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Finding Life’s Purpose In Empowering Young Students To Innovate

"The more challenges we face in life, the stronger we believe that we shall be successful in life," said Dr. Dhanajay Pandey, a teacher-coach-mentor

‘Hardships are a part of life. The more challenges one faces in life, the stronger one evolves as a human being.’ 


This is a common message engrained in most of us during early life. Whether or not one believes and embraces it, is a question to contemplate. However, Dr. Dhananjay Pandey, an educationist from Bilaspur, Chattisgarh, a state in central India, strongly believes that there is a direct correlation between the quantum of struggle one faces in life, and the probability of succeeding in life. Dr. Dhanajay works enthusiastically as a teacher-coach-mentor in Govt. Higher Multipurpose Senior Secondary School.


"The more challenges we face in life, the stronger we believe that we shall be successful in life," said Dr. Dhanajay Pandey.


Dr. Dhananjay’s first exposure to innovation was at a training program in Raipur at the J R Dani Government school’s Atal Tinkering Lab (ATL), which is an innovation workspace funded by NITI Aayog, Government of India, to nurture innovation at the grassroots. He was diligently observing and enjoying the hands-on training sessions along with other teachers. He was new to the field of Internet of Things, 3D printing, robotics. He had never heard of design thinking, problem solving and did not believe that he could learn and experience innovation at this stage in his life. And today, within a span of 12 months, he has established one of the most promising and outperforming Atal Tinkering Labs of the country. 


"I have totally given up my family life. I live and breathe my tinkering lab. I feel like I belong to this lab, and I am born to mentor students so that they can excel in life," said the teacher.


He believes that mentoring students is what gives a sense of purpose to his life. Spending time with students and innovating with them at the lab, gives him a fulfilling and satisfying experience, and he feels to be part of a bigger mission, that gives him true happiness. Tinkering has helped him to discover a new version of him, it allows him to connect with his students on a different level, where they share common dreams and eventually create a path to convert them into a reality. He believes that even if a handful students from his Tinkering Lab are able to succeed in life, he would feel accomplished. 


At first, it was quite challenging for him to motivate students to visit the Tinkering Lab. Most of the students at the government school were from poor socio-economic background, and did not attend school regularly. They were engaged in part time contractual jobs to earn a living for their respective families, and hence would attend school very occasionally. His fellow teachers from other schools, colleges and community advised him to let go of the Tinkering Lab initiative in their school. He was told that innovation wasn't their cup of tea, and ATL would have been awarded to them erroneously. However, who knew that these negative remarks were only giving more strength to Dr. Dhananjay. He was determined to prove to his fellow colleagues, to Bilaspur, to Chhattisgarh and to entire India, that government school students from poor socio-economic background, when given an opportunity, when motivated and coached in the right direction, could also be an outlier. 


One of his students is a class 12 boy, Atul Agarwal, who has been selling newspapers everyday morning from 5am to 9am, for the last 6 years. He earns and contributes Rs. 750 per month to the monthly income of the family. The only other earning member in his family is his mother, who works as a domestic help. After selling the newspapers, he visits the Tinkering Lab daily at 930 am and starts working on his innovation project along with his team. At 12 noon, he attends his regular afternoon school classes, and at 4pm, he is back in the lab, tinkering and innovating, continuing until 10pm. Atul was never interested in studies, he used to bunk school most of the days, and would spend most of his time wandering on the roads. After incessant persuasion from Dr. Dhanajay, he visited the Tinkering Lab and slowly and eventually started to develop interest in technology and started to work on some of the local community problems of Bilaspur.


‘Until 10 months ago, I did not know what more would I do in my life, beyond selling newspapers. Exposure to technology and innovation has given me a direction, and I’d like to pursue electrical engineering for my higher studies’, said Atul Agarwal, class 12 student. 


Atul is from the three-member team, whose innovation has been awarded under the top 30 innovations of India, under the Atal Tinkering Lab program of NITI Aayog, Government of India. Another team from the school recently represented the Indian high school tinkering community at an international Robotronics challenge in Dubai, where they also won an award in the innovation category. 


For most of these Bilaspur children, life had always been limited to Chhattisgarh, to the extent that they had never boarded a train. Their Parents are overwhelmed to see the children playing with technology and innovating. The students have been enrolled into the Student Innovator Program, which is unique three to four-month long program, launched by NITI Aayog, where high school students and teachers are working with mentors to learn about entrepreneurship, intellectual property, effective communication, making a business plan, elevator pitch and so on. The goal is to create an institution, where school students can work with start-up incubators to pursue their innovative and entrepreneurial ideas along with their high school education. Additionally, the District Collector of Bilaspur has promised to support the young innovators to convert their innovations into minimum viable products (MVP), that can be tested in the local community. In fact, the school had recently been invited by the zonal railway department to develop a bio-toilet that could be eventually be tested and installed in Indian railways. 


‘These young and talented children have made Bilaspur proud, and we will support them in all possible way. Bilaspur has been famous for wildlife and has attracted tourists, but now India shall know us for our young innovators’, said Shri P Dayanand, District Collector of Bilaspur.


Over the last 12-18 months, problem solving and innovation has become an integral part of life for students of Tinkering Lab of Govt. Higher Multipurpose Senior Secondary School. However, the Bilaspur school is only one of the five thousand schools that have been selected by the Government of India to establish the Tinkering Labs. While, some schools have grabbed the opportunity and are creating a conducive environment for students, by encouraging problem solving without a fear of failure, some are still grappling with the overall idea of innovation in high school, and are perceiving the Tinkering labs as an additional burden to them. 


Nevertheless, it is the beginning of a nationwide movement of innovation. And this is one inspiring example of enabling innovation at the grassroots, and empowering young students to dream big and live their dream.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Dr Ayesha Chaudhary

The author is with Atal Innovation Mission, NITI Aayog, Government of India. She started her innovation journey with a doctoral degree in BioMedical Engineering, later co-founded a Medtech startup and has also explored the corporate world

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