Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Pudhucherry Born Neuroscientist and Author Teaches Kids Complex Science Through Simple Activities

Praba Soundarajan, born at Pudhucherry, India, and currently living in Tampa, Florida, strives to develop and grow the type of creativity and curiosity our kids need to become tomorrow’s inventors. He has authored two books: Pumpus Has A Glowing Idea! and Pumpus Has A Flowing Idea to foster creativity and help children understand science through experiential learning. Rajasekar KS chats him up on what made him choose this journey.

How did the idea of making complex science easy and simplistic for kids strike you?
In the United States, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) topics are typically not introduced until middle school.  However, studies suggest that every effort should be made to start introducing STEM topics as soon as children enter elementary school.  Furthermore, recent studies have identified the elementary school years as the period when students form their interests in STEM identities and careers—much earlier than people traditionally believed.

As a concerned father wanting to help introduce STEM topics to young children, I volunteered to read stories to my daughter’s kindergarten class with hope of encouraging a positive shift.  To my surprise, it was near impossible to find STEM books for young children.  So instead, I gathered up information and talked to them about inventors and their inventions.  The response was incredible!  I was amazed by the children’s level of intelligence and how quickly they grasped concepts—and they were excited to learn more.  This experience served as my inspiration and motivation for creating BOON-dah, the company I started to create a "series" of books and educational products that help address this gap in our current education system.

To start off with, BOON-dah is going to offer books that feature a group of friends going on adventures together or doing a project, and while they are doing these activities, they use a particular invention or scientific concept to solve a problem they have. The lead character in all my stories is “Pumpus the Pumpkin.” He is this cute, little fella who happens to be a smart geek; and in each story, he solves a problem using concepts from an invention perspective. I am sure the kids will love him—and I know my daughter certainly does!

Your first book “Pumpus Has A Glowing Idea” is pretty interesting. Tell us a bit more about what the kids loved the concepts.
Kids loved how Pumpus and his friends solved the problem in a "practical" way with all the tools they had with them and were intrigued by the exciting story line. As they read the story they came up with their own solution to solve the problem. Furthermore, the kids liked the characters’ expressions and those tiny details that bring a scene to life, such as the notches in the wood when trying to build a fire. Sounding words like ‘boon-dah!’ gave them an experiential quality, hence they could relate to the characters in the story.

Children world over are taught theories, but doesn’t really help create scientists or writers or artists…

Children are born as natural engineers and tinkerers. Creativity, as we know, does not stem from a formal or conventional education. I firmly believe that one of the ways we can foster creativity early in a child’s life, particularly at the early developmental ages of 5 and 6, is by describing how things work from a unique, simplistic, and imaginative perspective. It’s very similar to how we learn a language after birth. First, we hear it; then we learn to speak it, and then we begin to understand all of its grammatical components. Applying this same concept, my stories explain different inventions and scientific concepts from a 30,000 foot view, and in a way that children can understand. They provide a way for sowing the seeds of creativity at a very early stage in a child’s development, and they will help nurture their curious minds as they grow by encouraging them to investigate how things work the way they do.

How do you provoke the curiosity of elementary school children?
At birth, children are curious by nature and have an inherent desire to learn how things work.  They are natural tinkerers, engineers, team players, and problem solvers. It is by giving the elementary school children a practical platform to build and solve problems we can nurture their creativity.  My stories are designed based on BOON-dah's early childhood "Experiential Learning" Platform to teach children STEM concepts through hands-on approach in parallel to their prime brain developmental years. BOON-dah's experiential learning platform is build on the concept of "I do and I understand".

How do we foster creativity in children during the early years?
In addition to teaching our young children math and science, it is imperative that we also teach them how to apply these concepts to create and innovate better designs and make the world a better place in which to live. For this to happen, we must expose our future inventors, scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs to STEM during their pre-school and elementary school years. To be successful, we need to change our approach in educating the next generation and focus on what I call the Four P’s. We must instill a passion in our children to figure how things work, the patience to find problems, the persistence to solve problems, and the prudence to learn from their failures.

Tell us a bit about how neuroscience helped you create these books?
As a neuroscientist, I believe the key to addressing the issue on fostering creativity lies in understanding how the human brain develops after birth.  During the first decade of life, the human brain is highly malleable and forms new synaptic connections.  However, after this first decade, when most children are completing elementary and moving on to middle school, the formation of synaptic connections in the brain occurs at a slower pace. An excellent example of this is how we learn a language. Children are able to learn a language much faster when compared to learning it during adulthood.

For the reasons above, we need to be exposing our children to STEM concepts during the first ten years of their life, and especially during pre-school, kindergarten, and first grade.  By introducing STEM concepts early on, we can help shape our children’s brains and not limit their potential from an ability, interest, or knowledge point of view.  This is particularly important for science, which gets little or no attention in most elementary schools.

What kind of concepts is your next book teaching?
All my forthcoming stories will be based on BOON-dah's experiential learning platform focusing on STEM education to parallel the brain development during early childhood learning. Each book will contain a problem that Pumpus and his friends will solve from an invention perspective. For example, building a robot, periscope, sundial and so on with infinite possibilities to nurture their curious minds.

Experience at schools
The kids from Kindergarten through Grade 5 loved both the "glowing and flowing" stories. The most important thing they liked about the stories is that in each story Pumpus & his friends encounter a problem and they solve it with their tools available with them along with the surrounding nature. The teachers loved the stories because it taught the kids critical thinking, problem solving, collaborating with friends and creative tinkering.

Next plans
For each story, we are planning to introduce interactive audio-visual books and augmented reality based versions to enhance interaction with the characters and their surrounding environment.

The team: Jack Spellman (Illustrator), Kim Clement (Social Media Director), and Praba. For details, go to Boon-Dah.

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