It is all about promoting equity and inclusion: A Chennai teacher’s experience (in englischer Sprache)

Nila stands at the edge of the group diffidently, unlike the boys in her batch of interns who are pushing their way forward to be heard during our weekly lab. meeting. I encourage her to come forward and talk about her work in the Lab.  Starting hesitantly, she warms up and in ten minutes enthusiastically  describes  her experiments of the previous week she has carried out in our Laboratory.

Nila is one of the few girls from state funded Colleges and is with our Institute for 8 weeks to do an internship. Every year in December, when students from the local colleges come to our  National Laboratory in Chennai, South India,  to work on their end semester Projects, few students from the State funded colleges join this internship program.  During my work as a scientist and Professor, some  years ago, I found that majority of the students from these Government colleges   came from the industrial belt in North Chennai - where families  had no time for the kids while the parents slogged in factories for twelve hours a day, where there was no motivation from households to push the children  to study and where even finishing High school was an uphill task.

Till some years ago, boys in this area were forced to drop out  before they  finished High school to get a job while most girls were asked to take care of their younger siblings at home and get themselves prepared for a marriage! The few who fought their way to the colleges were given some help from the Government with a minimum stipend -just enough to probably get 1 full meal a day and attend college. In cases where the girls managed to finish their undergraduate studies they went back to work as contract workers in crowded garment factories or in small shops for poor wages.

Talking to the girls and observing them, I found  that they seemed to have  little resources to access information or even knowledge about where they could look for it. I  saw that while  our government has several schemes to educate girls, the system  doesn’t seem to take into consideration the socio-fabric of our society. Many of these girls travelled atleast 3 hours to and fro from their homes to colleges , after helping with household chores and lived in families where Patriarchy, economic conditions and outdated ideologies prefer educating a  boy over a girl!

Where was  the motivation and inspiration for these girls to learn?

In recent years, few girls who  started post graduate studies in these colleges came to us  for their projects as part of their curriculum! Every time I asked these kids what they wanted to  become , they would say  ‘ a middle school teacher’ or a ‘factory supervisor’ . Many of them had no access to the internet, and the only access to a PC was in the college they studied in or when they came to our laboratory.

We also noticed that compared to the boys who were in the same college year, the girls didn’t have much clue about how to use the internet or a laptop or even a smart phone for their studies. This   meant that whatever be the college curriculum, everyday practices of teaching and learning seemed to exclude the girls who were already from marginalised groups of students. During casual conversations with these students, I found that in a climate where these girls are under extreme pressure from their families to earn a living, to take care of their younger siblings, practices such as ability setting, continual assessments, and short-hand descriptors of these students – such as “low ability”  seemed commonplace.

These were  girls  were part of minority groups in society due to their economic status and gender  and were disproportionately represented in so-called low ability groups; and frequently misrepresented or underrepresented in  class. Some of them had ambitions to become a school teacher because their role model had been a science teacher from middle school who had pushed them to educate themselves!

After seeing these girls who were struggling to find their voices, fighting against odds to stay on, I decided that we needed a special program for these girls. With the help of my Institute which is government funded and the Materials Research Society of India, we selected girls from the State funded colleges to work with us to carry out a project for 4 months every summer, giving them a reasonable fellowship. This fellowship helped them to convince their families to let them learn and get trained in the labs during summer so that they were better prepared for the job market. This fellowship meant they could work with us without any fear of having to dropout because of sudden financial crisis in their families.

This was a time for ‘experiential learning’ for them using sophisticated instruments like spectrophotometers or microscopes which they had only seen in their text books! This was the time when they got access to the internet and learnt about data mining and power of information! This was when they learnt to use their ‘smart phones ‘ effectively for their studies as well as for communicating effectively. We taught them that using ‘Jugad’ -the typical Indian flexible approach  of using limited resources in an innovative way, they could build a ‘fluorescence s spectrometer’ for just about 1000/-, that they could test quality of drinking water with simple reagents and few test tubes in their houses, that they could set up a solar heater to help their mothers with cooking etc.

Between 2010 and 2018  we helped  train 30 girls  and almost all of them  are now proudly employed in jobs where they are specialists and bring with them a confidence and expertise that their organizations value. Our moments of redemption came  when we learnt that one girl from our first batch is now working as a scientist with the Indian Space Research Organization. Another has joined the department of Atomic energy as a technical officer while few others qualified after their Post-graduation and now work in Polytechnic institutes as Physics instructors or as supervisors in electronics Laboratory. Two them registered for their Ph.D. and hopefully will complete their work in couples of months’ time. These are ‘mile stones’ that probably these girls had never dreamt of before starting on the program or had even known about when they had left high school.

Unfortunately funding  for the program stopped due to various policy reasons and now we work on a shoe string budget trying to help a smaller group of girls from the Government colleges.

By teaching  to such high-need group of girls, I have realised that not only am I an agent of change, I also get to support my students in becoming agents of change – something  some of my own teachers did for me. I was involved with this activity for almost 9 years now and I have realized that teaching brings me joy but teaching the  high-need groups of girls also grounds me in knowing that I am doing something transformative, not only for myself and my students, but for our country and our world.

The social, emotional, and educational trauma that many of the girls face greatly impacts their schooling and our teaching experiences. But the notion of what’s possible can outweigh what is. The program that we started has made us realise that with time, collaboration, support, and relationships, my colleagues, my students, their families and  we can thrive and collectively change our communities for the better.
I know that this work cannot be done by 1 individual alone and the enthusiasm and interest that the students reciprocated with helped the program.

And 10 years ago, when our first batch of girls came to us for their training, initially I wasn’t sure how to best support these girls. But now I realise that  every single day we  got to  do something positive in the lives of these girls- be it a small bit to get rid of discrimination, to set some doable goals and or  just to instil confidence in these students! I realise that these 10 years, I have been able to shift some students’ life trajectories by being an agent of change and supporting them in becoming their own agents of change. My association with these girl students and the program has been one of teaching, caring, guiding and sometimes even learning from these ardent and enthusiastic girls! I would say quite honestly, there’s no other better place to be than being with these students!

April 2020