Interview with Henna Khan of Universe Simplified Foundation

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Henna Khan and I first spoke with each other six years back after I found out about Universe Simplified Foundation on the internet. We reconnected over LinkedIn when I noticed her recent work with the Foundation. Together with co-founder Meera Rathod, they have bridged the gap between mainstream education and the real world challenges by using STEM (Science, Technology, Education, Maths) as a tool. How did she and her team get kids excited about solving environmental issues through hands on projects? How did they get children curious about everything around them? Let’s find out!

What inspired you?

Henna: When I was a child, I was so passionate about astronomy and science. I was asking all these crazy questions at a very young age. Over the time, these questions just died out and I ended up doing what everyone else studies. But many years later, I picked up this astronomy book, which is Cosmos by Carl Sagan. All the passion I had as a child came rushing back to me. I didn’t want this to happen to the other kids around. A chapter at the end of this book called ‘Who speaks for the earth?’ talks about how science and technology can be used for war and it can be used for solving human problems as well. All the challenges that we see around us, which are majorly related to environment, can be solved by science and technology. If you look at engineering colleges today, there’s so much focus on making fancy cars and fancy robots, very few children are actually looking at the challenges around them and doing something about it. Meera Rathod, our co-founder, was in college when we met and she’s been with us from the beginning. She loved the idea of taking astronomy science workshops. About three years back I joined the Foundation again after I had left to work somewhere else. This time we registered as a non-profit.

How did you start and how did the idea evolve around the years?

Henna: We realized that the education system is still textbook based so we started with hands on workshops and science workshops. We gave kits to the children to assemble projects, but even when we thought this was better than textbook learning, they were not thinking on their own and they were not applying science to real life applications. The idea then evolved into innovation hubs. We would run them within schools or community centers or basically wherever there are children on a once a week basis. The focus was STEM skills such as using solar panels, DC motors, micro-controller chip and programming. It’s all inquiry driven learning where the children collaborate with each other and they figure out the material that is needed for a project. They are not spoon fed. They also pick local challenges around them that they want to work on and they come up with a solution for that. We have worked with the same group of children for a long period of time and they have developed an ability and a mindset for problem-solving. Environment becomes a big part of the local challenges that they see around them.

Who are these children and where do they come from?

Henna: The children belong to low income backgrounds from urban areas or rural areas. We are right now working with children from sixth grade to 10th. Eventually we will hopefully work with younger children as well. We realized sitting in the city you can’t try to address challenges in a village or even understand their mindset. Just about two-three months back, we have shifted our office to the village.

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How do children pick their challenges in the villages?

Henna: A few children in our innovation hubs are working on composting because every single village burns their garbage. There’s no one who picks up their garbage. We built an incinerator with the fellows who have been working with us. We are now disposing our own garbage. The children are working on several such projects for example, a plastic shredder to recycle plastic and improving the soil of their father’s farm.

How do you take these programs to every child?

Henna: Only the really fancy schools and a few international schools, at least in India, are able to do these programs. It has always been in our mind to take these programs to every child. We are not going to scale up our direct intervention but we want to build the capacity of teachers and other organizations through an educator training program and open-source. This is how Universe Simplified Foundation wishes to move forward and spread across India.

Did you audit current programs in schools? What kind of research went into understanding what was missing in existing programs in schools?

Henna: I myself have that the kind of education which killed my curiosity. In the first two years of the Foundation, we worked with schools just to understand the education sector, just to understand how the children are learning through them. We went to so many schools and even though we were not a non-profit at the time, went to good schools such as private schools, ICSE and CBSE. Even in these schools, you could see a massive drop in the questions the children asked. The schools will just do two or three projects in a year just because they were mandatory. The chunk of learning was only happening through mugging up of answers for the exams. Even if a school has very minimal resources such as village schools, that cannot compete with Ivy League schools in terms of teacher salaries or the kind of resources or the space that they have. Yet, how can you bring STEM education to those kids? We now have around two- three years of experience working with village schools. There are various reports on how a seventh grade student cannot even do basic math. When these kids are younger, we have to properly integrate math as well, so that as they’re growing, their math gets stronger. The teachers that we have interacted with, it’s not like they don’t want to teach. It’s just that their capacity is limited with the training that is provided to them and there’s so much admin work that they have to do. They have a deadline of finishing the curriculum. So they don’t even have the flexibility or time to try something. That’s how the education system is designed and the scale of India makes it very difficult as well.

Speaking of scale, let’s say a child is working on a challenge and they create something but if you want to scale it up, do you do you work with maybe senior youth such as students studying engineering?

Henna: We started this program with 7th grade students and they’re in the10th grade now and they say that we want to continue with the program. Once you start working with any age group, you don’t stop working with them until they wants to stop. We will then focus more on self-learning, high level programming, robotics and things like that. We don’t want to go out there as Universe Simplified Foundation and solve their problems. We want to build the community and the youth there to look at their problems and be able to say that ‘This is a garbage from our community, we will solve it.’ That’s our goal. Even at the college level, we want to have a higher level of intervention there. We feel as an organization, we might start losing focus on the education system if we start looking into the R&D space. To take a project and make it into a product is a completely different ballgame. The kind of resources and the kind of skills required then are quite different.

When when you talk about infrastructure, do you consider collaborating with maker space or maker labs?

Henna: As our children are going older, and they want to do prototyping and want to have more facilities like laser printer and 3d printer and stuff like that. What we intend to do is to tie up with incubators to take it to the next level, and then the students can take it forward from there. I think going forward we would want to keep our focus only on the education system because there’s so much to do. A lot of colleges now also have certain facilities, so maybe they can do it through that.

Earthquake Detector

Have you done something like this in the past?

Henna: Not yet because our kids are still in school right now. For the village kids, there’s no maker space over there at all. But for the city kids. I think we can definitely do that.

How many kids do you have under your wings?

Henna: Right now we have around 300 children, urban and rural, from Zilla Parishad schools, Akanksha schools, and community centers. 6 innovation hubs, 11 batches. Our very first batch had 23 kids and 18 of them were girls. We have noticed that if a family has both a boy and a girl, the boy goes to a private better school and the girl usually goes to a common school. It’s never been an issue that there are less girls in the class or anything like that. One of the girls for the first time said she wants to do engineering. In the village, the aspirations are to become an electrician or a plumber. Because there’s an ITI close by. They have so much potential they are completely unaware of. Now that we are have moved to the village I think we will slowly be focusing on what is the mindset of the village. We will soon be mapping how many children end up doing, how many of them study further etc.

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Where’s this village that you talk about?

Henna: One hour from Kalyan, we have rented out a one acre plot. It’s really beautiful with so many trees. Our old office was so small that if you wanted to build an electric bike, it would not fit in the office. We can now build those bigger projects and our children can also do that.

Henna, how do you get buy-in from their parents?

Henna: We have parent meetings twice a year across all the innovation hubs. In fact, we have just finished several of them. In villages, we found it difficult to talk to the parents they work on the fields during monsoon. Monsoon is when the schools start. We’re now trying just to go to the community and talk to the parents. For the parents any kind of exposure their child can get is a great things for them. Let me tell you about the mindset of the teachers. We thought they would wonder why we are doing this program for them because it’s not fully aligned to the curriculum, it’s more aligned towards real life application as the children are allowed to pick any project they want. Surprisingly, the teachers thought this program is more important these days. It was such a beautiful thing coming from the village teachers, they understood why we’re doing what we’re doing.

In the urban areas, the parents understand the need for this program. There’s a general shift where many companies value extra-curricular projects. During the meetings we try to understand how the home environment is for the child and how we can influence it. Most for the mothers work from morning to night. We hope there will be some change in the next generation where they are thinking a little bit about themselves as well. These are the kind of long term things that we are thinking of.

Going back to STEM, I wonder why you did not stay STEAM. Why is the Arts missing?

Henna: When we started out, we did start out as STEAM. The children through puppet making were taking a challenge and coming up with a solution. At that time, our mentor advised that there’s so much to do, imagine that you can do storytelling. As a science and technology based organization we were losing focus. For this reason, for the last few years, we just have been developing our expertise in one area. Arts itself is one big area to cover. Meera and I, both are not arts people. Children can choose either to use science and technology or they can use arts but a little bit of crafts anyway comes into projects, e.g. if they’re designing an alien. It was a very conscious choice to stick to STEM. At a later point, if we have the bandwidth to include arts, then we will slowly start incorporating arts.

Can you talk a little bit more about your sustainability initiatives, the projects that you are doing and have done in the past. You may cherry pick a few.

Henna: The children are still working on these projects. They haven’t been implemented yet because they making something and then something breaks and they try something new again. They’ve tried to do composting in the past and if it works the schools might start doing composting. They collected waste plastic packets use for packaging snacks, cut it into small pieces, put a little bit of oil and the liquefied it to make a strong brick fully made of plastic.

They have done common up-cycling projects such as:

  • Chairs and tables out of waste plastic
  • Plastic shredder to recycle plastic in some way
  • Plastic bottles as Bird feeders
  • Supporting structures for plants

The children start using solar panels from the very beginning of the workshops. A lot of projects therefore come out using solar energy such as:

  • In the rural areas if there’s no electricity then how can you still make a mobile charger? Solar mobile chargers therefore is a common project. This year, the children took it one level further and made a mobile charger using saltwater.
  • Solar vacuum cleaners or anything that uses solar panels.
  • A group of girls has built a solar cooler. It has three rods in a bucket with a fan inside and powered by solar panels. If you put ice inside, cool air will come out.
  • Other projects include water filters using activated charcoal, air filters using filter cloths and a fan.
Solar cooker

Have these projects been applied in real life?

Henna: These are working projects even though they have not been applied in real life situations. For example, the children have created a stick for blind people which starts vibrating when it detects an obstacle. Changing the mindset of the schools to implement composting on the other hand is a much bigger challenge. Due to space constraints it has been difficult to store these projects. Now that our team is in place, we have more bandwidth to do all these things that earlier we couldn’t.

Over over the years, I see that you have found solutions to a lot of challenges as a not for profit, for example, infrastructure, you found a nice little place in the village and you’re expanding your operations there. What other challenges are you currently facing?

Henna: For any organization, the biggest challenge is recruitment of good people, especially now that may have moved to the village, getting people to travel up there. We tie up with engineering colleges in Bombay for interns whom we train and they help us in facilitating the workshops. For the village, it has always been in a challenge. One of our fellows is from the village. Our program is not standard. A lot of it depends on the facilitator’s ability to lead an inquiry driven workshop. We launched a fellowship last year where we need people full time with us for two years. They understand the innovation model and they completely execute the batches on their own and they learn STEM , programming, electronics etc. The application for the USF STEM fellowship is currently ongoing. The second challenge will always be fundraising, because once you have the team in place, then you need that constant outgoing to ensure that the operations are not disturbed. The third challenge for us is mainly going to be the implementation of inquiry driven learning. We can reduce our material costs, but can we simplify inquiry driven learning to a point where other organizations are so used to instruction driven learning. How do you make that transition from someone who’s for 20 years giving instructions, how does that person now start getting into that mode where they’re just facilitating the thinking of a child learning.

Can you tell us a little bit about your core team?

Henna: As I mentioned earlier, Meera is a co-founder, who joined us from the very beginning. She has studied physics and she’s this absolute geek. She always loved tinkering projects. She’s behind curriculum designing and training for fellows.

Meera Rathod and Henna Khan (left to right)

We took two fellows this year – Anna who’s from the local village, and Sreepriya from Kerala. When Sreepriya was in college, she had started her own organization for gender equality and technology. She wants to learn the whole STEM program inside out for two years and then take it back to her kids in Kerala.

Sneha is our executive assistant. She’s done stakeholder mapping this year taking feedback from every stakeholder, analyzing the data, feedback and all of thatWe have just hired an Assistant Program Manager, Priyanka. She’s interned with us before.

Unaiza Merchant is my cousin. She has been doing marketing We have a volunteer on board Kriti doing a fabulous job with social media.

I’m going to put a spin on this interview and ask you this question. As you know, our planet is in trouble, so to say. How do you then balance astronomy projects that are about something that is outside of your planet and the projects that are solving challenges here on our planet? Do you think about this?

Henna: We don’t have separate astronomy projects going on everything that we do is part of the program itself. We started off with astronomy projects, but right now everything is completely focused on social innovation and social problem solving. But astronomy becomes a key component of anything that you do today if you want to solve the water problem on Earth, if you look at the situation on Mars and try to figure out innovative solutions for water there, then you will definitely be able to implement things over here. If you look at the latest technology that is used today, most has come from organizations like NASA. When our children do this workshop called “Design a space colony”, and when the resources become a constraint, that’s where innovation happens. You cannot ask for a solution when everything is available. Now that time has already gone past awareness, we need solutions. This is the biggest reason why astronomy is beautiful and why should only be encouraged. Also astronomy makes you think, it opens up your perspectives. If you’re looking only in one dimension, suddenly you’re talking about outer space and you’re able to see images of Earth from outside and you see this rock just hanging in space and how delicate it is. The humility comes in. You don’t see borders from space. It makes one think that everyone is one, we are one human race. It is not like you’re putting the resources for astronomy to go to Mars and you’re not looking at feeding the children. In fact, this is what is enabling you to come up with advanced technology. How will you advanced technology otherwise? If there is a a nuclear war or something the human species might survive. We love using astronomy as a tool for getting children curious and thinking and getting them to think about constrained resources.

In the next ten years, space technologies are going to be one of the biggest things. If NASA is going to send people back to the moon in 2025, children need to be aware of what’s happening around them and what is the world going towards.

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Solar cooker

It’s interesting how Hanna perceives STEM and applies it to the real world. She’s got an amazing team working towards the betterment of our world. She’s opened up a different dimension for me, did she do the same for you? I’d encourage people to join her mission – volunteer, provide funding, mentor. Visit https://universesimplified.org/.

When our children do this workshop called “Design a space colony”, and when the resources become a constraint, that’s where innovation happens.

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