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Celebration of Service

Model rockets launch kids into science and math stratosphere


Udaya Visweswara learned a great deal about computer science while preparing for his career at IBM. But the young software engineer's experiences in Bangalore, India, schools left him with a passionate desire to learn about other practical aspects of science and mathematics.

"Our schools rely too much on 'mugging up' (repetition and memorizing) material," Visweswara says. "Frankly, I had experienced too much of that myself growing up. About five years ago, three of us started reading and learning about different aspects of science and math. Kids we knew started showing interest in what we were doing. So we decided to share what we were learning, starting with experiments, and model rocketry."

Along with two friends, Adithya and Kiran, Visweswara is introducing youngsters to everything from model rockets to the Vedic mathematics system that traces its origins to ancient Hindu scholars.

The three have been honing their teaching skills during weekend sessions in schools with a high dropout rate, learning fast and taking notes. "We get together and study on some weekends, and on other weekends we go out and teach, and then assess what it takes to motivate students," Visweswara says. "We would also like to recruit and train more volunteers, and ultimately share what we're learning about teaching to these types of children in other schools, even other countries."

More than 2,600 students learn about science and math

To date the group has presented science experiments or taught the principles of Vedic math to more than 2,600 primary high school students. Their presentations are typically held for a half-day on Saturdays, a day generally reserved for physical education in Bangalore primary high schools (grades 8-10). Through their nonprofit, Educational Informal, the three friends seek to foster creativity and show there is more to math and science than you can learn through repetition.

"These kids do not generally have access to the internet, and many of them are bored by their regular classroom routines," Visweswara says. Still, they ask "amazing questions." After one Saturday session, he returned to a school and was told by the principal that students had begun shouting out answers to math problems, and were asking for more training in Vedic mathematics. In one school, the Q&A session with interested students went on for more than two hours.

Math lessons lead to an interest in Hindu culture

Visweswara's knowledge of Vedic math is mostly self-taught. Rediscovered by a Hindu scholar (Swami Sri Bharati Krishna Tirthaji) in the early 20th Century, Vedic math is a mental calculating system built around 16 sutras, or word formulas. "They're very simple to get started with. Each sutra has a single phrase that we can easily remember, and using them we can do multiplication of very huge numbers, as well as fractions and algebra; it is a kind of poetry."

As an introduction to ancient Hindu texts, it also helps inspire students to learn more about their culture. Visweswara would like to expand his teaching to reach older students, and include other types of math, for example computing sidereal planetary positions, which can also be done using Vedic sutras. "The subject is pretty complex, so it'd be exciting to work with professors, to simplify materials we can use in teaching."

Visweswara is hoping to recruit and train IBM employees and others with a desire to motivate youngsters. "I never thought I could be a good teacher," Visweswara says. "But I find I enjoy it very much, and hope to inspire students and others to one day do something innovative for their society."

IBM is marking its centennial year with a worldwide celebration of volunteer service. Throughout 2011, IBM invites everyone to join our global community of employees, retirees, families and friends as we support the communities where we work, live and learn together.