Stem Academy of America co-founder believes euphoria of success will propel experiential learning.
Atlanta based STEM Academy of USA , co-founded by Indian American Amitabh Sharma along with Paddy Sharma, has been a harbinger of innovation based education in India for the past few years.
With chapters in Indian cities such as Delhi and Agra, the academy has introduced experiential and STEM (Science, technology, engineering, math) based learning in India to revolutionize the teaching process there.
The Indian academic system that relies heavily on traditional academics and often rote based learning, is now gradually progressing towards a more meaningful and experiential learning.
The American Bazaar caught up with Amitabh Sharma to learn about how their innovative learning is encouraging cross fertilization of ideas, exchange of thoughts, discussions and consensus building among-st kids in India.
Amitabh who has an MBA, a law degree and a doctorate in marketing, is a serial entrepreneur with experience in oil and gas, information technology and education. He is also the founding chair of the American India Foundation’s Atlanta Leadership Council.
There is an increasing leaning towards STEM and experiential learning in India now from school boards to the Prime Minister’s Office. How does your STEM curriculum cater to this new educational scenario?
Our STEM curriculum genuinely addresses the objective with which the Indian policy making bodies endorse experiential learning. Hands-on, practical DIY methodology triggers critical out-of-the-box thinking which is missing in India.
So, we set about developing a STEM curriculum mindful that the uniquely successful pedagogy in the US and elsewhere would enable a child to delve into a problem and give the child a solution oriented attitude.
It will instill a deep sense of exploration and discovery thus leading to innovation. The creative scientific temper is a mindset which we are so heavily focused upon and we actually immerse a child into problem-solving real-world issues.
It has been an arduous yet worthwhile journey over past four and a half years wherein we engaged stalwarts and international STEM subject matter experts to draw up a comprehensive curriculum mapped with Indian syllabus.
We first did gap analysis of what is being done in school theory and practical classes and what is missing. Then we aligned our program with CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) syllabus that’s followed by 85%+ Indian schools from grades one to ten.
We intentionally left out grades 11 and 12 because there is too much pressure to get better marks and clear various competitive exams.
Having identified age and grade appropriate topics/subjects mapped to CBSE, we then conceptualized real world problems or real-life issues relevant to Indian environment i.e. contextual challenges.
Very painstakingly, we knit these true to life challenges around the CBSE topics and crafted a curriculum to which a child can relate with.
We then pioneered to change the paradigm by encouraging peer-to-peer collaborative learning splitting the class into small 5-6 student groups encouraging cross fertilization of ideas, exchange of thoughts, discussions and consensus building.
STEM is the new buzzword in education it seems. But how is your curriculum different from an increasing number of STEM based learning programs being advertised in India?
Great question. Ironic as it may seem but most (actually about 95%) of the STEM offerings in India are centered around tool kits and activities.
We normally give a crude analogy of a defective car being taken to a mechanic who knows what steps to follow and repair the car. We are about cultivating a genre of inventive wizards rather than producing simply mechanics.
Our concept of authentic STEM is to not hand hold students by giving them toolkits, gizmos or just some experiments but to be able to address real world challenges (related to their CBSE syllabus) and find solutions.
Our strategy goes way beyond, robotics, electronics et al and pervades a wide array of fields including environment, biology, space, ecology, plants, agriculture, oceanography etc. all aimed at holistic development of children according to their aptitude and interest.
Every child, who wishes to pursue any field in life finds his/her pitch in our curriculum. So, it is customized and adaptable.
Our modules or learning units span 70-80 pages incorporating teacher’s manual, CBSE standards, student worksheet, pre and post assessment (for impact measurement), multimedia (now VR/AR being added), materials. So, nothing is left to ambiguity and it is al encompassing.
Teachers can also compliment their normal sessions with our curriculum which accentuates conceptual learning.
Are there any challenges you face in promoting a STEM based learning program? Especially in traditional academically inclined set-ups, is it difficult to introduce experience derived learning?
Every opportunity comes with its fair share of challenges. First off, a highly specialized unique copyright protected curriculum designed with intense endeavor, time and money is prone to copyright violation.
We have had this happen with a company that led us up the garden path where the owner promised the moon, made us even invest heavily, took our curriculum and then broke the relationship while promoting our curriculum in their name.
Wary of such less ethical companies propelled us incept our own outfit in India. We feel firm action should be precipitated against such deceit. Secondly, there is seeming resentment to change from school Principals, teachers and also parents.
But CBSE’s endorsement of our authentic STEM offering and we having trained 700+ teachers in STEM pedagogy across India has enabled us to get embraced by the education fraternity.
Thirdly the concept of book-less, DIY style of learning is at the outset alien to students but soon they endear it because it is engaging collaborative fun learning.
And finally, the short-cutters who found fast way to make money propagated robotic, activity oriented, experimental kits and gullible educators adopted it thus defeating the purpose of exploration, discovery. Innovation and creativity. So, we have had to fight hard against such horse-trading.
What would you say about the response you have been receiving when it comes to implementing STEM in India?
Response has been euphoric yet slow. When I have addressed several big conferences, the acceptance of our STEM offering has been unanimous but it has to peter down to the school implementation level
These have included Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Chennai, STREAM conference chaperoned by ex-ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) Chairman Kasturi Rangan, SME conference chaired by Minister Nitin Gadkari and international Innovation conference in Leh, Ladakh organized by Sonam Wangchuk, noted Indian innovator and education reformist.
Our aggressive efforts to enable educators and policy makers to comprehend how our genuinely crafted STEM curriculum will feed into the ‘Educate to Innovate’ philosophy are now bearing fruits.
We have introduced our STEM program in several schools in Delhi National Capital Region, Leh, Navodaya Vidyalayas (a system of alternate schools for talented students) and soon would be in Jammu and Dehradun etc. But an overwhelming cross country introduction is what we seek.
Any unique achievements in the field that you may want to talk about. Any new learning along the way about the acceptance of STEM based learning in India?
CBSE endorsement is one of major achievements. They have acknowledged that in the maze of other companies solely pushing activities which do little to serve the cause of Innovation, STEM Academy of USA is truly addressing the gap in Indian education i.e. fostering creative thinking among Indian students.
This is a dire need for way too long we have pursued rote learning. Times have changed and it is imperative to instill the urge to Innovate.
In our endeavor to engage students, we have discovered enormous talent aside from the genes and DNA that Indian children possess and we are giving them just the right environment to blossom as creators.
We are on a crusade mission, failure is not an option. We will continue convincing the education fraternity that gizmos and bunch of experiments may create excitement and possibly some learning too, but if the focus is on Innovation, then STEM Academy of USA’s philosophy is the only resort.
Also several prestigious private schools, Government funded schools, creative schools have adopted our curriculum and are reaping tremendous benefits. We have also set up a Center of Excellence in Delhi catering to students as well as teachers.
When it comes to trying to make STEM a mainstream form of learning in India, what are the areas you would require assistance in? Are there any social/infrastructural hiccups that you face?
Mainstream form of learning may be an optimistic goal, even though achievable if policy makers and implementers commit to it, but any assistance in from Niti Ayog (a policy think tank of the Indian Government), Ministry of HRD (Human Resource Development), state governments, CBSE, NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) in terms of propagating authentic STEM will be great start.
As regards social/infrastructural bottlenecks, it is more a matter of mindset. We do not wish to over-reach by replacing the current pattern of learning. School systems can simply introduce our STEM curriculum as a supplementary medium to accentuate learning.
We have proven that students acquire much better understanding of the subject matter, they generate application skills, they get better marks in exams because they assimilate concepts and they have a shot at ideation and creativity.
Our ethos, therefore, is “Educate to Innovate” and our vision is to have a buy-in from owners, Principals, managements, teachers, parents and policy writers to be open welcoming the STEM pedagogy.
Not only for individual student, but for family and the nation, this is the only route if India is to recapture its pride in sense of discovery so richly accorded by Aryabhatta, Varahmira, Bose et al.
On this token, we also aspire to have corporate support through CSR funding because this is best investment in Indian youth.
Interestingly, creatively able youngsters will only serve to fuel the progressive demands of the industry and so the corporate sector would be investing in their own growth through STEM pedagogical outreach.
What are the new programs, methods in STEM based learning that you are planning to introduce in the near future?
We propose to dabble with several new ways to make an aggressive outreach. These include:
a. Mobile vans loaded with STEM curriculum camping at residential locations encouraging students to enroll
b. Center of Excellence at our Delhi office catering to stud nets and teachers for professional development
c. Capacity building workshops for instructors under the aegis of CBSE
d. STEM based learning in state government schools, public schools, municipal schools, government schools,
e. Summer and winter workshops for students as well as teachers
Let’s talk about teachers and their acceptance towards STEM based programs?
We firmly believe that from the four prime stakeholders in the pursuit of education, teachers would be the true ambassadors, catalysts or proponents of STEM.
That is why CBSE has asked us to continue to train teachers all across India. Once they imbibe and ingrain the advantages of becoming facilitators rather than instructors and realize the strength of experiential education, then the euphoria will itself propel STEM