Education by example

By Ankitha Joseph

Siddharaj Mopkar and Raj Kunkolienkar led ‘VidyaVriksh’ is an initiative for the future generations to explore and understand their true interests other than following the norms set by the society

Aristotle once said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” Years ago, through mere twelve words, Aristotle tried conveying the unique combination of the heart and mind, something that has been lacking in our education system for years now.

Many have complained but with initiatives such as ‘Teach for India’, the possibility of a more successful and effective education system has started to find its way. Family and peer pressure are two of the main reasons for the increasing numbers of admissions in Engineering and Medical colleges every year. One such individual is Siddharaj Mopkar, yet another product of India’s sinking industry, education.

Like many other parents, his too dreamed of a successful and well-to-do career for their son which eventually pushed him to NIT-Calicut where he graduated as a B.Tech. In a span of four years, Siddharaj overcame several emotions that remained similar with the majority of students who follow the dreams and passions that their parents draw for them. After completing his B.Tech, it was now time for Siddharaj Mopkar to follow his dreams and be an outlier. It was no cake walk to explain to his family, friends and the society of his mission. Acceptance had become a difficult task for many so Siddharaj decided to stick to his plans and leave the explanation part for later.

One of the interactive sessions at VidyaVriksh

With the sole idea of helping students overcome the tedious education system of the country, Siddharaj started out with ‘VidyaVriksh, where learning is fun’ in the year 2011, a studio that enables learning. Though his vision for the studio, referred to as ‘Mais Space’ was clear, he had to find alternate ways to have students enrolling. A product of the same system, Siddharaj set a bait called competitive exam coaching which started receiving good response. According to Siddharaj, the problem isn’t within what is taught but lies in the way it is taught. And hence, though Siddharaj’s content was similar to many others in the market, his approach differed. He introduced his students to the concept of self-learning and cleverly introduced them to critical thinking.

With no former experience in teaching, Siddharaj started out and it could be the lack of experience that made him different from others. His casual conversational approach with the students made him a closer friend and mentor rather than a mainstream teacher.

In 2013, Siddharaj was chosen to be a part of the ‘Teach for India Fellowship’, a non-profit organization that offers opportunities for promising youth to serve as full-time teachers to children from low-income communities in some of the nation’s most under-resourced schools. Siddharaj was placed in Pune where he learnt more about teaching and understood the challenges faced by the underprivileged.

After gaining great experience from ‘Teach For India’, Siddharaj was chosen to function with Fomento Scholars, an endeavour aimed at providing deserving students with the opportunity to pursue high-quality engineering education in the USA. In 2016, he resumed ‘VidyaVriksh’ in association with Fomento Scholars. Over the years of understanding the falling education system of the country, Siddharaj restarted with a few alterations, the bait of competitive exam coaching was no more used. Students weren’t divided on the basis of age group or grades, they were all put together and the class was all about exchange and appreciation of thoughts and ideas.

Siddharaj and Raj aspire to reach out to people with ‘VidyaVriksh’ by cultivating the value of collaboration and knowledge creation, their new plan in process of expansion is a research group

Siddharaj was not alone, this time, he had Raj Kunkolienkar on board with him. Raj with his expertise in Cosmology, Network Science, Emergent Behaviour, Game Theory, Machine Learning and Mathematical Sociology turned to be Siddharaj’s partner and a new medium through which the students can learn and explore. Today, with over 60 students, VidyaVriksh is encouraging the concept of learning, among all.

Speaking of the current education scenario Raj says, “People think of learning as something you do in an educational institute and not outside. And I’m not referring to practical knowledge but academic topics. I’m a graduate in Physics; but some day if I show interest and want to learn about another field like Psychology or Sociology, people will raise their eyebrows and wonder, why am I interested in something beyond Physics.” Siddharaj and Raj aim to make the society aware of the many cross-disciplinary connections that are present but are ignored.

Mais Space is in the process of reaching its much deserved heights, but, Siddharaj still has one regret – that his former students are today a part of another entity that promises the dream of a great career. While a few have left; there are also the ones who have left, yet are closely in connection with the studio and its dear founders.

Age is no barrier if interest is what leads you. Students of VidyaVriksh have brought in several accolades to the studio and themselves through their interests in fields that are associated with a larger age group by the society.

Siddharaj takes great pride in taking the names of his students who’ve excelled in various fields irrespective of their age. Ganesh Naik, a fourth grade student has taken up programming in C++ and Jai Bhobe from eighth grade has also developed deep interest in programming. Also in the list of young programmers is Neelay Kamat, a seventh grade student who is turning to be a Scratch programming wizard. These are just a few among the many marvels that VidyaVriksh is encouraging.

In Siddharaj’s opinion, the thought that one person cannot make a difference is only a lie. Until and unless the efforts are made, no judgements can be ever passed. As Siddharaj and Raj aspire to reach out to more students with VidyaVriksh by cultivating the value of collaboration and knowledge creation, their new plan in process of expansion is a research group. With the focal aim of conducting fundamental and applied research in the sciences, engineering as well as the social sciences. With weekly seminars that are left open for all, the research group plans to have a collaborative work nurtured by the exchange of ideas and development of analogies across customary disciplines .

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