The slimy banana peel has become a muse for some students of Modern English School in Chembur.
A group of them fashioned an adhesive from the peel, another made shoe polish with the potassium-heavy peel as one of the main components.
The students behind these two projects, as well as two other groups, one who came up with a bio-pesticide and the other a solution for slow readers, showcased their research at the Nehru Centre last month as part of IRIS, a central government-supported science contest for students.
“The excitement in doing such projects is that you get to learn so much,” said Sanjana Devarajan, 12, a Class 7 student who worked with her partner Sunetra Easwaran, 12, on making a bio-pesticide from the yellow oleander plant. “When you do things practically, so many queries get answered.”
The school’s four projects did not win any of the ten big overall prizes at IRIS, but they did win awards in specific categories, such as zoology and chemistry.
The National Children’s Science Congress is another big government-supported research and innovation platform for students. Two projects from Singhania School in Thane were among seven others from the region selected for the state-level meet of the Congress held in Buldhana two weeks ago. Both will represent the state at the national level of the National Children’s Science Congress.
One of the projects, an eco-friendly cement mix, was selected for the Indian Science Congress, another annual platform that also showcases students’ science projects.
“The country needs researchers. It is so important for children to be encouraged to do research and explore subjects outside the syllabus,” said Revathi Srinivasan, principal of Singhania School.
The school sees great potential in its students’ innovations and is guarding the formula of the cement mix while it contemplates filing a patent.
Another new scheme from the central government to encourage research was launched last year, with the new applications cycle likely to be announced in January. Called the ‘Inspire’ award, it will invite schools to submit science projects with the promise of a Rs 5,000 cash prize for winning entries.
Then, this year, for the first time the state education department decided to give cash prizes to winners of its annual science exhibition for students of state board schools, held over the past month in different wards.
Students from these schools can also earn internal assessment points for these projects from this year onwards, which has spurred participation, said principals.
“Schools have become more eager to participate than before also because they get awarded a shield and a cash prize, as opposed to a rotating trophy from previous years,” said Uma Chaudhary, principal of Amulakh Amichand B Vidyalaya in Matunga, who is also a ward-level science exhibition convener.
Three projects from Amulakh were selected for IRIS, while one represented the school at the zonal level competition organised by the education department.
“To encourage our students at our school we allow them to use the laboratories on weekends and holidays,” said Chaudhary. “It is so important to inculcate a scientific temper in children at a young age.”
The state’s introduction this year of internal assessment for Classes 5 to 8 and an emphasis on practical and experiment-based learning has helped popularise the idea of science as fun.
“It is important to do practical work and not just study theory,” said Venkatesh Iyer, whose daughter Vidya, won a prize at IRIS. “These kinds of things also help develop their thinking powers and imagination.”
“Innovation is applied creativity,” said Tata Institute of Fundamental Research professor Arnab Bhattacharya, who is part of the group that organises the fortnightly ‘Chai & Why’ sessions in the city, which aim to deconstruct and popularise science.
“When we visit schools, we tell them that the era of making thermocol models is over,” he said. “Science is about exploring the world. A lot of student innovations stem from traditional wisdom at home. They have to explore it scientifically.”
However, experts in the field of science education point out that there is potential for schools and students to do more. “The quality of projects has definitely improved in the past five years and our children are very good and have a lot of potential,” said C Pradhan, centre director, Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education.
“But they need far greater guidance. One problem is that our teachers are not equipped in terms of scholarship. Another problem is that there is no link in India between schools and universities.”