Photo : Richard Fernandes in class
Pistons, cylinders, springs… not things I ever imagined lay beneath an innocent-looking hand sanitiser spray. And I may never have known had I not walked into the physics laboratory while Richard Fernandes caught up in discussion with some students about the working of this simple machine that has come to find a place in most backpacks and handbags today.
“I’m an experimentalist at heart, so my approach to teaching physics is experiment-heavy,” said the veteran physicist and educator, as he settled down at one of the lab benches for a chat.
All of Richard’s undergraduate classes — whether theory or practicals — take place in the lab, and this hands-on approach seems to be a trademark of the physics programme at Azim Premji University, where Richard teaches.
The physics students at the University are encouraged to build their own equipment and set up their own experiments, rather than use ready-made ones that often serve as nothing more than a black box.
This is something Richard and many of the other teachers at the University believe will help students see and understand what lies inside, enabling them to go beyond the obsession with reproducing some numbers stated in the textbook. “Homemade equipment has a ‘bareness’ to it,” he said, “and this bareness leads to a lot more learning and a connection to what you’re doing.”
Richard’s perspective fits in neatly with the ethos of the physics group, wherein the students are encouraged to think of their surroundings as a ‘corridor’ to physics. “Essentially, we want them to connect the physics learnt in the classroom or textbook to physics in the universe around them.”
“A lot of physics happened by observing common phenomena,” he said, bringing up the famous example of Galileo Galilei, “the man who started off physics as we know it.”
Galileo, pointed out Richard, discovered the laws of the pendulum after he observed the way a lantern suspended from a wire at his church swung back and forth. “He did not have a bob and a massless string… so even abstract laws are enunciated by observations made from very simple apparatus. Physics doesn’t come from equipment built in factories.”
What happens to this corridor to physics during the pandemic, when classrooms are sporadically forced to go online? For many schools and education platforms around the world, the answer to the dilemma of online science education came in the form of simulations, where various softwares are used to show students virtual simulations of experiments, supposedly giving them the opportunity to “gain practical knowledge” in the absence of lab infrastructure.
The jury is still out on whether simulations are an effective tool for science education, but according to Richard, it is a mistake to see them as a replacement for practical sessions.
“I squirm when I think of forcing experiments to fit a theory. It’s unfair to the experiment… it downplays it to make it a visual manifestation on a screen. I feel that simulations can aid learning of theory, but it cannot take the place of experiments.”
So, when the time came to adapt to ever-extending lockdowns, Richard and the rest of the team of physicist-teachers at Azim Premji University chose instead to modify lab experiments into their bare bones, which would enable students to recreate those at their homes.
These new versions of experiments used items that could be easy to procure for most students — such as string, rubber bands, blades, etc. There were, of course, some apparatus required that may not be as easy to find. That’s where the kits came in.
“We sent them kits containing instruction sheets and things that may not be easily accessible to those in small towns… remember, those days shops were closed, too. We innovated, designed new experiments, and some of the experiments turned out to be quite sophisticated in terms of the results they achieved. That was the important discovery we made.”
Richard was heartened to see students enjoying building experiments at home with the help of their parents, siblings, and the occasional grandparent.
“Some had to find a neighbour to borrow a carrom coin from… they used to send us back videos and we could see people helping them. This was nice because it brought a connection with physics to their own environment, a new dimension to learning,” he reminisced.
The actual experience of building these kits was no mean feat, but the teachers took the challenge head-on. Richard had a twinkle in his eye when he recollected the logistics involved.
“Our homes became packing shops. Everything was laid out in an assembly line. We learned how to make the cardboard boxes, pack the stuff well, close it, put the stickers on and then go to the post office. Most of us are ready to work for Amazon now,” he joked.
At the post office, it was another adventure. “They told us electronic things weren’t allowed, so we had to fight with them, camouflage it to use other terms and clarify that these were just experiments for students. Once dispatched, we had to track the parcels on the app to ensure they were reaching the students. It was an interesting experience!”
So, are you ready for another lockdown, I asked him. “Oh yes, now we are experts as far as teaching and lockdowns are concerned.”
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About the author:
Nandita Jayaraj is a science writer and communications consultant at Azim Premji University.