Hi !, I am Kiran Kumar, a Mentor of Change from Bangalore. During the last 1+ year, I have been mentoring students at an Atal Tinkering Lab in Air Force School Hebbal, Bangalore. It has really been an exciting and enriching experience engaging with budding student innovators at the ATL during this period. The ATL at Air Force School is very well equipped with latest technology tools and resource materials. The ATL in-charge and the school management are very supportive as well. The students are also very excited and interested in making use of the ATL facilities to innovate. I have seen some very interesting innovations coming from students at this ATL over the last few months.
Initially, I started my mentoring engagement at this ATL by guiding individual student innovation projects. Specifically, I would like to mention about two innovation projects in which I played a key role in mentoring and guiding the student innovator end-to-end – right from the idea stage all the way till working prototypes were built. The first innovation was ‘Smart Duster’, a solution that uses vacuum suction principle for effectively removing chalk-dust from blackboards in classrooms. The second innovation was ‘Smart Prosthetic Arm’, an artificial robotic arm operated through micro-controller for use by hand-amputees. These two projects and their common innovator got significant visibility and recognition. It made news in Times of India newspaper and an interview of the student innovator was broadcast on Public TV channel earlier this year. The student innovator was also recognized widely and had the opportunity to demonstrate her innovation at Innovation Festival 2019 and at Innovation Conclave 2019 – both events held earlier this year in Bangalore. Personally, I derived a lot of satisfaction from mentoring and seeing this student scale new heights through her innovations.
Over the last one+ year, I have been mentoring about 60+ students at the ATL twice every week - taking them on a journey from idea to prototyping and beyond over several mentoring sessions. These sessions have been full of hands-on activities and exercises, challenging students to bring out their creative and innovative abilities. While engaged in fun learning activities, the sessions encourage students to hone their observation skills, imagination skills, design skills, innovating skills, critical thinking skills, etc. In addition, we have had several hands-on sessions on design thinking, basic electronics, sensors & actuators, Arduino programming and more. My first year as a Mentor has been well spent in equipping the students with core skills needed by innovators. With the foundation laid strong, the students now feel confident and are raring to take their ideas forward and build working prototypes of their innovations in the coming weeks and months. During the recent Tinker Fest at the school (in July 2019), I was pleasantly surprised to see more than 150 students demonstrate their ideas and innovations using concepts & techniques I had taught them during my mentoring sessions over the last one year. Nothing gives more satisfaction to a mentor than this! I hope to see many more innovations from students this year that can be showcased far and wide, and even win recognition at nation-wide competitions.
Addressing challenges faced by Students
During my mentoring sessions, I observed several challenges that student innovators regularly faced. It was not easy for students to spend good amount of time at the ATL since they had regular classes to attend during school hours. Often, they had to skip classes to be at the ATL. In addition, as the ATL would be closed after school hours, students had limited time available at the ATL. When at the ATL, students also needed support and guidance to move forward on their ideas, pick up skills in technologies and tools in order to build working prototypes of their ideas. However, guidance and support were not always available, except when a mentor was at the ATL. As a result, students’ time at the ATL didn’t always turn out to be productive. I also observed students had their own idiosyncrasies, learning in their own ways and at their own pace. While some were quick learners, others needed constant motivation, inspiration and support to make progress.
These observations led me to realize that an ATL is a physical space whose working hours and operations are constrained by the school hours. The resource materials in the lab, innovation activities, knowledge sessions and mentoring engagements are all dependent on the working hours of the ATL. The solution was to find a way that made it possible for students to use ATL resources more effectively, in their own ways and at their own pace. It got me thinking on whether we could make at least some aspects of the ATL "virtual". That is, what if we could make available learning materials and resources online? Answering these questions led me to design and deploy an online web-based innovation portal for the ATL. With the portal operational since the last 4 months, students can now access several innovation related learning materials and technology tools online - at any time and from anywhere - even from the comfort of their homes. They can also interact with mentors remotely, asking questions and getting timely answers on an online discussion forum. They can also showcase their innovation projects on the portal for everyone to view. The online innovation portal has brought significant flexibility and convenience to student innovators. Read more about the online Innovation Portal here.
Addressing challenges faced by Mentors such as me
As a mentor, I also had several challenges to deal with on my own. To conduct one mentoring session, I typically had to spend as much time or more in preparing required resource materials amidst my busy personal & professional commitments. It was not always easy. In addition, when students brought ideas for discussion with me, their ideas often originated from needs, problems and challenges they had experienced first-hand. Understanding the students’ context and background was key in adding value to their ideas. At times, I didn’t have answers to students’ questions, but didn’t know whom to ask and how to get them timely help. Over discussions with other mentors, I realized that these were common challenges that many mentors were facing. In addition, I learnt that mentors needed regional or local context and knowledge to guide students better, which often they lacked.
These realizations led me to design and deploy an online Regional Mentors’ Portal for improving communication and collaboration between mentors at the regional level. The regional mentor’s portal allows ATLs and mentors to easily find and connect with each other; share and re-use resource materials with each other; have discussions on a variety of topics of common interest to each other; and co-create a knowledge bank of useful regional information that can serve all mentors well. The portal has just been launched in July 2019 for use by mentors across Karnataka. We hope to better address common challenges faced by mentors through this portal. In addition, the experience gained in using this portal can serve as a best practice that can be replicated elsewhere. View the Regional Mentors’ portal here.
Conclusion & My Message to budding Mentors
Today, mentoring increasingly seems to be my life’s true calling. The more I engage in mentoring, the more I feel the passion for it. Every single mentoring engagement excites me and I never tire in the process. There is nothing more satisfying than sharing one’s knowledge and experience with young minds, nurturing their talent over time, and ultimately seeing them take flight with their ideas & dreams.
Mentors play a very critical role in encouraging, guiding and supporting young talent and bringing out the best in them. Mentors shape the future of children, and in turn help build the future of our nation. It is indeed a very responsible job! Mentoring also provides significant opportunities for mentors to bring out their own creativity and innovative abilities. My message to budding mentors is to pursue mentoring with all the seriousness it deserves. Every challenge you face as a mentor can propel you to greater heights if you approach it with a “can-do” spirit. Together, we can enhance the “human capital” of our nation and take it to greater heights. Let our vision to be drive India towards an innovation-led economy within the next 5 to 10 years.
Mentor of Change : Kiran Kumar HS
School :Air Force School, Hebbal, Bengaluru