Teaching for the Stars

Fired with a zeal for making a difference in children's lives and of the firm belief that real learning goes beyond textbooks, Henna Khan (31), a software engineer with a passion for astronomy, is doing all she can to make children know more about the subject, answer their countless queries and prove that astronomy goes beyond the limited notion of the solar system that is part of their syllabus.

Illustration/Amit Bandre

Since July, after quitting her family business, Khan has been conducting astronomy workshops in SSC and ICSE schools across the city, where she believes that the education is not hands-on. She feels that kids are not active participants in classrooms and today, education is only textbook-oriented. She says, “Astronomy has always been my passion. When I was young, I did not have anyone to share my love for astronomy. I did not have anyone to teach me or whom I could speak to about astronomy. My passion got lost with time. I ended up in a blue-collar job and later in my family business. I was looking for something I could start and get some job satisfaction. Here I did not feel that I am contributing in any way. As I joined my family business, I had more time on my hand. I started reading astronomy again. I joined online astronomy groups and learnt as much as I could. To perfect my skills, I also completed a course in astronomy from Mumbai University. I realized that when I am studying astronomy, I am the happiest. And as I always wanted to teach, I thought, why not astronomy?”

In focus: Children recreate eclipses using torches, during the workshop

Noise and laughter are some of the sounds you are sure to hear when you enter one of Khan’s workshops. Khan, who encourages teamwork and group study, says, “In a day, I end up taking three batches of 30-40 kids of 8-15 years. I hate to teach many students at once, as you can’t pay attention to everyone.”

Over the moon: Henna Khan during her eclipse workshop at Veer Bhagat Singh Vidayalaya in Malad. Pics/Amit Jadhav

She adds, “I have an issue with textbook-based learning. What I do right now is provide hands-on-based activities for kids, in science and astronomy. The aim of these workshops is to get kids excited about astronomy. They should think that education is fun. My workshops deal with science and astronomy, but I focus more on astronomy as it is not taught in schools. All we learn of astronomy in schools is the solar system. No one mentions black holes and so on. Kids today don’t know where to go, to get their questions answered. When you want to study astronomy, you have to go to a college or university. At school level, it is very basic, there is no in-depth learning. Children only look at it as a hobby. They are not encouraged to learn it further, let alone pursue it as a career.”

Upset with the current state of our education system, Khan says, “Here everything is exam oriented and everything is job oriented. You will have students settling in to be engineers or bankers rather than astrophysicists. But if you see the future, quantum computing is going to come in the next 20 years. Now kids need to be involved in science. Not from the job point of view, but if you look at the world problems, our kids will have to tackle them in the future and it will only get solved with innovative thinking and innovative science. We need to teach our children science and inspire them to learn.

“Recently, I saw my cousin, who is in SSC, learning chapters by rote. It is so sad to see that. I did that too and everyone does that. But that’s not what education should do to a child. You are actually closing their brains instead of opening them up. By doing this; you are just making sure they become industrial workers. Kids are born as scientists, they have the ability to create and invent things and ideas. The change in the educational system has to come. That is a must.”

Trying to convince teachers and principals to conduct workshops doesn’t seem like an easy task for Khan. Since July she has conducted workshops in around 10 schools. She states, “It is very sad that sometimes teachers tell me that, ‘we would love to have science workshops, but parents will ask us why we are doing this if it is not in the syllabus?’. Then, they just focus on a part of the astronomy workshop i.e. the eclipse workshop as it is a part of their syllabus. Attitudes of some teachers and parents are very disappointing. They always raise the question of ‘why teach a child when it is not going to be tested?’ I don’t understand, why not!”

On the other hand, according to Khan, kids are genuinely interested in learning. She says “Kids love my workshops. For the older kids, I have a rocket workshop; where we build rockets, have launch pads and hold historic launches. It is fun. So if education is fun, kids will enjoy it and they will not be bored with studying.” In order to ensure that her teaching sinks in, Khan is also available for her students after the workshops end. She adds, “As a child I was very curious, I had many questions for my teachers. She would always say, ‘I will answer them at the end of the class’, and she never did. Maybe that’s the reason why I lost my passion for astronomy as a child. And that’s why I always keep in touch with my students after the workshops. I have a Facebook group where the kids interact with each other and discussions take place.

“I email them whenever there is something exciting going on, and I always keep in touch and answer all their queries. I feel this is also a very important part of education. Kids can only remain interested, if their questions are answered and they have more questions formed.”

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High Flyers
On September 14, three high school students from different parts of India won gold medals at the 18 International Astronomy Olympiad (IAO), held during September 6 to 14, in the Republic of Lithuania

Students Bhavya Choudhury from Rajasthan, Charles Rajan from Madhya Pradesh and K Nagendra Reddy from Andhra Pradesh, representing India at the competition, were selected by the Nehru Science Centre after an intense nationwide competition. These students created history by winning three gold medals, the highest for any country since the beginning of IAO.

IAO is an annual global scientific (astronomy) knowledge competition for high school students (age 14-18), which emphasizes the role of astronomy and scientific knowledge in the educational process, as well as its role in the development of modern science and progress of mankind. The competition aims to facilitate thousands of participants across the globe to show their knowledge and intelligence in one of the most challenging academic competitions at pre-college levels. 

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