The students’ excitement was palpable; they were confidently explaining what they had built to everyone who asked.
“It’s amazing, improving every year, and the quality of the demonstrations and the presence of a planetarium and CERN’s exhibit were quite brilliant.” These are the words of a parent who took his children to the Lahore Science Mela 2019, and had attended both previous events in 2017 and 2018.
Near perfect October weather and splendid exhibits by students from government schools of all 36 districts of Punjab inspired an overall footfall of more than 20,000 over a period of two days.
When we think science mela, we have certain ideas in mind on what we'll come across and what the overall ethos of the event would be like. But this was no ordinary science mela. It didn't give the vibe of some kind of a movement to encourage students to only become scientists, nor was it focused on producing high-end research. The event instead aimed to engage children while they are young, excite them with possibilities, and allow them the freedom to be part of a platform which cultivates and celebrates improved cognitive abilities.
The mela, co-organised by the Khwarizmi Science Society and Lahore's Ali Institute of Education, was packed from morning until early evening on both days of the event. While people expecting exposure to high-end scientific research may have gone back disappointed, the event provided an excellent opportunity to students from government, private, and non-profit schools, colleges and universities to excite the audience with the marvels of everyday science.
Although carefully curated with exhibits and interactive demonstrations related to space sciences, aviation, genetic engineering, hands-on science, physics, geology, medicine, the event had a special focus on the theme adopted by the organisers based on 2019 as the designated year of the Periodic Table.
Presence of Punjab Education Minister Murad Raas on the first day of the event was heartening for students and teachers who came from across Punjab to exhibit and explain science.
At the event, the students’ excitement was palpable; they were confidently explaining what they had built to everyone who stopped and asked. It was remarkable to see students who are otherwise exposed to non-functional science laboratories and teachers who may not be able to excite them with an explanation of scientific phenomenon, with the ability to dream, experiment and have confidence in themselves.
For me, some of the major attractions were the interactive math exhibits for young children, the presence of CERN’s interactive virtual particle collider, and the planetarium set up by Cosmic Perspective. Another feature that helped the audience was the significant volunteer force which kept ushering people from one exhibit to the next, ensuring that everyone had an opportunity to interact with the students who were presenting, and that no one went away dissatisfied.
The one thing that was missing however was a formal set up to help connect visitors with the various science organisations to seek further information or to offer support. There were numerous side conversations at the mela between visitors and various exhibitors, but a concerted effort would have been better in order to help establish long-term relationships between interested parties.
The mela has had the continued support of industrialist and philanthropist Syed Babar Ali, and Dr Manzoor Soomro from the ECO Science Foundation. However, the critical force behind the venture, is an unassuming Associate Professor from LUMS Dr Sabieh Anwar, who has been instrumental in using the Khwarizmi Science Society’s platform to popularise science in ways that most in the higher education domain would view with disdain. Credit also goes to former Secretary of School Education, Captain (Retired) Muhammad Mahmood, whose initiative it was to expand the outreach of the Lahore Science Mela and ensure representation from across all districts.
In my opinion, the challenge for the next Lahore Science Mela should be to compete with this year’s iteration. It should strive for greater audience engagement and an increased presence of international partners.
Furthermore, the state should also play a stronger role in promoting such initiatives; it should understand the link between children’s right to dream, and their ability to contribute to the country and one of the things that it can already think about helping with is to take the Lahore Science Mela model nationwide. As individuals, Dr Sabieh and a few others like him can only do so much.
Salman Naveed Khan works at a non-profit organisation, the Pak Alliance for Maths and Science. He tweets @seennoonkaaf