by Kaustubh Deshpande
Vidnyan - it is a word many of my friends would not have a clue about, but to me it means more than just science, for it holds a special significance. Today, I associate the word with the organization that has taught me more than I could have ever expected. Vidnyanvahini literally translates to "Science vehicle", and the title itself bears the essence of the institution. Centered in Pune, Maharashtra, the educational non-profit group focuses on assisting schools in rural areas where opportunities are highly limited. Vidnyanvahini, however, does more than just teach science - it inspires.
The organization itself is the brainchild of Dr. Madhukar and Mrs. Pushpa Deshpande, who envisioned it in the early 90s and brought it to reality in 1995. Today, Mr. Jayant Phalke and Mr. Sharad Godse along with the Deshpandes work at ensuring the continual progress of Vidnyanvahini. The non-profit group has over 25 dedicated and extremely qualified members who visit schools 5 days a week for the entire school year. During a standard month, one week is spent at a distant place, and the schools in close proximity are visited. The following weeks of the month are spent are several different villages fairly close to Pune. Thus, the organization is not one that rests, and so it has an astounding reach and immediate effect.
As a boy brought in up in suburban America, I have always been surrounded by a culture that is so unlike that which I have witnessed. There is more than just an ocean of difference between the two nations both in the cultural and social aspect; however that only made my experience the more worth-while. When I had first decided to volunteer for Vidnyanvahini, the village I had in mind was the one that was perpetuated by stereotypes - not the most accurate one. However after spending 3 weeks in the Mobile Science I realized the truth and indeed how difficult village life could be for students who wish to pursue education.
During that time I tried to involve myself in as many ways I could, and while my Marathi was not terrible, all the technical science terms were foreign to me. But the slight intimidation factor that I had expected going in was immediately dismissed by the instructors (members of Vidnyanvahini). They taught me more than just Marathi. I was exposed to the country side and learned about where the sugarcane grew, how the government provides food and much more regarding the socio-economic specifics of the villagers.
On my first day, we departed for Shrirampur, and since it was the first week of July we were to stay for a week. Immediately I saw how committed the instructors were, for as soon as we arrived at the school the work began. Sir Atik Shekh, our invaluable driver, sent for school students to help with the moving of the scientific equipment and other essential tools. Our team of 6 teachers (Godse Sir, Godbole Sir, Erande Sir, Dewal Sir, Palkar Madame, and Deshpande Madame) divided up the day according to standard/grade. The rest of the entire school day was completely run by Vidnyanvahini.
For the first few days I behaved more as an observer and simply noted how were run. One important observation that struck me was how well the schools received Vidnyanvahini. At every school we visited, both the students and the staff made it obvious that they valued the organization very much. At one occasion even I was given a token of appreciation, a gift I will treasure forever. I also noticed how much the students themselves enjoyed learning, and in essence school itself - something even I sometimes cannot replicate. Additionally I observed how the amount of discipline played such a vital role in preserving the system, something fairly foreign to me, yet something of immense importance.
Soon as a few more days passed I began to familiarize myself with all the lessons and mainly the physic practical - my favorite being Ohm's Law. I owe a special thanks to Prabhu Sir who taught me the circuitry very quickly and entrusted me with groups of students to teach. To my both pleasure and relief, the students received me well even though my Marathi sometimes seemed a bit unorthodox to them. They also had several questions for me regarding my "foreign" life and America, and naturally I told them everything they desired. At one particular all-girls school we attended I gave a little talk on America comparing and contrasting it to the India. We discussed how our lifestyles were different and how in reality we were all the same. While I sincerely enjoyed these talks, I also realized that many students did not possess much knowledge about global issues, and in that aspect I helped as much as I could by informing them all I knew.
Then as the days progressed I continued to help out more and more each day, and the instructors began to seem more like family. I taught a couple of batches of students during the practical, and I assisted Phatak Madame by performing demos featuring atmospheric pressure and magnetism in front of the class. The surprise on the faces of the students also spoke for itself when they witnessed magic through science. Witnessing an electric current form as a result of moving magnetic fields is much more convincing and appealing when it is done before a class than it is in a textbook. Likewise seeing chemical reactions occur in front of you and noting down observations is more impactful than studying diagrams that you are expected to believe. In this aspect, Vidnyanvahini has more than just brought meaning to the science in these rural areas, it has created a love for it.
Finally I am glad to admit that my stay with Vidnyanvahini has affected me profoundly. I was touched by the immense kindness - everyday Phalke Sir would hand me my lunch and Atik Sir would arrive in the morning to pick me up as well as the rest of group members. I got very accustomed to this and when the final day arrived I realized how much I had enjoyed my experience. Ultimately Vidnyanvahini took me into an entirely foreign culture and opened my eyes to the world I had not seen.