IESC India: Grand Tour from Mainpuri to Hardoi

As part of Intel’s ongoing commitment to improving education through the effective use of technology, Intel’s Education Market Platforms Group (EMPG) launched the Intel Education Service Corps (IESC) in September 2009. This program is a short-term service and career development opportunity, for a select group of Intel employees to travel to a developing country to directly support the deployment of Intel-powered classmatePCs. In this final blog from the IESC India team, Balaji Srinivasan reports on his team’s final school visit in India and wrap up of their journey.

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IESC India: Grand Tour from Mainpuri to Hardoi

by Balaji Srinivasan

On Sunday, April 3rd we departed Mainpuri on a journey none of us would forget anytime soon. It was about 150 km to our next school, and over that distance we encountered hordes of trucks hauling potatoes but more frightening was the life and death game of chicken. You see, the road was single lane and no driver wants to be the one to back down. Darrin riding shotgun as a concession to his delicate tummy was becoming a near wreck with each new vehicle we passed with only millimetres to spare. Darminder-Ji, our driver, only slowed down after we passed the mighty Ganges River where the road was half swept away from previous Monsoon rains.

It was a significant moment as we crossed the mighty Ganges River. For Hindus, they believe the Ganges River is Mother; she is divine, delivers happiness, and salvation when you leave this world. We watched as another soul was sent to the next world atop a burning Ghat. It left us all pensive and as we drove on we were treated to a spectacular lightning display as we hurried southwest to our next destination, the Siddarth Palace Hotel, our hoped-for haven in what is a very poor part of India. It was late when we finally pulled in. Hardoi was like most Indian towns at night, alive and kicking with that hint of the unexpected. Tilley lamps and intermittent electricity lit up the tiny open-fronted shops. We all were relieved to find that the Siddarth Palace was quite clean and comfortable and after yet another vegetarian dinner (Balaji: “Yeah!”, Darrin: “Boo!”), we all retired exhausted from the day’s adventure. “We” would be the team comprised of Arvind Amin from Intel’s Software and Solutions Group in Dallas, Texas; Gary Motyer from Ireland Fab Operations (IFO); Darrin Donithorne from Intel IT in Portland, Oregon; K N Harsha from Intel IT in Bangalore, India; and me, Balaji Srinivasan, from Intel Sales & Marketing Group in Cary, North Carolina.

Monday, April 4th we arrived early at the school and were immediately impressed by the cleanliness, organization and the sheer quantity of monkeys running about. The school Director, Urmila-Ji, greeted us. While the previous two schools were state run, this Udaan School is a private enterprise. We further learned that the Ashram housed not just the school we were visiting but four others as well. The actual land was donated mid-last century when the village offered it to supporters of Gandhi-Ji who were passing through Uttar Pradesh and decided to setup the Ashram. The compound was truly a haven along a typical dusty, rural UP road. We were delighted to be there the next few days. We started with a tour of the classrooms where we met the teachers and students. It was enlightening to see so much learning going on. Clearly there was a lot of discipline too. While the other schools had ground to a halt to have the teachers receive us, this school had the teachers teaching on the morning of our arrival. It was a unique view into the schools functioning as normal.

When we started on the basic lessons with the teachers we found these teachers the least communicative and we were largely worried they were too busy and uninterested to make our visit productive. As Gary worked with these teachers to build a schedule in a spreadsheet we learned they work 6 days a week, 8am to 8pm and on Sunday they filled in the day as “dusting.” It was clear these teachers were buried with work and we retired that evening scratching our heads as to how the training would go at this school.

As the trip was coming to a close, we grew more adventurous in the evenings in Hardoi. We were pretty tired of the hotel food so we ventured into a hidden alley way for some really “local” food. Hardoi was like the rest of Uttar Pradesh we had seen. Along the roads we traveled, we found little towns seemed to popup all of a sudden with the only explanation being that it was out of necessity. When people had various goods to sell, they’d set up shop alongside the road. That in turn would invariably invite vendors who would be hawking food, chai and desserts to cater to the people that would be visiting these towns. The alley visited seemed to have such a food place. It was all outdoors. All the food ingredients were in plain sight of us and the flies and the dust. The cooks were Indian and some who looked to be of Chinese ethnicity. Despite the certain dangers, we sampled Chaat, Masala Dosai, Chow Mein from this outdoor restaurant and the food was eclectic. It seemed a wonderful culmination for our trip which was a treat for all the senses.

When we started Tuesday, April 5th, we were thrilled to interact with the cheerful girls. We had someone in the classroom with the kids at all times, while the others trained the teachers. The girls here, aged between 6 and 10, loved to sing and dance and they made it evident with the innumerable solo and group performances. For our part, we introduced them to ‘dumb charades’, a local version of ‘hot potato’ and an improvised version of ‘Simon Says’ (a.k.a Balaji bola) that the girls couldn’t get enough of. Three days seemed to pass in a whiz and it was clear the girls felt the same too. The teachers came around over the three days and took quite well to the lessons. It was clear these teachers also had an immense productivity improvement to be realized with the Intel Learning Series classmate PCs; only time would tell if they took to what we taught them and reduced their long workdays. The adjacent picture shows that despite the long hours they were a happy bunch and loved what they do. Besides the rewarding sessions with the teachers, the classroom experiences with the girls made our trip completely worth it. It was a poignant departure ceremony with all the girls lined up in rows to wish us goodbye. We learned, translated by Harsha, that many of the girls asked us to return soon and visit them again. While the girls at all the these schools had likely a much better situation than back in their rural villages, the visits from us volunteers clearly were as much fun for them as it they were for us.

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Harsha did some research for us. Uttar Pradesh is one of India’s most rural and poorest states, lagging well behind the economic uplift in the southern states housing Bangalore and Chennai. UP alone has ~200,000 vacant teaching positions, 98% of schools without a computer, 95% enrollment but poor quality in education, and non-existent infrastructure. In such circumstances, one can’t help but worry. But some moments on our trip have filled all of us with a great deal of optimism. We observed some of the innovative teaching methods; the active partnerships between the Indian federal government, private firms like Intel, and NGOs like CARE at these schools; the penetration of mobile communications and technology was pervasive and 3G data service was bringing the information age through the Internet to the outskirts of small rural communities like even an Ashram in Hardoi. The amazingly talented kids! They were so bright, full of energy and eager to learn whatever we could teach them. We can surely claim that the education revolution in India is truly ON and we were blessed to have been a small part of it.

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P.S. Click here to catch up on the adventures, experiences and learnings from the 14 previous Intel Education Service Corps teams and the other two teams who are working right now in Kenya, Vietnam and Uganda.

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