And the Atal Tinkering Labs

I’ve been a tinkerer since as far back as I can remember. Here’s something I’ve realised: We are all born curious but the system lulls us into growing indifferent. We are all born tinkerers but the world is geared to make us feel safer as conformists. While conformist may not be the exact antonym for tinkerer, bear with me awhile. A tinkerer is someone who interferes or meddles with things. A conformists is one who never meddles.

Conformists are fine with the the way things are around them. Tinkerers see things crying out for change in everything around them. They are the breakers and the makers. They sincerely believe that they need to intervene and that their intervention would leave the world a measure better. A world full of conformists sure sounds like a peaceful one. This world will also be a duller one. A world full of tinkerers will be chaotic but at the same time a colourful and a vibrant one. No wonder then, since a system seeks a state with lower entropy, it favours the conformists! There is one thing that this narrative misses. In cases where the system adopts a change proposed by a tinkerer (which is by no means an easy battle), the system moves to a new threshold of what it accepts as the new normal. This upheaval also has the potential to result in disproportionate rewards for the tinkerer. While this is great, I doubt if this possibility by itself drives a true tinkerer. Tinkering is mostly an expression of an innate creative trait tinkerers treasure and nurture.

This prelude was meant to set the context before writing about a good initiative by the Indian government/ Niti Ayog. It is called the Atal Innovation Mission [AIM].

I’ve been critical of many things done by this government, like its demonetisation move or its inability to curtail fringe elements spewing hatred in the hinterland. Credit however needs to be given where its due and I think AIM is a movement with far reaching positive dividends for the future of the nation and the world at large.

Maker movements, maker labs and homebrew clubs have spawned a culture of tinkering and value creation in the west, especially in the Silicon Valley. I believe they played a critical role in the making of tech giants like Microsoft, Apple and even recent successes like Square. This is why I am very hopeful about the AIM and ATL movement!

Most school ‘laboratories’ in India are places where things start with the teacher play-acting: imagine there is a test tube in my hand…”. When many schools hardly have desks and chairs, test-tubes understandably are a luxury while imagination costs zilch and is available aplenty. The sadder truth unfortunately is that even in schools where the laboratories exist, they are deliberately designed to be just another brick in the wall. Everything is scripted, overly methodical, geared towards getting predictable results and getting scores. They hardly evoke the innate curiosity within the children who pass through their aisles. I wouldn’t be surprised if the reverse actually happens!

The Atal Tinkering Labs [ATL] under the Atal Innovation Mission on the other hand are a breath of fresh air. The choice of the word tinkering is interesting, as compared to words like hacking and making that have been used in similar contexts.

The ATLs are funded partly by the government (initial establishment aid of Rs. 10 lakh + operational expenditure upto Rs. 10 lakh for 5 years max) and come with a set of milestone based guidelines. While the exact implementation is left open to each school, the program outlines a good set of systems, processes and recommendations. Many ‘consultants’ and equipment suppliers have come up meanwhile to supply the tools and the instruments required. Apparently, Intel had also pitched in (They are definitely not the first/ best choice for embedded applications, hopefully, there’s no ‘mandate’ to be paired with them)

The lab in-charges and assistants are offered special training to act less like ‘teachers’ and more like guides. I guess the initial pilot was launched among 500 schools across India, selected through a rigorous process. As of December 2017, in about a year, it appears that they are now 1500 strong and have now shortlisted 2441 schools. The momentum is indeed promising! Their facebook page:

With new developments like Internet of Things, Smartphones, AI, Machine Learning and 3D printing getting more and more accessible and advanced by the day, it is great to see children being equipped to expand their horizons and to go hands-on. Even if 1% of the students who participate in this program adopt being tinkerers, they will be the people who either form or sustain the innovative enterprises of tomorrow. These are the people who will proactively use technology to solve the problems that they see around them.

Let me now take you to a school in semi-urban India, located in the outskirts of a quint little town called Satna, Madhya Pradesh for a ring-side view of the ATL in action.

Its a school named Christukula Mission Higher Secondary School (CKMS).

Disclaimer: my family is closely involved with this ICSE school which has been run by the Mar Thoma church for over half a century. My father is the principal. My mother a teacher. My better half is currently a faculty at the ATL there. I have also been an alumnus.

This school was one among the initial shortlists for the ATL program.

Here’s what their lab looked like. Much credit goes to Harish (pic 2) who did all of the heavy lifting for its setup and functioning:

1–7 Lab setup. 8 Faculty training for other schools nearby

The lab is not only a boon to the school but also to its locality since it is also partly available to other schools/ faculty in its region.

AIM had recently launched a competition called the ATL Marathon with three focus areas.

Out of the hundreds of entries, two projects from this rural school got shortlisted in the first round of top 100! And one to the second shortlist (Stage 2) of top 30. Have a look at the two project submissions:

Competition Stage 1

Competition Stage 2:

I am fairly impressed by what they have been able to pull off! And this is not a fancy/ international school in a city. This a good old ordinary school with aspirational people, in a remote small town in India.

What I love about the initiative is how it empowers children with the required tools and guidance while letting them bloom on their own. They learn coding, hardware, using machines and tools, 3D printing to creatively solve problems around them or to just express themselves. These are essential tools for this decade atleast.

In the days to come, as Jack Ma also says; most repeatable and routine jobs will go to robots, algorithms and AI. This is a real and an imminent threat. It is also an opportunity. The only way to counter this would be to prepare young minds for creative pursuits. Tinkering is one. Fine Arts is another. Arguably, there would be people who may indeed like repetitive pursuits more. Sure. I only know that their competition with machines would be pretty intense pretty soon. And of course, things may also change drastically where all of this would become irrelevant. Possible, but less plausible.

So until we find something better; here’s wishing the Atal Innovation Mission a grand future. Hope it never gets mired in petty politics, bureaucracy or crass commercialisation. Hope to see a Tinkering Lab in every district and village soon. Hope it opens up young minds to a world of creative happiness! Hope for a brighter future. This might just be an important instrument in India’s maker-movement. Its future.

obsessively compulsively creative. getting better every day.

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