Exploring   The  Unknown                                                                   Up

Some experiences in life make you sit up, take notice and, change your perception of the world. For some it might be a brilliant conversation with a German lady at the Frankfurt airport, for some a chance to meet real life astronauts and for others maybe a jamming session with teenagers from all over the world. Mere high school students from Modern High School for Girls, the two of my peers and myself were more than honoured, we were humbled to have been selected to comprise the only team to represent the Indian contingent at the second edition of the Pacific Astronomy and Engineering Summit organised by the Imiloa Astronomy Centre, sponsored by the Thirty Metre Telescope held in Hilo, Hawaii from the 20th to the 25th of July, 2014. The partner countries on the TMT project were invited to send high school schools to participate in the summit which included U.S. (Hawai?i Island), Canada, Japan, China and India. The MHS team consisted of Shruti Keoliya and myself (Adwitiya Dawn) of class 11, Khushi Goenka of class 12 and Mrs. P. Datta, physics teacher and advisor of the school astronomy club.

We were amateurs in the realm of astronomy but just as the limitless skies and universe beyond held the deepest mysteries of space and more, this chance to explore the unknown intrigued us. We began our research with the promise of an unforgettable ride into the depths of science and astronomy. A topic as daunting as halo stars required some special assistance and we were privileged enough to get an opportunity to work and interact with Dr Puragra Guhathakurta, professor at UCSC , and his PhD student, Emily Cunningham. Our task: calculating the mass and structure of the Milky Way, using Halo stars.

As were arrived in Hilo, we got to know that the theme of the summit was "He Lani Ko Luna, He Hanua Ko Lalu" meaning the sky above, the earth (and the sea) below and all that is encompassed therein. This was literally derived from a Hawaiian proverb that speaks of the synergistic relationship sky, earth, ocean, and all forms of life. Each day featured a different aspect of the overarching theme with us exploring Hawai'i's culture and various areas of science in order to understand how the atmosphere above Hawai'i interacts with the land and the sea below to create the world's best place for conducting observational astronomy. Most importantly the 5 day intensive summit was meant to highlight some of the exciting discoveries being made from Mauna Kea, the world's premier site for astronomy, as scientists looked to advance humanity's quest in space exploration.

We were extremely jet lagged after journeying half way across the globe but it was all worth it. Hilo, also known as the Big Island does not boast of the buzz of an urban city like Honolulu but it had a charm in its very own way. There were no highrises, the sort people usually associate big American cities with. We were in America yet truly speaking it felt like we were in the lap of nature. An interesting fact we got to know was that same latitude passes through both Hawaii and India which explained why the weather was humid and tropical, similar to what we had back home. At the very onset we realised that summit was not going to be like any other mundane science summit conducted in laboratories, it was definitely going to be one with a difference. Indeed so, except for the lectures, mostly all other activities were conducted outdoors not the mention the day trips as well. The summit included an exciting array of activities, which included trekking and mountain climbing. Each day had a theme and the day's itinerary was related to it. The mornings had guest speakers which included eminent astronomers and scientists who told the group about their research and discoveries in the fields of astrobiology, geology and, robotics to name a few.

Representatives of each country were also required to put up cultural presentations, and novices though we were, we did our best to give everyone a glimpse of how incredible India really is as we matched our steps to the rhythmic beats of bhangra and garba. On THE DAY- the very day of our science presentation, we were all a bundle of nerves but everything thankfully went off without a hitch. We were particularly enthralled to receive immense appreciation from the scientists and other noteworthy individuals present there. No city in India, be it Kolkata or any other can boast of crystal clear night skies. So clear that one can see all the constellations in naked eye including the spiral arms of the milky way which shone with a mild pink and white amidst the black of the sky. All of us wanted to encapsulate that very view for eternity so that every time we shut our eyes we could picture it. It was indeed a treat for the eyes. We knew that the skies of Mauna Kea would beckon us forever now.

I believe the best part of this trip was the exposure we received whether it was to new ideas, gaining knowledge, acknowledging and respecting viewpoints of others, team work or being overwhelmed by the beauty of the very place itself. I speak on behalf of my friends when I say that we definitely owe it to our school, Modern High School for Girls for bestowing us with this life changing opportunity. People we had met merely 5 days ago had become like family. At that point of time we would have rather stayed in Hawaii than come back home. We were anything other than homesick. No picture taken can ever explain the enjoyment and enthusiasm that encompassed this beautiful 5 day summit. We exchanged numbers, email ids promising to remain in touch as we bid our final goodbyes. Just as all good things come to an end, eventually this surreal dream came to a close as well. It was amazing as long as it had lasted.

“ As we look back, we remember a starry night in Mauna Kea, with all of our friends lying on the blankets, singing songs. We remember bonds forged that can never be broken. The support our teachers gave us. Experiences that we doubt we'll ever forget. Knowledge which no textbook in the world could provide us with. And above all five of the best days of our life and just a little peek into a slice of paradise- Hawaii.


Kolkata The Future is here                               Up

The City of Joy, Calcutta, Kolkata - this is a city known by many names and coloured in as many hues. The erstwhile capital of British India, Kolkata, is a beautiful collage of English Imperial culture and traditional Bengali way of life interspersed with all the elements of a modern metropolis. The hustle of people in Howrah, the cries of bargaining in New Market, the mouth watering street food and much more of this city has been visited and revisited by people. However, a newer side of the city still remains unexplored...

" New Kolkata popularly known as New Town, a neighbourhood of Kolkata (earlier, Calcutta), is located in North 24 Parganas district of the Indian state of West Bengal, is a fast-growing planned satellite city. This new information technology and residential hub is being developed on the north-eastern fringes of Kolkata. The master plan envisions a township which is at least three times bigger than the neighbouring planned Salt Lake City. The New Town (Rajarhat) has been also declared as a Solar City by the previous UPA government at the Centre and now the initiatives are being taken to declare this city as Smart Green City.

" The township has been allotted the IT-Sector. There are many offices including those of renowned companies of Unitech, Emami and DLF. Though some of the major hospitals are yet to be built, this area has good connectivity with other parts of Calcutta which have sophisticated health centers. The most notable to mention is the intensive care hospital and state-of-the-art Tata Cancer Centre by industrialist and international steel-baron Ratan Tata at New Town. The township is well connected to the city by the New Garia - Airport line of Kolkata Metros. Also, the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Airport is very close to this township. The area has one of the best entertainment facilities in the city. Among the notable ones are Nicco Park, Aquatica, Nalban, Vedic Village and Eco Park.

Shrachi Green Building Rajarhat

Several international shopping malls are being constructed in the area. Notable malls are Axis Mall, City Centre, DLF Galleria mall. The area also includes many five-star hotels. Presently, many more projects have been undertaken which are yet to be completed. It is believed that soon this township will grow into a city of its own.

" Yashi Chowdhary

    Schools in the Cloud: Ice-cream castles in the air?                                                                    Up

"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."
-Nelson Mandela

This quote from Nelson Mandela finds its complete flowering in the life and work of Sugata Mitra. Born in Calcutta but brought up in Delhi, Sugata Mitra is now an education- scientist in Newcastle who won the 2013 TED prize of a million dollars for his pioneering educational project, School in the Cloud. These are special schools where children are taught with the help of digital devices and computers, and not through the conventional method of teacher- student- blackboard interaction. The idea is to bring together motivated experts in technology, architecture, education and strategy to design Schools in the Cloud of varying bandwidth and resources. With the help of this global network of educators and retired teachers Mitra proposed to develop a Self Organized Learning Environment (SOLE).There are seven such experimental schools in the world, three of which are in Bengal.

Mitra's journey started in 1999 with his 'Hole in the Wall' experiment. In this path-breaking experiment, Mitra put up a computer in the wall of a slum in Kalkaji, New Delhi. After a few months he noticed that the children themselves had learnt how to operate the computer without any formal education. This enabled Mitra to prove that there was no limit to children's learning capabilities as long as they were left unsupervised, and allowed to work in groups. During the later phases of his experiment he noticed that children were far more comfortable in learning from grandparents, whom he refers to as 'admiring adults', rather than from a conventional teacher.

The success of this experiment enabled Mitra to move forward with his novel idea of 'School in the Cloud'. He started developing the idea of SOLE, or unsupervised self organised learning environment. The TED award in 2013 gave him the financial support he required to put his ideas together and form 'Schools in the Cloud', a term he coined and used in the captivating speech he delivered upon winning the TED award.

Today each of the cloud schools are complete with large screen computers and excellent infrastructure even in remote corners of Bengal like Korakati (Sunderbans) and Chandrakona in West Midnapur. In January 2015 Mitra inaugurated the third centre in Bengal at Gocharan in Barasat, just a short distance from Kolkata.

Mitra employs about 300 grannies, mostly from the UK and also the US, Canada, Australia and India who are the ones holding sessions via Skype and are available at any point of time at the mere click of a button. A typical SOLE session can be on any topic either initiated by the grannies or by the children themselves and last for about an hour.

"At any point in time, we get 30 active grannies," Mitra said in an interview. When asked about some of the challenges he faced in encouraging both parents and students to join the school Sugata Mitra said, "Very Victorian thoughts are holding them back. They wonder 'What is this place? There are no teachers. How will they learn anything? They just sit there playing games and having fun'," Mitra said, referring to a big drop in attendance at the Midnapore school."

Another problem he faced in Korakati in the Sunderbans was the malfunctioning internet "It's the Internet. Children walk for miles to come to the school and then they find the Internet down and walk back. It's a BSNL connection and they don't seem particularly interested even after I've spoken to them," said Mitra, who had installed a tall bamboo pole sticking out into the sky with a receiver on top to catch the Internet signal.

"It's hurting because it's difficult getting the confidence of parents back. And for children, once they're put off, it's hard to get them going again. It's a lesson which hopefully will reach the right people and they understand that children need to be treated specially."

Despite these trials and tribulations Mitra, through his hard work and determination, has transported premiere educational facilities to some of the remotest corners of Bengal and is empowering the future generation with the most powerful weapon in the world- education. He has expressed his determination to cross all hurdles to empower the uneducated through his unique and cost effective method. His unalloyed optimism for the project comes out from this following quote:

My wish is to help design the future of learning by supporting children all over the world to tap into their innate sense of wonder and work together. Help me build the School in the Cloud, a learning lab in India, where children can embark on intellectual adventures by engaging and connecting with information and mentoring online. I also invite you, wherever you are, to create your own miniature child-driven learning environments and share your discoveries.

“ Suhasini Das Gooptu