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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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I think therefore I can

Rishab Gupta was in the midst of a mountaineering camp in Mussoorie when an idea to convert a tent into a raft struck him. “Why can’t a tent be converted into a boat,” wondered the Class X student of Delhi Public School, Jammu.

As soon as he returned to his hometown, he began working on the idea of a convertible tent, which would be fitted with portable solar panels to provide light after sunset. The base would be made of rubberised nylon that could be inflated and the border along the base could be blown up to turn it into a raft.

But Gupta had no inkling how his idea could be put into action. A few days later, while browsing the Internet, he found that Ignite — a national competition encouraging schoolchildren to cultivate an innovative spirit — was calling for submissions. “I started out with a sketch and then made a rough model,” says Gupta, who dreams of becoming an aerospace engineer.

He emailed the idea to Ignite. A few weeks later, Gupta discovered his idea had won him an award and a chance to meet former president APJ Abdul Kalam. “I never thought my idea would be recognised or I would be feted at a national event. Meeting Kalam was a dream come true. He told me the award has given me wings to fly,” says an ecstatic Gupta, who is preparing for his board exams, which will be held in February.

Arnab Chakraborty, a Class XII student of Future Foundation School, Calcutta, who came up with the idea of a modified cycle rickshaw, was also among the winners. Chakraborty, who recently moved to the city, was pained by the plight of rickshaw pullers. “I was disturbed to find thin, frail men struggling to pull passengers. So, I thought of a modified cycle rickshaw with extra pedals for passengers who may wish to share the burden. I prepared a model and sent it to Ignite,” says the IIT aspirant who wishes to undertake research in astrophysics.

Gupta and Chakraborty are among 32 students who received the Ignite awards 2012. They were chosen from among 14,889 children, representing 282 districts from 30 states and Union Territories.

The Ignite competition is conducted by the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), an autonomous body under the Department of Science and Technology, in association with the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), various state education boards, Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (a non-governmental organisation set up to strengthen the creativity of grassroots inventors) and Honey Bee Network (a self-help group of innovators).

Sadhana Parashar, director, academics and training, CBSE, explains why the board joined hands with Ignite. “We wanted to give students an opportunity to explore their creative and innovative skills. The competition enables students to show the world how their little contribution to science and technology can improve the quality of life,” she says.

But selecting 32 students was not an easy task for NIF as most of the ideas were unusual. “These children have proved that they are far less patient with the unsolved problems of our society than many of us,” observes Anil Gupta, the vice-chairman of NIF and professor of agriculture management at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

Besides encouraging winners to give workable solutions to their creative ideas, NIF offers financial and mentoring support, and also files patents on students’ behalf.

According to R.A. Mashelkar, former director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, such recognition gives students the assurance that the country cares for their ideas. “The fact that NIF also files patents for as many cases as feasible will further strengthen their faith in the nurturant institutions of our country,” he says.

The youngest winner on behalf of whom NIF filed a patent is a student of Class II from Jalgaon, Maharashtra. Mohammed Usman Hanif Patel came up with the idea of a fan powered by a windmill on the roof. “When wind blows, both the fan and the windmill will move together,” says Patel, who wants to be a mathematician when he grows up.

A student from Jamshedpur — Rajashree Choudhury of Class V, Little Flower School — came up with an idea to prevent the use of mobile phones while driving. She suggested that car manufacturers make a slot in a car where a cellphone has to be inserted before a car could start. “Ideas such as these show that children react constructively and imaginatively to problems and come up with frugal innovative solutions that elude grown-ups,” says NIF’s Gupta.

So, how many innovations by children have been found to be commercially viable? Nitin Maurya, coordinator NIF, says there are a few promising innovations which the foundation is trying to improve upon by engaging designers so that they can be subsequently diffused through social or commercial channels. “Some technologies may not have high commercial value but great social value like crutches with shock absorbers, a walker with adjustable legs. We call this inverted model of innovation where children give ideas, engineers /designers fabricate and companies commercialise,” he says.

A unique feature about Ignite is that it does not only consider ideas of school students but also that of dropouts in the same age group. Students up to Class XII can participate.

NIF validates these innovations with the help of experts, and ascertains their novelty by doing proper research. It also funds value addition initiatives in these innovations to upscale them and make them more useful for a larger segment of people.

What about ideas that may appear downright absurd? “Oh, we just love them,” exclaims Gupta of NIF. He adds, “We received some ideas that did not appear to be feasible but decided to give recognition to children capable of absurd thinking by giving them ‘Kite Flyer Idea Awards’. Who knows what seems absurd today may become the reality tomorrow... Many of these ideas might just become technologies of the future.”

Among the Kite Flyer Idea Awards were the ideas of a mobile phone being charged while someone was speaking on it (It can be done with the help of sound energy, said a Class VII student from Patna), a machine that could suggest how to eat and how to cook (idea from a Class V student from Maharashtra), a glove with a mobile phone (proposed by a Class VII student from Delhi) and a device to relocate clouds (as suggested by a Class X student from Punjab).

No matter how outlandish the thought, NIF’s motto is to encourage children with ideas. Explains Maurya, “As parents and teachers we do not encourage children with a different mindset or line of thinking. When we impose our thoughts on them, somehow we stifle their creativity.”

So, just give wings to your imagination and jot down your ideas. Your thoughts could turn out to be the technology of the future.