India's Science Express Blazing A Knowledge Trail: World’s Largest Classroom-On-Wheels

People of India giving a befitting response to this unique outreach initiative
People of India giving a befitting response to this unique outreach initiative

New Delhi, Aug 9, 2011 (Washington Bangla Radio / PIB India) It has travelled across almost the entire length & breadth of India, and that too four times, covered more than 70,000 kms, halted at 222 locations usually for 3-4 days and quenched the thirst for knowledge of over 63 lakh people, majority of them being students & teachers. It is now arguably the world’s largest classroom-on-wheels. This iconic mobile exhibition in science, technology & environment domain is now a household name. It is called ‘Science Express’

Students inside the Science Express Train of IndiaScience Express was born when the world famous ‘Science Tunnel’, a thematic science exhibition devised by Noble laureates from Max Planck Society (MPS) Germany, which had already been showcased in over 10 countries worldwide, could not be sent to India during celebration of 60 years of our Independence.  Department of Science & Technology (DST), who was to host the ‘Science Tunnel’ and had made elaborate arrangements at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi, then conceived the idea of displaying an adapted version of this innovative, hi-tech exhibition consisting of 12 thought-provoking modules, in railway coaches. Such a move, which at that time seemed preposterous, could take this unique show almost to the doorstep of millions of our young citizens instead of just a few thousand living in Delhi and its vicinity.

Though MPS readily agreed to design, develop, fabricate and install the entire ‘Science Tunnel’ afresh so as to fit it in railway coaches, it needed custom-built air-conditioned coaches for the sophisticated, micro-processor controlled exhibits. However, the show was about to be called off as Indian Railway expressed its inability to provide such coaches due to various constraints. The  out-of-box thinking of some friendly functionaries of Railway Board, persistence & perseverance of highly motivated DST officials and the never-say-die approach of engineers of Rail Coach Factory (RCF), Kapurthala led to fabrication of brand new coaches for this ambitious ‘Science Express’ project in record time. Technicians from Germany, who had brought with them 6 containers full of the exhibits in knock-down condition along with the entire framework besides all the tool & fixtures, then worked round-the-clock and a sparkling white 16 coach beauty was ready to roll out and enthral the youth of India.

Vikram A Sarabhai Community Science Centre (VASCSC), an Ahmedabad based non government organization, well known for its path breaking initiatives in science communication domain, joined hands for the day-to-day management of ‘Science Express’. A team of 30 young, well qualified, ‘Science Communicators’, who amongst themselves spoke almost all the major Indian languages, was selected and trained to facilitate the visitors and conduct on-platform and outreach activities. The inaugural edition of  ‘Science Express’ was flagged off from Delhi on 30 October 2007 by the Prime Minister of India and Chancellor of Germany in the presence of several dignitaries from Germany & India.

At each of the pre-determined locations on the Broad Gauge network of Indian Railway, school students & their teachers were especially invited to take advantage of this fountain of information and quench their thirst for knowledge. They were encouraged to participate in Joy-of-Science lab and activities like quiz contest, painting competitions, extempore Just-a-Minutes sessions, Group Discussions, Seminars, and so on  which were conducted on the platform. Over the years, this one-of-its-kind train, which has created several records in its wake, received overwhelming response.

There were numerous occasions during the roller coaster ride of Science Express which made the journey unforgettable. To cite a few: at Udaipur (Rajasthan), Team Science Express were invited to conduct all the outreach activities inside the Central Jail for the benefit of inmates and they in turn gave a musical farewell to the train by playing the Band on railway station; in Udhampur (J&K), the exhibition was opened in advance to facilitate visit of children who were rendered destitute due to unfavourable conditions in the valley;  at Alipurduar (WB) the entire Border Security Force contingent  posted at Indo-Bangladesh border and at Karwar (Karnataka) the personnel and their families at Naval base were given exclusive tours of the train; at Dimapur (Nagaland) the stay of the train was extended by a day to make up for the 28 hour delay in the train reaching to ensure  its exposure to over 4000 residents who had waited patiently there.

The Department of Science & Technology garnered support from several quarters and many agencies and Corporate sector participated enthusiastically in this project. During the first Phase, BASF India Ltd. agreed to host their Kids’ Lab that facilitated conduct of experiments in chemistry by students. They also sponsored an exhibition in the same coach on India’s glorious legacy in S&T besides their exclusive white paint for the rake. VASCSC not only just assisted DST in many operational aspects but from the second run it replaced Kids’ Lab by Joy-of-Science lab, which was designed, developed, fabricated in-house. Several attractive exhibits weight on other Planets and Panels on great Indian Scientists and their contribution were put up.  From Phase-II, Petroleum Conservation Research Association (PCRA) came on-board and effectively used this outreach medium to widely distribute material on Energy Conservation to millions who thronged it. During Phase-III, while HSBC supported an exhibition on ‘Climate Change- Causes & Mitigation’ in a coach in place of some exhibits which had to be returned to Germany, Nestle added displays on ‘Water’ and ‘Food & Nutrition’. To celebrate ‘International Year of Chemistry’, in Phase-IV, colourful displays on all the Elements giving vital information on their discovery, usage, etc., were pasted on window panes of Science Express, which earned it the title of World’s Longest, Mobile ‘Periodic Table’.

‘Science Express’ programme could not have made such a massive impact but for the   unprecedented response it received from Media. While over 1200 news items in Hindi, English and vernacular were prominently carried in major national & regional newspapers, most TV Channels, All India Radio and FM Channels gave extensive coverage. Initially, Max Planck Society, Germany had launched a dedicated portal- primarily to keep their partners & associates posted of the developments. From the second Phase, VASCSC maintains a dedicated website  which is updated almost every alternate day and gave a vibrant account of its progress.

Thus one of the major objectives of DST, that is to encourage & awaken our youth to pursue higher studies & careers in science has been achieved by this successful of this first-of-its-kind experiment in outreach. This venture strived to take modern research out of the lab and take it to the masses thus creating awareness amongst them about how relevant science is to everyday life and help inculcate scientific temperament amongst them and promote rational thinking.

Spurred by the exceptional response, DST plans to continue with ‘Science-on-Wheels’ initiative in the future. The mobile medium may thus be used to reach out to masses across the country, in general and target audience like students & teachers of Science & Technology streams, in particular.

- PIB features

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