Tuesday, August 26, 2008

You'll Know What I Did Last Summer...

OK, so here we are. After the usual inferno over the Title and URL, here I am finally writing the first post for my [ahem] blog. And it's a long one, so may you have the courage to begin reading it, the patience to continue reading till the end, and the earnestness to leave a comment. This is about how I spent the major part of my unexpectedly exhilarating Summer Vacations of 2008. It all started with me coming across Engineers for Social Impact (E4SI).

Engineers for Social Impact is a unique fellowship program in India for current engineering students to spend a summer at a social enterprise, gain understanding and contribute. In a search across the 10 best Indian engineering schools, they connect the 5 best candidates to 5 social enterprises that drive market-based solutions to development in India.

While applying to E4SI, I was going through the list of their partner social enterprises, all profitably driving social impact in diverse sectors, when I first came across iDiscoveri. iDiscoveri (read I-Discover-I) is a social enterprise founded with a mission to renew education in India, and is now a leading enterprise in the spaces of school education, enterprise leadership development and outdoor education. I was quite amazed to read the company description, and my curiosity got me to Google it for further info, which amazed me even more, mainly due to two reasons:
  1. iDiscoveri was backed by a team of "scholars & doers", exceptional individuals educated at institutions like Harvard, Cambridge, Georgia Tech., Wharton, MIT, Brown University, INSEAD, XLRI, the IIMs and the IITs, many of whom had previously worked with and played leadership roles in Fortune 500 companies in India and abroad.

  2. It was working in the Education sector, including school-level education.
I was stumped. I had absolutely no idea that such a talented lot of people could be working in the education industry, and that too, at the elementary level, in the social sector. Besides this, I realised that the issues being addressed by iDiscoveri were the very ones that had been plaguing me for years. I had always thought that no one understood the plight of students on whom huge quantities of useless information was imposed to hammer them into the desired shape, judged on their performance in mug-and-vomit exams. Apparently, someone did. Naturally, my application followed.

Having got through the Interview, I was inducted in the first cohort of 'Engineers for Social Impact' fellows, and soon joined iDiscoveri as a summer intern. At this point I'll have to make a confession. Though having always been very interested in social entrepreneurship models, I still pictured such enterprises as not much different from NGOs and other not-for-profit organisations, stereotyped as employing spiritless social workers working in backward areas and being low on funds and motivation. And was I in for a surprise!!

So there I was, my first day at work, and was greeted by a surprisingly cosy atmosphere and relaxed corporate culture. A company that has held its Annual Review Meetings in the Himalayas, with a "you can be serious without a suit" dress code, complete lack of a sense of hierarchy, and office environment consisting of good sports facilities and culinary treats for employees in a very colourful and vibrant campus (with Calvin & Hobbes all over the walls), iDiscoveri was scripting its own version of the Google Story. And all this completely reflected in the iDiscoveri team's enthusiasm and dedication towards work.

Although some possible roles for me had been suggested during the selection procedure, I was still doubtful regarding my exact placement in the organisation during my two-and-a-half month stint with them. Keeping with the flexible nature of work at iDiscoveri, I was allowed to choose my project on my own after interacting with the various teams there. Finally, it was decided that I'd be working with the Curriculum & Knowledge team. My interest in Mathematics, and the way it is taught at the school-level, finally lead me to work with the Math team for XSEED.

XSEED is a comprehensive curriculum and training solution for schools, which is also suitable for CBSE/ICSE/IGCSE/IB systems, and has been changing the way teachers teach and children learn in classrooms across the country and abroad. As I worked with them, I came to know that the program was based on latest research in brain science, child development and learning science. XSEED aims at making learning more experiential in nature, and I decided that the best way to make learning of Maths experiential was by introduction of Math Labs to XSEED. My work was highly encouraged by my colleagues. I started out by studying the aids presently used by Maths Labs in Schools in India and abroad. I explored the use of "manipulatives" to teach maths, which have been very successful in the west, but are virtually unheard of in India. Based on what I had accumulated by then, I began developing some new instruments. After creating some prototypes, we tested them by using them to teach sample groups of children and made many alterations in their designs and implementation strategy based on the response. Ultimately, we developed some pedagogical aids which enabled learning of abstract mathematical concepts more intuitive. In particular, Math-tiles, a new product developed by me under the guidance of the Math team, was highly appreciated for simplifying the teaching of the most abstract and difficult-to-understand concepts at the school level, mainly relating to Algebra, using which Algebraic expressions and equations could be tackled with a hands-on approach. For example, quadratic expressions may be factorised by a simple game of rearranging the tiles, while another tile-train game will tell you the actual meaning of Lowest-Common-Multiple. The fact that XSEED was going use these pedagogical aids in its classrooms all-over the country and more, made my job even more exciting and rewarding.

Besides this, I also had the opportunity to interact with the Advocacy team at iDiscoveri which gave me a taste of Marketing and Strategy. My experience with them completely changed my outlook towards social entrepreneurship. It is, after all, not social work, but profitable work aiming at social benefit, so beautifully exemplified by iDiscoveri. Their schools division was changing the way learning takes place in schools, in a revolutionary way. iDiscoveri has worked with close to 200 schools across India, including The Doon School, Heritage, Cambridge, Mallaya Aditi, Modern School, Vasant Valley, Bharti Foundation Schools, and several DPS schools, and has entered an agreement with the Bhutan government where it'll be helping the Royal Education Council to enhance learning standards throughout the country. The social impact made by iDiscoveri is by far greater than most NGOs can hope. And yet it was reaping great profits, which ensured that the impact was sustainable and in effect, perpetual in nature.

iDiscoveri's work is focused on Education, but it includes more than just Grade Schooling. iDiscoveri is an audacious idea about using education to awaken our society, our schools, our work places, our lives. It's working in schools with its own preschools, XSEED curriculum and school transformation projects. It influences workplaces with its leadership development, teamwork development and other such people development programs. It has also been changing lives with its outdoor education programs and their quarterly journal on learning, Mindfields. iDiscoveri has been attracting passionate people in the field of education at the iDiscoveri Centre for Education and Enterprise as well.

What made iDiscoveri what it is, is its underlying philosophy. What I saw was a group of people full of dedication and great passion towards what they do, people with a purpose, who have decided to take charge of their lives and help others to do so. Teachers, psychologists, management experts, soldiers, photographers, rock-climbers, theatre persons and many others, who believe that every possibility exists for a child, man, or woman, who chooses to uncover what lies within. When I discover I, every fortune is conceivable, every dream a possibility, every community reformable. It's about education that unleashes the full potential of every mind. I learnt that good work and good rewards can co-exist. iDiscoveri has been experienced by Young boys and girls, teenagers, college students, corporate executives, journalists, entrepreneurs, educators, CEOs... and over 15,000 of them. By Microsoft, Google, JP Morgan, Ernst & Young, Deutsche bank, ITC, Oracle, ING, Wipro, Motorola, GlaxoSmithKline, Bharti, the Royal Government of Bhutan, and more. What I learnt at iDiscoveri was invaluable in comparison to any other opportunity I could've got. Along with giving me my first corporate experience, it was also a truly eye-opening journey which demystified my many myths regarding social entrepreneurship. In effect, it was true experiential learning for me, and had I not experienced iDiscoveri myself, I wouldn't have imagined the same otherwise. iDiscoveri is a journey that seeks to help make awakeful the lives of all those who take it. A journey that I took, and which I shall continue so forth...

And since you've reached the end of this journey with courage and patience, why not put a cherry on top with the earnestness and leave a comment!!!

Update: E4SI 2009 Edition has been launched. Don't miss it this time!!