Science Fair Summer Boot Camp @ Aarti High School

“No Adarsh anna (means brother)! We do not need to stop our project! If the pipette suction is not working, we can use our mouths instead,” Kullayama, a 9th grader, blurted out anxiously. Eagerness to learn at any cost and nervousness at losing an opportunity was clearly tangible in her voice. “MOUTH? THAT’S NOT SAFE!” I opened my mouth again to parrot the lab safety protocols that I learnt in my school but stopped immediately when I sensed the vexation in the faces of 20 plus 9th graders, all huddled around me. The scene I am describing is one the most impactful experiences I had from the 8-day science fair boot camp I conducted at Aarti High School, Kadapa, India.

 

Aarti High School is one of the several programs run by “Aarti For Girls”, a non-profit organization in Kadapa, Andra Pradesh. Kadapa has the lowest female to male sex ratio 913 to 1000 in India. In the summer of 2017, it was through sheer chance that I visited Aarti when on a tour of Southern Indian temples (mandated by my mother of course!). It was the most powerful experience for a 13-year-old. My family was no stranger to female discrimination as my maternal grandfather was not only looked down upon by society for having only daughters (my mother and my aunt) and no son to carry the family name, but he was, even, disowned by his affluent but orthodox family because he also wanted to defy the caste system to educate his daughters. Although because of my grandfather’s life story I am keenly aware of gender-discrimination in India, I assumed everything was much better now than it was 45 years ago. Upon return to US, I found myself engulfed in the “Me Too” movement. This got me thinking…if women in US, a country that is deemed a world-leader, is subject to sexual harassment and assault…what is the fate of an abandoned girl-child, in a country that culturally has propensity to discriminate women? It shook me to the core! With renewed gratitude for the courage my grandfather exhibited 45 years ago and the desire to live up to his legacy....I decided to learn more about Aarti.

 

Mrs. Sandhya Puchallapali, a resident of Kadapa, educator by profession, mother of two accomplished daughters, is the founder, president, and the source of inspiration behind Aarti. She is affectionately referred to as “Sandhyamma” by everyone. Amma in telugu means “mother”. Over two decades, through sheer determination and relentless hard work she developed Aarti into a remarkable institute working selflessly and endlessly to end gender discrimination by fighting female feticide, providing security of a home and opportunity to abandoned girls, and empowering women economically, socially and politically. To summarize, Aarti is the David fighting the gender-bias Goliath in India.

I kept in touch with Aarti and earlier this year learnt that Sandhyamma was keen on promoting STEM in Aarti High School and was on lookout for someone who can help the students prepare for science fair competitions. Having participated in science fairs for 5 years, I felt I could help. I volunteered to do science fair boot-camp to teach the students the scientific method and the engineering process. Two projects "Does Garlic have Antibacterial Properties" (Scientific Research Project) and "Making Cheap and Efficient Electricity from Coins" (Engineering Project) were conducted in the boot-camp.

From get-go, it was clear that it would be an experience like no other. Help came from all corners – Abhiram, Sandhyamma’s grandson, offered to translate and further explain in local dialect when the students had trouble understanding my accent. Principal Nancy madam and teachers Sujatha madam, Ali sir, Gopal sir and Oblesu sir showed incredible support and stayed long after school hours and came on weekends, putting their personal priorities on back-burner, to provide the students sufficient time to be able to do the projects. But, it is the students who made a lasting impact on me. Honestly, I am not sure who benefited more –students or me. They were teeming with an insatiable desire to learn. It was palpable in everything they did. Roadblocks didn’t deter them, and they came up with creative, sometimes a bit risky, propositions to push through. Their resourcefulness and adaptability made me realize how much I exploit the privileges I enjoy. They proactively made plans with teachers to stay late and come during lunch breaks to work on the projects.

 

Initially, 8-days seemed like not enough time to conduct the two projects, but we found time not only to do additional STEM RAFT activities donated by XILINX but I, even, was given the opportunity to help another volunteer in introducing Micro Chips, a Raspberry Pi like computer resource, for the first time in India. I was, also, allowed to visit the Aarthi Home and tutor some of the students in various subjects ranging from Math to English. In conclusion, the love and affection they showered on me was touching, but the confidence they exhibited in-light of the disadvantages they are faced with was truly awe-inspiring!