Chugs along with more popularity

Chugs along with more popularity

Chugs along with more popularity

Five years back when the Science Express stopped at Udaipur station, local jail
authorities were among the curious visitors who came on-board for a dekko.

They returned impressed by the mobile science exhibition and arranged for a half-a-day science show for the jail inmates as they could not be brought to the train.

The show was so successful that on the day of the train’s departure, the jail band came to the station for a musical send-off. In Odisha, the postal department brought out a special cover while in Jalpaiguri in West Bengal, the locals described the train as a tourist spot.

It all began seven years ago when a proposal came from Germany for collaborating with India to replicate the famous Max Planck Science Tunnel – a celebrated static science exhibition – in Delhi. But officials in the Department of Science and Technology (DST)had another idea.

To suit the needs of a country of India’s size and dive­rsity, DST officials proposed a mobile exhibition that can travel even to smaller cities. They converted a train into a mobile museum. The first science expr­ess chugged out of the Delhi’s Safdarjung Railway Station in 2007 in the presence of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In the last seven years, the unique train crisscrossed the entire country several times stopping at 334 stations where more than 10,000,000 students visited the unique exhibition, without paying a fee.

The seventh edition with a special section on biodiversity left Delhi on July 28. Over the next seven months, it would stop at 57 locations – Bangalore and Dharwad included – and end up in Gandhinagar in February 2015. “It will touch the real India,” said Railway Minister D V Sadananda Gowda.

The train reached Kurukshetra on July 29 and stopped there for four days. “First day saw 2,000 visitors. The number increased to 3,000 on the second day and 6,000 on the third day,” said Dilip Surkar from Ahmedabad-based Vikram Sarabhai Community Science Centre that provides a team of 30-odd science communicators, who travel with the train for seven months to communicate the romances of science to the kids. Next stop would be Ludhiana followed by Ramnagar in Jammu and Kashmir.

While the first Science Express received financial support from Germany, subsequent trains were fully funded by the Union government. “The DST purchased the air-conditioned train at a cost of Rs 20 crore and also generated another Rs 20 crore from companies,” T Ramasami, who was the DST secretary for 8 years from May 2006, told Deccan Herald.

In the first phase, the train stopped at 57 stations where close to 28 lakh students from nearby schools came to see the exhibition. In the second phase, 51 stations were covered. “In the first two years, crowd management was a problem,” said Ramasami.

But also there were instances when local administration requested the train officials to overstay due to popular demand, said B P Singh, director of DST’s National Council for Science and Technology Communication, one of the agencies associated with this project.

As India was to host the UN Conference of Parties (COP-11) to the Convention on Biodiversity in October, 2012, the Ministry of Environment and Forests, approached the DST to become a partner. An agreement was inked and half of the train – 8 compartments – were filled with exhibitions on biodiversity. Communicators from the Centre for Environment Education, Ahmedabad, were roped in to explain India’s richness to the visitors.

“Eight compartments were used to depict the 12 bio-geographical regions of the country. It made the COP more meaningful,” recalled Swayamprabha Das, who worked on the project in 2012 in the Ministry of Environment and Forest.

The train became a brand ambassador of the COP-11 as it showcased the rich Indian biodiversity to delegates from over 190 countries. It was stationed at Secunderabad in October 2012 to facilitate the visit of the delegates who were presented a kaleidoscopic view of eight per cent of world's biodiversity found in India.

As the current decade (2011-2020) has been declared as the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity and United Nations Decade for Deserts and Fight against Desertification, the Science Express primarily focuses on “biodiversity”.

The seventh edition of the train has coaches on biodiversity, the Himalayas, Gangetic plain, North East India, the Western Ghats, desert and semi arid zones, Deccan peninsula, coasts and islands, climate change and biodiversity, sustainable environment and energy conservation.

In addition one coach is a kids zone, which belongs to curious young visitors between standard 3 and 5. They get a chance to make their own models in science, mathematics and environment from simple materials like paper and cardboard, with the help from the VSCSC team. There is a hands-on-laboratory in one of the coaches where scientific queries are answered by engaging children with practical models and simple experiments.

Experienced science communicators prefer to give more importance on the hands-on activity using simple materials. “At least two coaches should be dedicated to activity-based science where children would be encouraged to make things from these materials. If they are allowed to do so, they will learn about scientific principle.

The DST must think from a child’s perspective,” said IITian and innovative
toy-maker Arvind Gupta, who is associated with Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune.

The responses from students and teachers were encouraging, said Singh. Because of the long queues at stations, the DST thought of using the waiting time to set up a smaller display unit on the platform or in the nearby space. The response from the Railways, however, was lukewarm.

Six years of success led to six Limca Book of reco­rds and appreciation from many quarters. “Germa­ny, which proposed the science tunnel seven years ago, now runs a train like ours,” said Ramasami.