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How to Create Tomorrow’s Leaders: Educate Locally to Enrich Globally

By Paula Reinman
Coauthored by Himanshu Asnani

Can you take two seemingly unrelated problems with our current education model and create a new learning approach to address both of them while inspiring society’s next generation of leaders? That should not be too difficult! It’s a challenge happily taken on by Himanshu Asnani, 2015 Marconi Society Young Scholar, Visiting Assistant Professor at IIT Bombay and Co-Founder of social enterprises Shikhya and The Young Socratics.

The two problems that Himanshu is tackling are how to create passion for science and technology among middle and high school students and ways we can provide compelling education options to students in rural areas of developing countries. These statistics highlight the issues he is solving:

  • We are failing to inspire young scientists to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in college to fill the many STEM positions that our economy will require. Between 2014 and 2024, the number of STEM jobs in the US will grow 17 percent, as compared with 12 percent for non-STEM jobs. (changetheequation.org). Yet nearly 60 percent of the nation’s students who begin high school interested in STEM change their minds by graduation (US News and World Report)
  • At the same time, 4.4B people around the world still do not have the luxury of Internet access and consistently available electricity and, therefore, have no access to education and opportunity to create jobs and value for their communities (Shikhya).

While problems in STEM education and reaching students in the last mile seem like they would be different, Himanshu maintains that a common approach can solve them both. For example, this approach has delivered an 18% improvement in math scores in the small town of Baramunda, India.

It’s About Content and Context

In his work as a scientist and mathematician, as well as a meditation and philosophy instructor, Asnani has met many people who are successful in their lives, yet feel something is missing. The missing piece is often passion and sense of purpose about the way they are spending their time.

This is frequently due to the way they were educated. “Education is usually about information – learning this, retrieving that – whereas inspiration tackles how people can use their intellectual capabilities to be visionary in the way they serve their communities and support others,” says Asnani.

While working in the corporate world, Asnani was constantly drawn back to academia.  Though he loves teaching university students, he says, “I had to do something about STEM education from middle school to high school. That’s where we’re failing. People drop out of sciences at the university level. Their parents may make them take these courses in middle and high school, but they aren’t taught in a way that gives them the passion to pursue science studies or a sense of purpose for the greater good.”

A large part of the problem is that science curriculum is presented in a siloed manner, rather than as the holistic, interconnected reality that it is. This insight about how content and curriculum are presented is also critical in Asnani’s approach to educating students in rural areas of developing countries.

While infrastructure poses a separate challenge in these countries, content is typically available only in English and in a context that is irrelevant for these learners. Asnani applies the same insights for creating compelling content to both situations through two social enterprises designed to educate students locally so they that can enrich the world globally.

The Young Socratics

The Young Socratics uses two strategies to create passion and inspiration for science education. The first is to present the curriculum as a whole. Rather than compartmentalizing subjects such as physics, math and chemistry, the curriculum teaches them in an interconnected way. For instance, understanding how vision works requires integrating optics with geometry and biology.

The second strategy is to foster creativity by empowering students to walk in the footsteps of giants. This involves helping students understand the choices and information that was in front of leading scientists like Aristotle, Galileo and others so that they can experience that historical narrative and take the journey that these innovators took. While the decisions they make may or may not be correct, they experience the process of making the journey.

These approaches come together through experiences like Odyssey, an immersive next-generation science game featuring a young girl who is stranded on a desert island. She writes a journal about what she sees and discovers, allowing players to combine physics, astronomy and other subjects in their learning. While it is early in the game’s lifecycle, initial reviews by parents and teachers in forums such as STEAM are extremely favorable.

Shikhya

As if one startup was not enough, Asnani also co-founded Shikya to bring education to non English-speaking people in developing countries that do not have Internet access or constant electricity. Overcoming limitations in both infrastructure and content, Shikhya now has 32 centers, each serving 35-40 students with battery-powered tablets. Featuring local language curriculum, the math program in Odiya (a language spoken by 44M people in India) alone includes 60,000 interactive practice exercises and 3,000 bite-sized videos. Content is also contextual, meaning that it is in the learners’ language and features people, stories and geographical references that are relevant to the region. Curriculum borrows from the integrated approach developed by the Young Socratics.

Shikhya fosters inspiration as social transformation, providing the education that lets people generate opportunity for themselves and others in their towns. “The best way to change society is through education because education changes hearts,” says Asnani. “Government is slow and bureaucratic. If organizations like Shikhya can scale up, we can bring education to the last mile. When you educate a local population, you inspire local businesses run by the people who understand the local culture. People can bloom wherever they live.”

By creating a world where people can learn in their towns, rather than heading to educational centers to become software engineers, Shikhya and organizations like it can lift up entire villages and the people who live in them. Shikhya is changing lives for students like Sunil Sahoo, a ninth grader who lost his father and now helps his mother and serves as a role model for two younger brothers. With Shikhya’s help, Sunil has now mastered 131 math skills, is an inspiration to his peers and is building skills to succeed in higher education.

“My goal is to make the work that helped me earn the Marconi Society Young Scholar award accessible to younger students to inspire them to take those ideas further. Topics like genomics are so prevalent and we need high school and middle school kids to get excited about those ideas now,” said Asnani.