storming workshop involving proactive science teachers from schools with mentors would be another good course correction. In the absence of such changes, one can be assured that this path-breaking programme would never be able to achieve it’s objective and true potential.

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