The science behind igniting young minds

Atal Tinkering Lab, ATL, Science, Technology, Math, Engineering, Karnataka, Chennai, the federal, english news website
Many have benefited from the ATLs. Image: Prathap Ravishankar

As you enter PCKG Government Higher Secondary School in Chennai, you feel like you’ve stepped back in time, about 75 years ago to be more precise. Look at it from the outside, its narrow verandas and towering blocks, and one might mistake the grey buildings for another old school frozen in time. But looks are deceiving.

The school is part of the Atal Tinkering Lab (ATL) initiative, and you witness a whole new world filled with technology and innovation as you walk deeper down the corridors.

ATL is an initiative by Niti Aayog that aims to nurture scientific temper and imbibe a curiosity for innovation in students. Government, private and local body schools can apply for funding. Students from classes 6 to 10 get hands-on training in science, technology, engineering and math. The laboratory model looks at exploring problem solving prototypes across fields such as health, sanitation, and transportation, apart from serving sustainable development goals.

PCKG was one of the first schools in Chennai to set up the ATL lab. It has as many as 1,500 students between classes 6 and 12 visiting it regularly. It’s difficult to miss the excitement on the faces of P Jayachandran, class 12, and J Pradeep Kumar J, class 10, as they discuss ideas. They have been selected for the National Bal Shree Honour that awards young creative minds. Pradeep says that his constant engagement with experiments and ideas at the lab made it easier for him to crack the on-spot challenge of creating a water cleaning device.

The school’s presentation at a recent robotics competition in Delhi was selected as the best presentation. An idea developed at the ATL, the robot was designed to be of use to the armed forces in tracking the movements around it and in enemy territory.
Launched in 2016, about 13,000 schools across states and union territories have applied to be a part of the ATL programme so far. Southern India forms a large part of the initiative, with over 3,000 applying for establishing labs.

Increase in innovation and productivity

After S Surya Mutharasu, a class 9 student of SBOA School & Junior College, saw the havoc the Chennai floods and Cyclone Gaja wreaked on people, he decided to work on an automatic current cut-off system (ACCOS) module. The Atal Tinkering Lab (ATL) initiative gave his plans an extra push.

“We see many people getting electrocuted during natural disasters. ACCOS is a small and compact module that I designed to prevent electrocution. It has an automatic current cut-off system and can withstand about 240V of alternating current. If an electric line is cut, this module will cut the current supply that goes to the broken line,” explains Surya. “It is simple to use and can be mounted onto electric poles. This helps reduce the human effort during natural disasters and the electricity department can intervene only in specific affected areas,” he adds.

Amudha Rani from Learning Links Foundation, who works closely with students at the lab to help them develop their ideas, explains, “They are taken through various phases, they are given a head start in technology and innovation. They are also trained in the various aspects of presentation that have a lot to do with effective communication.”

The prerequisites for schools to receive sanction for ATLs include space, attendance rate and number of students in the classes 6-10. Schools are granted ₹10 lakh for each ATL over a maximum period of five years, and this includes maintenance of equipment, purchase of consumables, organising popular science lecture series, innovation events and other scientific activities, competitions and payment of honorariums to the faculty and outside mentors.

No textbooks, just hands on experience

Divided into batches for periodical sessions of around 40 minutes at the lab, the students are initiated into basics of physics, explains Vijayalakshmi Balaji, in charge of ATALLab in SBOA. At present, as many as 5,000 students between classes 6-10 are getting trained regularly, with each student attending one class every fortnight.

She adds, “Students are given orientation in topics like direct current, alternating current, volts and resistance before they are given equipment like microcontrollers, arduino boards and sensors of various types.” While these are concepts they will encounter in higher classes, the early introduction provides a trigger and taps their potential to innovate. The school has mentors from across fields guiding the students in developing their prototypes. They have been concentrating on core areas like water management, health and smart mobility.

Sutapa Badyakar, a teacher at the National Centre for Excellence in Bengaluru and in-charge of the tinkering lab, talks about Aaditya Voruganti, a class 9 student who developed a ‘smart toilet’ with an Internet of Things (IoT)-powered device to keep a tab on it. “Aaditya won an award at the Rural Innovators Startup Conclave.”

Sai Vasisht, a 14-year-old who developed a similar model of smart toilet, says that while the school helps with programming and coding their ideas, the ideas and mentorship helped students like him to understand their potential.

“The idea of building a smart toilet was to ensure hygiene. We have a sensor that detects methane and gas in the toilet. It triggers the exhaust fan to get rid of odour. In case of leakage in pipes, it will also send a message to the housekeeping staff who can attend to it quickly,” he adds.

The community reach

While building prototypes is one part of the programme, their applicability at the community level is another. Johnson Grammar School in Hyderabad, which set up the ATL last year, invites students from government schools for tinkering sessions. “It is a pleasure to see the young minds discussing problems, pondering over solutions, working as a team and coming up with novel ideas and models during the ‘tinkering’ sessions,” says the school rector K Chandra Bhanu.

The mentors and resource persons in schools also ensure that prototypes have been explored in their truest potential by applying them at the community level. Shilbha Satyakumari and Nisha Sambandam, who are both in charge of the ATL at SJT Surana Jain Vidyalaya, explain that besides innovation, the students are made to apply thought to the benefits their ideas have for society.

Exploration sans boundaries

Ever since winning a national award at the ‘Atal Tinkering Marathon 2017’, there is an air of excitement at Hyderabad’s Nacharam branch of the Delhi Public School (DPS). The students at the ATL are brimming with innovative ideas and have been spending extra hours at the lab, honing their skills.

Atal Tinkering Marathon is a six-month nationwide challenge across six thematic areas — clean energy, water resources, waste management, healthcare, smart mobility and agri-technology.

“Our team bagged the award in the agri-technology category. Since then, there is a renewed interest among the students to participate in lab activities,” says school coordinator Subhash.

The students were awarded a 10-month ‘ATL Student Entrepreneurship’ programme in partnership with Dell India and Learning Links Foundation. “I am interested in aerospace and missiles. Abdul Kalam sir is my inspiration,” says Manish Mallapur, a class 10 student and an active member of the lab.

From designing an artificial finger to coming up with solutions for helping an ambulance navigate congested roads, students have shown that creativity and technology combined have no bar. Devansh Kavad, of class 10, explains his idea, “The automatic ambulance controller is able to give signals using sensor and Arduino board circuits in advance to the traffic signal control room so that the route can be cleared faster for the ambulance.”

Students at SBOA have come up with a community support Skyhawk, a multi-tasking quadcopter that can serve food. As a 24-hour drone, the user can access it through a one time password when it reaches their location. Sharran and RR Shanthosh, both class 9 students, explain its other functions. “It is attached with a GPS system that will help track it and a camera that will send footage to the monitor located elsewhere. This can also be used to distribute food during times of disasters apart from for agriculture, where it can be used to sow seeds and water the fields. As an ambulance, it can help transport organs for patients.”

The students at The Secunderabad Public School extensively use robotics, electronic components, sensors and artificial intelligence. “The ATL was established to provide a platform to showcase scientific bent of mind among children. We want to adopt a holistic development and inculcate scientific temperament among young minds,” says the principal of the school J Sujatha.

The school has dedicated staff members who would conduct regular classes to train and guide the children. Eminent scientists and entrepreneurs are invited on a regular basis to give guest lectures to inspire students.

Not within everyone’s reach

The conditions laid down for implementation of the programme has made it beyond the reach of several schools. The Government High School, Immadihalli in Bengaluru, applied for the ATL grant in 2018. The Centre approved the plan in March 2019. However, as the school did not have the required 1,500 sq ft of space to set up the lab, the scheme could not be implemented.

Speaking to The Federal, principal of the school Shiva Reddy says, “It is unfortunate that we could not get the required land despite the sanction for setting up the lab. We have now sought the village authorities to now scout for additional land.”

The school, having a strength of 2,200 students, has a science lab set up by Agastya Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that nurtures creativity through science education programmes in rural India. Working as a lab assistant, Dayanand Rathod says they help students through practical experiments and that the students show interest in spending time in the labs even after school hours.

In Karnataka, of the 310 schools that were sanctioned to set up ATLs, only 139 were funded. An observation by this reporter found that many of the private schools that were sanctioned had funds released while the government schools face difficulties.

(With inputs from Prabhu Mallikarjunan and Suresh Dharur.)

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