Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Bio Discovery at Agastya (and my first few weeks in India)

Hey y'all! I'm Mitch, and I'm an Electrical and Computer Engineering student at Olin. I'm spending the summer at the Agastya International Foundation, near Gudivanka, Andhra Pradesh, India. It's an educational NGO, and is really focused on hands-on and investigative-based learning. This post is mostly an introduction to myself and the work I'm doing, so it'll be a bit long I think.

The campus itself is a huge (172 acres) ecology park in a rural area, where the buildings and curricula are integrated with nature. It's also quite modern, focused on teaching math, science, and engineering to local students to augment their normal education. The whole feeling of the place is one of dualisms, especially between the energy of the hundreds of kids that come every day and the calming natural environment that surrounds and permeates it. I heard one of my professors describe the campus as "pastoral;" that's an apt description, but it seems to leave out some indescribable quality of the air, the kids, the teachers, and the weather. I'd add to it, "invigorating."

I work in the Bio Discovery program here. I say "in," but I really mean "with" or "for." You see, unlike many programs here, the Bio Discovery program has no buildings yet. It's a new program, and they hope to have their first building complete within the next year, ending with (I think) ten buildings to teach kids biology in an engaging, memorable, and high-quality way. The whole center is to have five components: Let's Investigate, The Sensorium, Learning Gardens, Mechanics of Movement, and Genetics. I'm here as a prototyping intern, so my work is mostly centered around building physical models and interactive demonstrations in each of these components.

So far, I've been engaged in 3 projects. The first of these is with another intern here, Katie, and has most utilized my electrical engineering skills. It's to make an interactive demonstration that shows how somatic reflex arcs work. The general idea of the demonstration is that an instructor will press a button on a model of an arm or leg, and lights will engage in sequence to represent neurons firing, up the limb, to the spinal cord, and back to the limb. Finally, the limb will jerk in some way, demonstrating that the muscle responded to the stimulus. I've been focused on what circuitry we need to make such a demonstration simple, effective, and durable.

The second is a special goggles that children will wear to invert their vision. This is a part of the Sensorium, and the goggles themselves will be a fun way for students to better understand the relationships between our senses and our brains' processing of those senses (relevant link). The design of the goggles is really "just enough" to hold special prisms in front of the children's eyes, so I don't anticipate this particular project taking very much time.

The third project is the big one that will take most of my summer: designing and building Mechanics of Motion models. The idea is that students will be able to physically interact with some sort of demonstration or exhibit (think science museum), and see how particular motions in the body occur. To begin, I'm working on a lever-pulling demonstration, where students will see the muscles and joints involved in pulling a lever (encompassing radial abduction of the wrist, flexion of the forearm, and extension of the arm), and in pushing that lever (the opposite motions: ulnar abduction, forearm extension, arm flexion). The general idea of the demonstration is that it will be mostly passive (i.e. not electrical), a mechanical system, and that it will show bones and muscles working together. I haven't quite worked out all the details, but it should be an exciting exhibit when I'm done! After this particular motion is finished, I plan to work on a few more motion demonstrations to varying degrees of completeness. I hope I can finish at least one or two before I leave!

India itself has taken some getting used to, but I'm adapting quickly. I certainly echo much of what Aaron said in a previous post about the experience of being the only white person around (save some of my fellow interns). I'm enjoying the pace of life here at Agastya, and their unique outlook on education. I'm hoping to learn as much as I can before I return to Olin.


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