Herald: VidyaVriksh sprouts to shower knowledge

VidyaVriksh sprouts to shower knowledge

04 Feb 2018 04:34am IST

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DEEPA GEORGE

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04 Feb 2018 04:34am IST

Report by
DEEPA GEORGE

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The endlessness of education has inspired many a mind to traverse a path less travelled and in doing so aspire to light up a thousand dreams. As a new era dawns upon us things are fortunately changing for the better, with pedagogy too emerging from the shadows to reflect the rainbow of opportunities for the curiosity-struck learners, who yearn for an unending flow of knowledge. DEEPA GEORGE meets two young Goenkars, Siddharaj Mopkar and Raj Kunkolienkar, who, through their initiative VidyaVriksh make a strong case for a more collaborative learning process

Quite like the movie ‘3 Idiots’, epiphany struck 28-year-old Siddharaj Mopkar in his third year of engineering at NIT-Calicut when he realised that the education he had was of little use in the real world. 

“I realised that there is a lot more to life than what I studied. I wanted to revisit my school days and question why I chose science in the first place,” he elucidates. Unlike most, who only question but decide to trudge on the chosen path with dread, Siddharaj chose to explore this thought. He started VidyaVriksh in 2011, with the aim to introduce experiential learning where learning was “fun and open” and less tedious - a cultural change that sought teaching to be less of being teacher oriented and more on being a co-learner along with the child. 

To make that a reality though, he had to first find a way to bait parents and so, he first started by coaching teens for competitive exams which received a good response. 

He is supported by the Fomento Group and operates from his learning studio, Mais Space in Panjim. “I also mentored students in the last two years for the annual BITS Pilani tech fest. My role was a facilitator, making it possible for them to connect with people who have the domain knowledge they required and counsel them through the process. It was extremely gratifying when the trio, Sparsh Kamath, Mrigank Pednekar and Kabir Naik went on to do very well,” he says.

VidyaVriksh’s approach is more child-oriented, aimed at creating children into independent thinkers and problem solvers, driven by curiosity. 

His tryst in 2013 as a fellow with “Teach for India” in Pune - an initiative that sought teachers to teach children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds in municipal schools gave him the sound experience he needed while exposing him to the social dynamics faced by the lesser privileged. He adds, “It gave me an incomparable insight into the life on the other side.”

Recognising his own privileged status, Siddharaj is very aware that this privilege allows him to take a shot at trying an alternative. He chuckles, “As change agents, it is tough to see it as a pure business model. Thankfully, our ‘privileged’ background aids in not letting money be the driving force.” Partnering him on this course is Raj Kunkolienkar, who joined him in 2016. Raj, who has a Masters in Physics from BITS Pilani laments, “In the education curriculum of most schools, science focused studies are given more importance than social sciences or literature. Why can’t a person interested in Physics also choose to do Psychology? It is important to have a cross disciplinary approach in education.”  

Elucidating on how technology has made a significant change in the way we consume information, Siddharaj adds, “In our time, random facts and rote learning were emphasised. With technology and mobile telephony, we now have information on our fingertips. Schools unfortunately aren’t taking cognisance of this. Today, there are so many alternatives to information so the teacher isn’t the ultimate.” He further adds, “Recognising the harmful effects of technology is important but shying away from it only makes the distance between two generations wider.” 

At VidyaVriksh, they create content or knowledge for the user that includes the auditory and visual mediums of learning, moving away from being only text heavy. Open to students from 9-16 years of age, the centre includes all the students together in the same space and time, thus not limiting knowledge by the constraints of age. With 20 students who come for sessions post school twice a week, VidyaVriksh hopes to be a mentor and enabler in their education process. As Raj rightly says, “We want to help these children to persist and also deal with failure. In schools, failure is a taboo, never associated as part of a process. Education like life is organic and can never be a linear process as we are conditioned to believe.” 

With educationists like Ken Robinson, Sugata Mitra and Sal Khan as inspiration, the duo now plan to take this initiative into schools. They are currently working with Mushtifund High School in introducing a hybrid model and having their open sessions run alongside regular curriculum. Likewise, they plan to make inroads into more alternate schools like Keshar Academy of Learning (KAL), The Learning Center and Goa School of Light. 

Curiosity being the common thread between children and researchers, VidyaVriksh’s expansion plans includes emphasis on fundamental and applied research in the sciences, engineering and social sciences. With a group of local and remote researchers, some of the projects they have pursued have been as diverse as researching the Brain-Computer interface Development and Game Theoretic Approaches to Cancer to a more current social topic, The Paradox of Intolerance (giving a mathematical explanation to theoretical research). Raj emphatically states, “Our overarching theme is moving away from centralised education, trying to make the power reside with the learner.”

It is obvious that the young duo are having fun, challenging the norms and paving a way to new learning paradigms. Shielded by the temerity of youth that makes them see the possibility of an alternative, Raj succinctly surmises, “A single person can make a difference if they truly want to. I love naive people. Only they can think of something revolutionary.”

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