Volume 2 Issue 52 | February 28 , 2009 |


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From Gaibandha

Roads to Invention

Saba El Kabir

The overall serenity and detachment of the largely agrarian town of Gaibandha makes for an unlikely harbour of widespread scientific endeavour. Yet if one were to visit the town, it would be difficult not to notice the town's burgeoning community of science enthusiasts. More than 55 science clubs have cropped up here, and with over 500 members, their significance to the community of Gainbandha are becoming increasingly apparent. In fact, the significance of the contributions they are making toward society is such that more than 20 of the members have received research grants and R&D (Research and Development) fellowships from the Ministry of Science and Information Communications Technology for their respective research projects. Remarkably, all of these budding researchers are either students or recent graduates and none have formal scientific education or training.

This intensity of scientific activity, and that too in such unexpected quarters, would surprise many of us. But for Omar Azad Chowdhury, this is just the fruit of years of labour and single-minded dedication that made it possible to promote science to the school children of Gaibandha. Omar Azad Chowdhury, an educator and successful inventor, has worked relentlessly for over a decade to eliminate “science phobia” and to promote the sciences as subjects that are not only practical, but also, if taught properly, entertaining. He has developed teaching aids and a hands-on method that makes science fun for children, motivating them to better understand it for its own sake and not just to meet academic requirements. The goal is to help the children use science as a tool through which they can ultimately make significant contributions to the socio-economic development of their communities. The effectiveness of his method is self-evident. One only needs to look at the current state of Gaibandha with its bustling science clubs for confirmation.

Omar Azad Chowdhury grew up in the northern district of Gaibanda. From an early age he developed an interest and aptitude for inventing; his first gadget was a slide projector built when he was still in second grade. His role model was his uncle who was himself a social innovator and organiser. His uncle worked to organise small cottage industries to help the poor, the destitute to become self-reliant. He would organise women into groups to produce their own yarn from cotton on a commercial basis. He established a handloom factory in an abandoned house and trained unemployed youth to produce textiles and different textile products for sale, and would distribute seeds to farmers for cultivating cotton. His uncle was the only person of his family to encourage his fascination of science, and would regularly provide him with financial assistance for his research work. His uncle's work greatly influenced Mr. Chowdhury, and had fostered in him a strong sense of commitment towards society and a constant drive for innovation.

After completing his secondary school certification, Mr. Chowdhury entered a diploma engineering programme at a college in the neighbouring district of Rangpur. However, he was forced to drop out because of financial difficulties, and due to provisions barring students from re-entering the system two years after passing SSC. He later went on to finish his higher secondary certification.

He began his professional life with poultry farming. Finding the incubators sold at the local markets inadequate, Mr. Chowdhury began to work on inventing and manufacturing a better model. Success in this project landed him the President's award in 1995. Mr. Chowdhury's knack for fixing and inventing things started attracting young students. He saw their fascination with gadgets, and their eagerness to invent, and started teaching and informing them about different machines and gadgets. He also observed that though many of them were science students, the fundementals of their learnings were generally very weak. Up until that point, his work with the youth was mainly for his own enjoyment, but now, recognising an opportunity to make a contribution, he decided to jump in.

His idea was simple. From experience, he observed that children develop a fear of science from a very early age. The education system of Bangladesh being so rigid, teachers do not have the freedom to adapt their materials or methods to the needs of individual students, nor does the system give them any incentive to do so. The rush to complete the syllabus in order to prepare students for board exams leaves little room for experimentation in teaching methods and as a result, schools do not foster creativity but instead direct students to abstractly memorize facts. Because the curriculum moves swiftly, students can easily fall behind, a common occurrence, one that severly undermines their academic experience. This is particularly true for girls and rural students, where fear of failure leads to high rates and drop-outs.

Mr. Chowdhury aims to fight this trend by developing science students that are genuinely interested in it. Mr. Chowdhury's main strategy involves conducting science workshops led by his organisation, Social Advancement by Local Technology (SALT). During these sessions, science experiments and models are transported onto school premises where students can learn interactively. The workshops introduce novel but simple techniques to explain fundamental principles ranging from Newton's laws, gravity, solar electricity, making magnets, producing paint and more, and linking these hands-on exercises with the various theories taught in class. Many exercises introduce children to useful practical knowledge such as the production of saline in the event of diarrhoea and testing salt for iodine, the lack of which results in health problems, particularly in the northern region where sea salt is not available. Using cheap science aids, Mr. Chowdhury makes use of over 40 curriculum-based experiments, 80 models for fun, and 30 participatory sessions. With these in hand he has been able to persuade school authorities and teachers of the benefits of activity-based science education.

Mr. Chowdhury helped form the student-led Centre for Science Studies (CSS) committee in the schools. These committees engage both students and administrators and will act as a catalyst for further nurturing of science in schools. Another unique dimension to Mr. Chowdhury's work is his determination to nurture the innate creativity of the young in particular applying their inventors' imagination to address local development needs using their own resources. He hopes to demonstrate that communities can become self-sufficient by generating their own technology and reducing dependence on imports. To date, 15 SALT members have already won national research and development awards. For the 2003-04 Science and Technology museum awards, 3 out of 22 winners from all over the country were from SALT, the highest number of winners from any club or organisation in the country.

Through widespread media attention, knowledge of Mr. Chowdhury's project has grown. Word of mouth spread beyond the confines of Gaibandha. Schools in Rangpur and a number of local science clubs in Sherpur, Pabna, Bogra, and Dhaka districts have expressed interest in his programme. With the help of the regional Science and Technology museum, Mr. Chowdhury plans to tap into the museum's extensive network of more than 1300 science clubs. As his programme grows, students who have graduated and other inventors with an affinity for the programme sign on as supporters and staff. Many act as trainers and help spread the programme while preserving its original mission.

To date, Mr. Chowdhury has carried out the mobile science workshops in 28 schools reaching over 20,000 people comprising of 60 percent of students and 40 percent of general public. Already, statistics show that participating schools are performing better in the sciences. In fact, schools are increasingly willing to pay for Mr. Chowdhury's programme, further encouraging the growth and long-term success of SALT.

Mr. Chowdhury resides in Gaibanda with his wife, two sons and a daughter. Both his sons have invented things and have been awarded research and development grants. His eldest son is now the secretary of a cultural organisation called Sabuj Pata that was originally founded by Mr. Chowdhury when he was a college student. He has converted his passion for the sciences into a growing business of manufacturing and marketing teaching-aids for science classes. He has achieved financial and professional stability. In his relentless drive to achieve his mission of spreading the word of science, the sacrifices that he and his family had to make were immense, and he prevailed even when the circumstances seemed adverse.

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