Not having seen any place beyond their city, eight Chennai Corporation school students are on cloud nine after their recent visit to NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston, US, all thanks to the Rotary Club of Madras East (RCME), D 3232’s annual Wings to Fly programme. The club conducts competitions for students and the winners are given an opportunity to visit foreign countries. In the last two years, the winners were taken to Malaysia and Germany as part of the programme. This year, eight students — R Gopinath, T Subhash, I Aadhavan, D Kavyanjali, G Yogesh, S Prema, Reshma Kumari and S Raj Kumar — won a range of competitions that tapped their scientific skills, and accompanied by Rohini, Assistant Educational Officer from Chennai Corporation, and Rotarians of RCME, visited Houston and San Andreas. “But it feels like we are just back from the moon,” says Reshma Kumari.
These eight students were shortlisted from 4,000 Corporation school participants. “Because of Rotary what seemed impossible till yesterday was right in front of our eyes and all we had to do was work hard to fulfil our dream,” says Subhash.
A team from the National STEM Education Foundation mentored the 30 shortlisted students and for the last round of selection taught them how to present their working models on solutions for day-to-day challenges faced by their community. The camp was not just to train the students execute a project, but to bring about a transformation in their confidence level, body language, communication, presentation, approach to problem-solving and model-building along national, international science fair standards, says N Nagalakshmi, Founder of the Chennai-based Foundation.
While I was excited and happy to travel to a new country I was also very nervous because I had never gone anywhere outside Chennai.
— Reshma Kumari, a student
Corporation Commissioner D Karthikeyan, with his “towering persona and booming voice, could instill a sense of trepidation even in grown-ups. When Kavyanjali, a Class VI student, had to field questions from him on her project, I would have been fully empathetic had she faltered or stuttered. But to each question pat came her reply with such confidence that only deep understanding of the subject matter can bring. That was yet another moment that made me truly proud of what this programme had done for these children,” she says.
“When I shared the news of my selection, my neighbours and friends celebrated and my Amma cried. It was something I had never dreamt of,” says Gopinath. The visa process was easy too and all the children cleared their interview round in the first attempt. “While I was excited and happy to travel to a new country I was also very nervous because I had never gone anywhere outside Chennai,” says Reshma.
At Houston, the children were hosted by Revathi Vasudevan, sister-in-law of the past president of RCME, Jayanthi Govindan. “A great host, she accompanied them on sightseeing trips in Houston and also cooked South Indian meals for them,” says Nagalakshmi. At San Antonio, the young visitors were hosted by Kausi Subramaniam, who is also president of Anuja SA Inc. a nonprofit organisation that promotes the Sister-City Alliance between the cities, San Antonio, Texas, and Chennai, India.
“All we knew about space, planets and astronauts were lessons from our textbooks. It was beyond my imagination to see right in front of me models of satellites and learn about space stations and how they work,” says Raj Kumar.
For Kavyanjali, interacting with David C Hilmers, a former NASA astronaut, was the most interesting part of the trip. “When he was a NASA astronaut, he flew on four shuttle flights and has logged over 493 hours in space. He shared with us his experience and how astronauts were trained for space missions. Now, I dream of becoming an astronaut too.”
The children expressed their admiration for the Sea World, Natural Bridge Caverns, skyscrapers and underground tunnels constructed 20 feet below Houston’s downtown streets that stretch for almost 10 km. “They live in such a different world. I wish India too was as clean and as innovative in architecture like Houston,” says Aadhavan.
At the Baylor College of Medicine, the children were taken to the orthotics and prosthetics lab. “It was fantastic to see students making artificial limbs. They told us that after the Sri Lankan civil war, their college sent prosthetic limbs to the mine-victims there,” says Raj Kumar.
Most of the students were interested in science and “we wanted to encourage them to dream big and hopefully pursue a career in the subject. That is why the itinerary included visits to science and natural history museums, apart from the space centre,” says VA Ramesh, a member of the project coordinating team. “Our aim was to kindle interest and show these children that anything is possible if they work hard and believe in themselves,” says Nagalakshmi.