Pi Jam Foundation founded by Shoaib Hafiz Dar, uses technology in education. In 2020, the Foundation aims to add 100 schools from its existing portfolio of 45 government schools in Pune, parts of rural Maharashtra and Telangana, Jammu & Kashmir is also on the radar
By Kavitha Srinivasa
Experiential, problem solving and an integrated approach are some of the images that come to mind while describing the Pi Jam Foundation.
At a time when non-profit organizations (NPOs) and non- governmental organizations (NGOs) provide tabs to government schools, Pi Jam Foundation, a NPO looked at these schools differently. No doubt students from less privileged households should be able to use a tablet, but then Pi Jam realized that just providing tablets and creating smart classrooms is not a solution to the problem. The NPO’s belief is that children are meant to use technology for experiments and explore do-it-yourself (DIY) projects. For instance, students learn to handle wires through physics experiments on circuits. Obviously some students are curious, others may be hesitant. Though students react differently, they manage to get exposure quite like their counterparts in city schools. “I’m feeling so happy that I was able to create what I imagined in this project. If I could learn these things throughout the year, I believe I can change the world!,” expressed Dnyaneshwari, Student, Grade 6, Zila Parishad School, Mulkhed.
The approach is uncommon and in order to arrive at this, Pi Jam’s founder Shoaib Hafiz Dar, switched gears, from engineering to philanthropy. The decision may have startled his close associates, but he has never regretted it. The transition was gradual. One thing led to another till Shoaib found his calling in education. As he put it, “Learning has to be hands on. The right set of tools is required to equip students to be able to solve challenging problems.” Shoaib’s clarity is understandable, but his journey till here has been somewhat unusual. He grew up in the picturesque Kashmir valley before moving out to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering.
The seeds of his philanthropic journey were unconsciously sown by his father who ran an NGO focusing on behavioural therapy. Somewhere along the line, Shoaib felt the need to be part of the homegrown NGO. And he did so for a couple of months. After the initial exposure he moved to Bangalore for a corporate stint. Gradually the predictable mundane workload began to rub off on him. “I was seeking a different kind of learning,” he confessed.
This quest led him on till he moved to Pune to work in a not-for-profit organization called Teach for India. He had to begin somewhere and that’s how the early impressions came from the municipal schools where he began to teach. He taught science, math and geography for students in the VII-VIII Standard. It didn’t take long to figure out that any change within the teaching system also needs to take outside influences into account. For instance, it requires a hands-on approach to make children use personal computers (PCs). It also means influences can come from external sources like research organizations. “The STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) movement in the US leverages the PC for problem solving and critical thinking,” he explained. STEM set the ball rolling and Shoaib began to propel his idea forward.
Pi Jam Foundation began in Pune in 2017.Some scouting round led to open Source (OS) software and hardware. The NPO is not just an enabler but a funder too. So it was all the more necessary to find something affordable. The relatively inexpensive Raspberry Pi, a product of the University of Cambridge, fitted the bill. In 2016 the project was piloted in Kasturba Gandhi English Medium School - Pune and the children responded well.
It’s a known fact that enabling mechanisms help to propel innovation forward. “We focus on an integrated approach to learning and at the base of the process are affordable open-source technology, collaboration, creativity and physical computing,” he explained.
Pi Jam has equipped the schools with computers. Though computers are expensive, Shoaib managed to crack the code by sourcing used computers from e-waste companies.
The NPO aims aim to address the pressing concerns in the Indian system when it comes to the use of technology in Education. The focus is on students from grade V to X. Basics like the proper usage of water are taught in classes through simple experiments. Slowly they are exposed to water tanks that have either dried up or overflow. That’s required because many students come from agricultural backgrounds. Difficult topics seem so simple. As Juveria a Student of Ideal English Medium School in Hadapsar reveled, “I never believed I would love wires!”
Simply put, Pi Jam has simplified complex lessons through practical lessons. All programmes are designed around group collaborations. Science lessons transform into art, as students start with a blank canvas and use his/her skills to express his/her ideas or solve a problem.
Skill building and application form the crux of the lessons. Students are being prepared to use logical thinking to handle various situations. So, discussions on weather stations make the geography class engaging. At the same time, students can grasp aspects like temperature which also doubles up as a lesson in science. “Around 23% of the girl students wanted to do a career in science and technology. Of this, 85% had never seen a computer,” he said, sharing his observations. Math lessons help in problem solving and in developing cognitive skills.
Teachers undergo training at Pi Jam. After undergoing the training sessions spread over 80-120 hours, teachers scale above rote teaching. The teachers’ mindset towards technology had to change. Through several meetings, Shoaib managed to convince the school staff. “I was a little apprehensive at first since I thought this would be slightly difficult for the kids but once I attended the sessions I loved how much the kids were involved and I believe the kids learnt a lot from this workshop,” explained Priya Thorat Nazare, Principal, Sardar Kanohji Angre School.
The NPO provides access to affordable OS hardware and software. The Foundation also provides a grade-specific curriculum in English and Hindi, comprehensive teacher training and post-training mentorship to ensure optimum learning outcomes. “At the heart of our hardware are low cost processors developed specially for use by children and hobbyists to learn coding or to be used as a cheaper computer or for DIY projects,” Shoaib reasoned.
Financial support has come through initiatives like the CISCO Porgramme for Non Profits, Teach for India Programme and various other grants like Teach for India InnovatEd, Reliance ESA 2019-2020, etc.
Clearly Pi Jam Foundation unique outlook has made news. Last year, the NASSCOM Social Innovation Forum recognized the NPO as one of the winners in the education category. Here’s wishing them the very best.
The NPO hopes to popularize the low cost affordable model of tech-enabled education.
The existing computer curriculum is being replaced with Pi Labs. These computing labs serve as spaces that allow students explore experiment, tinker and create.
Problem solving and design thinking happen through a hands-on STEM approach