Agastya’s unique methods and programmes aim to address creative thinking and problem- solving skills, improve learning achievement
Agastya International Foundation is an education trust and a non-profit organization whose mission is to spark curiosity, nurture creativity and build confidence among economically disadvantaged children and teachers. A team of scientists, educators, and entrepreneurs led by Ramji Raghavan founded Agastya in 1999. Agastya runs hands-on science and art education programmes in rural and semi-urban regions across 18 Indian states. It is one of the largest science education programme that caters to economically disadvantaged children and teachers in the world.
A 172-acre campus near Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh, is the organization’s creativity lab, visited by more than 500 students per day, whose curiosity is sparked by Agastya’s hands-on teaching methods. More than 130 mobile labs spread across over a dozen states in India and 50 science centers spread across eighteen states take Agastya’s creative pedagogy to more than 1.5 million children and 200,000 teachers every year.
Agastya’s unique methods and programmes aim to address significant gaps in education systems that are stretched to their limits. The main goal is to attract and retain vulnerable and disadvantaged children to quality educational programmes. The programmes are holistically designed to spark creative thinking and problem- solving skills, improve learning achievement, and expand opportunities. Agastya’s educational interventions complement and work alongside government programmes and the curriculum in the government schools.
Ramji Raghavan, the founder of Agastya abandoned his 2 decades of successful career in international finance, returned to India to pursue his dream of helping the country harness its greatest resource, its Children. In India’s children, he saw a vast reservoir of human talent, largely going to waste. The family home was in a remote part of northeast India, in Bihar province, where K.V. Raghavan, Ramji’s father, worked for ICI, the British multinational company. Ramji’s father sent him to the Rishi Valley School, the same boarding school he himself had attended. Founded by the great Indian philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Rishi Valley taught students to view the world holistically. Later, he graduated in Economics and Mathematics from the Hans Raj College at the University of Delhi, in 1975.
In London, he enrolled in a post-grad accountancy programme but switched to the MBA track at the London Business School. Ramji worked in New York and the Carribean and travelled regularly between the great financial capitals of the world: a life that exhausted Ramji and did not feed his soul.
In 1979, a meeting with Jiddu Krishnamurthy sparked in him the wish to pursue his dream of establishing a school. 20 years later, he left finance and returned to India, where he laid the groundwork for what ultimately became the Agastya International Foundation.
Agastya’s Initial Spark
Agastya foundation was the result of coming together of a group of individuals, united in their passion to make an enduring contribution to Indian education. In 1994, K.V. Raghavan, former chairman consultancy firm Engineers India, his son, Ramji, and S. Balasundaram, former Principal of Rishi Valley, got together to discuss the challenges faced in educating India’s children. P.K. Iyengar, former Chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, F. Mahavir Kumar, former President of the Bangalore Stock Exchange and many other like-minded individuals joined them later. The question that emerged from these discussions was: “Is it possible to raise the level of creativity in a country weighed down by colonially imposed, rote-based learning through a more holistic, inquiry-based model of education that is anchored in Indian culture?” Recognising the widening gulf between teacher training and the school classroom was also a concern to be addressed in education today.
They decided to act on their deliberations and under the leadership of Ramji and Mahavir decided to establish Agastya, as a factory of ideas and a visible new model for creative learning in the country. Agastya was registered as a public charitable trust in April 1999. A 172- acre campus was established in Gudivanka, a remote rural area in Andhra Pradesh. Subsequently, The Agastya group began to expand rapidly with the addition of retired scientists, government administrators, academics and a private investment banker as advisors. DR V.K. Aatre, former Scientific Adviser to India’s Defence Minister was invited to guide Agastya’s direction centered on sparking curiosity through hands-on science.
To achieve widespread and sustainable impact, the group began work on a scalable model that would reach millions of rural children, teachers, and communities across India. Since that time, Agastya’s story has been a continuous process of evolution, innovation, and scaling. Its presence has expanded further across India. Representatives from other countries have come to learn more about the Agastya method, which is easily replicable. Agastya has sent officers, teachers, and students abroad for exposure and as ambassadors of learning.
Agastya Science Centre
Just one visit to Agastya on a single day can make a huge difference, turning on a light for a child. Purnima is just such a child. Growing up in a small farming village, not far from Agastya’s main campus, Purnima’s experience sparked her fascination with science. She became a Young Instructor Leader when Agastya’s teachers noticed her appreciation for learning, her appetite for discovery, and her aptitude for leadership. Determined that she one day would win the Intel science competition, she had encouragement and help from Agastya’s teachers. Her goal was achieved earlier than she had dreamed. Purnima wants to teach Biology at Agastya when she grows up. The Agastya touch has made her optimistic about her future and her potential to meet her goals – an enormous stride for children growing up in villages like hers.
Agastya continues to produce such winners of prestigious awards, and other such awards and recognition, who compete with students from the country’s finest public and private schools. Several of Agastya’s prize winners were even sent to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, to attend an international Science Fair in 2013. They did not speak English and were not accustomed to wearing shoes, but still, they had the confidence to travel abroad and share their love of Science with their peers from around the world.
The 172- acre campus located a few kilometers from Kuppam in Andhra Pradesh, provides Agastya with a laboratory to study ecology and carry out experiments in education. Children get an opportunity to get educated in Science, Maths, and Arts on the campus, which augment the curriculum in the government schools. Agastya’s instructors have been able to improve upon their methods of educating children and to develop programmes for training local teachers, as well. Camps are arranged for groups from schools in faraway cities, providing urban children with a rare opportunity to experience nature close up, in a rural environment. The campus also attracts teachers from private schools all over India, who come here to learn ways to infuse their own teaching with learning from Agastya.
Many of the poor children in India begin with their future already laid out for them. They are destined to follow the well-worn paths of their parents and grandparents. But Agastya shows these children a wider world, exposing them to some of the benefits of education. Whether on the main campus or through a visit from a mobile lab instructor, children see Agastya as a place for discovery, where they learn to really see the world around them, to observe and draw conclusions about the connections between nature and themselves. Their minds and imaginations are stimulated through direct, hands-on engagement. Agastya allows them to wonder about the world, and freely ask, “How?” and “Why?”
The Agastya Science Centre in the campus is a fountain of knowledge for children from the local villages where basic amenities like power and drinking water are scarce. Agastya is transforming education for rural children and teachers, reaching millions with hands-on science programmes. The Agastya bus ferries 500 children from government schools to its Kuppum campus daily.
The mobile labs reach out to centers surrounding Kuppam to give classes on health, sanitation, and hygiene and to urge people to send their children to school. An initiative called Project Vasantha identifies volunteer college students who exhibit leadership skills. On a humble stipend, the volunteers are trained by Agastya and are the contact point for these community classes and outreach.
The Discovery Centre inside the campus sparks creativity in visitors to Agastya’s campus. Here large, elaborate exhibits, designed and built especially for the center, clearly illustrate scientific principles to children and adults who visit. The Discovery Center is a hands-on science museum for children with one rule – PLEASE TOUCH. From durable models built for energetic hands and inquisitive minds, visitors to the Discovery Centre learn principles of Science and Maths, laws of Physics, and our place in the solar system.
There are three floors of permanent displays where children can play, whispering into one perfect parabola while their friends listen to the one facing across the expanse of the large room, learning about sound waves as they play. The chain-driven model of our solar system shows the complex geometry of celestial motion; the way planets revolve in their courses as they orbit the sun. A camera obscura reveals basic principles of optics and perspective, and mirror boxes trick the eye while challenging the viewer to figure out why and how.
Agastya Muni holds an honoured place in Hindu tradition. He was the first of the Siddhas, who are followers of Lord Shiva. Agastya was their guru. Muruga, the son of Lord Shiva and Parvati, is said to have bestowed upon him the Siddha medicine system, among the oldest in the world. Agastya, therefore, is often considered the father of modern Indian medicine. He also made contributions to the field of astronomy. The star of Canopus is called Agastya in Indian astronomy.
Agastya Muni is revered for his knowledge. Puranas say that once the Earth was thrown into imbalance by the gathering of great minds. It began to tilt under the weight of the eminent Rishis; the mountains began to sink and the oceans were in turmoil. To restore stability, Shiva sent Agastya Muni to the south. So vast was the wisdom and spirituality of the sage that his departure alone was enough to counterbalance all who remained in the north.
At the heart of the campus that bears his name, there is a “Siddhavana” around the shrine to the illustrious Rishi, invoking Agastya’s spirit of inquiry and his reverence for the surrounding natural world – an inspiration and a daily reminder to all who visit.
Education is the surest way out of poverty. Though educational opportunities are widely available, many Indian children never get the chance to take advantage of these, because their families are too poor to support them. The Agastya International Foundation has taken up this challenge, working to bring school dropouts back into mainstream academic programmes. Agastya trains young, socially conscious volunteers – mostly college students – to go back to their home villages and tutor children who are not currently in school. Two to three times a month, the volunteers attend training workshops on the Agastya campus, where they sharpen their teaching skills and learn remedial education strategies. As an added incentive, volunteers receive a modest monthly honorarium to help defray their own educational expenses.
Each volunteer teacher takes on twenty to thirty students, holding classes for at least two hours a day, six days a week. Classes at the dropout centers typically are held outside of working hours, so that poor children do not have to choose between working to meet immediate needs and studying to improve their future prospects. Parents consent more readily to their children’s participation in the dropout programme knowing that, at least initially, they won’t lose income. When their children succeed in their studies, parents often encourage them to return to school full time, as an investment in the family’s future. Equally important, the children develop a love of learning, gaining confidence and self-esteem, as they become more competent learners.