Start-ups Infinite Engineers and Vaayusastra jazz up science education with all the pizzazz of theatre
Joker, Harley Quinn, Enchantress, and Sharpshooter have been cornered. They are about to be taken into custody at Anna Adarsh College for Women in Anna Nagar. A loud explosion rings out, and the supervillains are lost in a haze of cloud. When the smoke settles, we find they have escaped the trap set for them. All thanks to the handy liquid nitrogen.
Education start-ups Infinite Engineers and Vaayusastra have recently started conducting such plays, interwoven with science experiments, in schools and colleges of Tamil Nadu. Science is not boring, they reiterate, jazzing up seemingly dry equations with the pizzazz of theatre.
“We have teamed up with Vaayusastra, who have professional theatre artists. They write the script and we design the science experiments. If a play is one and a half hour long, it will have about five to six experiments,” says Harish Srinivasan, who started Infinite Engineers with MA Aravind and MC Jaikanth.
At their first play in a school in Erode, the central character was an alien with magical powers, who challenged Earthlings to a show of prowess.
“So we had the students come up and take part in experiments with us, to defeat the alien,” he says. “To teach the children chemistry, we used butane gas fire that you can light on your hand, without causing any harm.”
In another, they used a Tesla coil that lit up a bulb simply when it was is moved across it—electromagnetism 101.
Most of their experiments are flashy, and their characters have a certain touch of the magical, in order to re-spark the wonders of science that seem to have been lost in thick 1000-page books.
It all started with Vaayusastra’s founder Jagadeesh Kanna. Jagadeesh has a master’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering, but has also been in the drama circles since 2010, working with The Little Theatre.
“We officially started Vaayusastra four months ago, but have been trying to merge theatre and science since last year,” he says.
Jagadeesh, who now writes and directs these plays with Infinite Engineers, started out with teaching children the concept of aerodynamics using small skits based on folk tales. Tracing back the roots of aerodynamics to our mythology, Jagadeesh recounts,
“Look at The Ramayana, Ravana comes in the pushpaka vahana—which is a type of air chariot, a plane—to kidnap Sita. In The Mahabharata, there are so many references to ballistic missiles like the brahmastra. We can use these epic stories to inspire children in the direction of science,” he says.
Working in theatre while getting a degree in science had armed Jagadeesh with the belief that the two should not be separated.
“STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), the base of our education system has been a colonial product. Before that, Indian education had always involved learning sciences through art such as storytelling or dance. I want to bring back that system, in the form of ASTEM,” he says.
So when Jagadeesh teamed up with Infinite Engineers, it allowed Vaayusastra a chance to move out of just aerodynamics and expand with the range of science experiments. The latter has already been in the field for about four years, taking experiment boxes to students across Tamil Nadu.
Meanwhile, as science experiments are performed on stage, a different sort of experiment is brewing off stage. For Harish and his friends from Infinite Engineers, this is the first time they are acting, in the remotest sense.
“The first time I went on stage, there were some 300 people facing me. I was nervous,” he says. “We are the ones conducting the experiments, and it may not always go right, so we also need to improvise.”
Harish has given speeches in public before, but never has he needed this sort of showmanship.
“You have to be spontaneous and energetic, you have to get the audience to ooh and aah at the right moment,” he says, laughing. “We’re still in the early stages but it’s nice, we’re getting into the groove of it.”
On the other hand, Jagadeesh has taken up the role of being a science teacher to his actors from a non-engineering background—a little bit of learning for everyone.
This article originally appeared in The Hindu on August 30, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.