It is evident, even from a telephonic conversation with Lewitt Somarajan, that he has the spunk of an ambitious entrepreneur and the maturity of an educator.
Twenty four year-old Somarajan, who lives in Pune, is the founder of LifE lab, an initiative for children from socially and economically challenged communities who do not have access to tools and means which could encourage critical thinking. “The ‘Life’ in LifE lab stands for Learning Is Fun and Experiential.
I am a Teach for India (TFI) fellow and the idea for LifE lab was born from my second year project assignment earlier this year,” says Somarajan over the phone from Delhi, where he received the grant last week.
“We use science as the foundation tool to inculcate the art of questioning, reasoning and analysing in children. I believe science is an attitude and not just an academic discipline.”
Two months ago, Somarajan helped set up activity-based science labs in two low-income private schools/municipal schools and one community centre in Pune.
The labs have a mini science museum and a resource centre. “Our curriculum includes 22 activities and a wide range of materials to experiment with, so children can understand fundamental concepts in a creative way. We train a group of teachers and children who, in turn, train more peers to form a ripple effect. This will eventually lead to self-sustainable labs, fully governed, facilitated and run by students,” says Somarajan.
The schools, adds Somarajan, have been co-operative and have integrated this program into their curriculum. The labs are for students from grade five to grade 10, so, for instance, if a school has five science periods in a week, one is dedicated to a session at the LifE lab. The lab is open to children during and after school hours.
“Since the schools don’t have enough funds, we practice what we call the ‘Gift Culture’ which means that we let the schools know of the costs and if and when they have funds, we can use them to set up labs in other schools,” says Somarajan.
The seed fund for Somarajan’s project came from Unltd India, a social venture platform. “After I graduated in chemical engineering in 2011, I decided to not pursue it further. I started working for a start-up called Yardstick Educational Initiative in Hyderabad, and soon, I wanted to start something of my own. Since that was a commercial company and my interests were in low income schools, I approached Unltd India which gave me seed funding and mentored me, too.”
Last week, Somarajan received Rs 15 lakh through the Education Innovation Fund for India funded by Hewlett-Packard and supported by ICIE (India Council For Integral Education) and Sri Aurobindo Society. “With this money, I want to set up Life labs in 20 schools by the end of next year,” he smiles.