Children in the First World have a lot of choice when it comes to scientific toys. In fact, there are whole stores devoted to selling things like robotics kits, ant farms, and simple microscopes. In the developing world, however, such fancy toys are relatively scarce. So, what's an adult to do if they want to get the local children interested in the sciences? Well, in the case of Arvind Gupta, they show the kids how to make scientific toys from trash.
Gupta's story began in the 70s, when he was an engineering student at the Indian Institute of Technology. While he was there, he volunteered to teach the children of the mess staff, who couldn't afford a formal education.
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Upon graduation, he went on to work at Tata Motors, where he helped to build trucks. After five years of doing so, however, he decided that it wasn't the career for him. In 1978, he took a one-year leave from his job, and took part in the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Program. "The objective was to make science fun and exciting for village children using simple, low-cost materials available in their environment," he told us. "This experience had a profound impact on me. I thought it was much more satisfying than making trucks."
Gupta proceeded to devote his life to designing toys that demonstrate scientific principles, that children can build for themselves out of cheap or free parts. He's written numerous instructional books on the subject, starting with 1986's Matchstick Models and other Science Experiments, which has been reprinted in 12 languages.
Today, he is part of the four-person team that runs the Children's Science Centre, at India's Pune University. Together, they have designed approximately 800 trash-based educational toys ... so far. Instructions and explanations for all of the toys are available copyright-free through their Toys-from-Trash website, as are all of their books, and over 250 linked YouTube videos.
"Every day over 50,000 children and teachers across the world watch these videos," said Gupta. "Thousands of books are downloaded every day and this fills our hearts with hope and joy. We feel privileged to be able to share our work with at least some children across the world."
Out of all of the toys, there are a few that have proven particularly popular. One of those is Matchstick Mecanno, in which little bits of rubber bicycle valve tube and matchsticks are used to make 2D and 3D shapes. Other favorites include the Simple Electric Motor and the Levitating Pencil, in which ring magnets are used to keep a spinning pencil floating in the air.
One of his young students, a girl named Hamsa Padmanabhan, found the pencil toy particularly fascinating. "She wrote a 12-page scientific paper on it, which won the second Intel International Award of US$2,500. Today a minor planet is named after Hamsa," he told us. "Another girl, Durga Jetty, made the Bottle Turbine which won her 0.6 million Indian Rupees! This is quite a feat."
Needless to say, however, Arvind isn't in it for the money, nor for the chance to become famous. Instead, he simply wishes to nurture a quality that he believes all children possess.
"Every child is born a scientist," he said. "We kill this innate curiosity by rote learning and boring state texts. If we just remove some of the authoritarian structures in schools, children will naturally gravitate to science - simply because science is fun and exciting."
An example of one of the instructional videos can be seen below.