In a community where grades are considered the main proof of success for students, indulging oneself in co-curricular and extra-curricular activities is highly frowned upon. I chose to be different. I rebelled not because I did not do well in classes, but because I believed in the beauty of the causes I was part of.
During the third semester of my electrical engineering degree, I joined one of the most beautiful initiatives of science outreach in the country – the Khwarizmi Science Society (KSS). It all started when I had the chance to speak with Dr Sabieh Anwar – an experimental physicist – during a tea break at the first National Symposium on Astronomy, organised by the newly formed Astronomical League of Pakistan. Dr Sabieh, one of the founding members of the KSS, has been actively involved in science outreach for about 20 years. It was inspiring to see how he was able to bring science to the public while staying an active researcher and educationist and so I invited him to contribute an article to Technopolitan, the annual magazine of my university’s IET student chapter.
Developing a science mela
A few days after the symposium, I received a call from him asking if I was interested in helping to organise the first Lahore Science Mela festival. In Pakistan, melas are festivals/fairs, but a ‘science mela’ was alien to me; I did not know then what he really meant. Yet I was so overwhelmed with joy at the offer that I said yes!
The Khwarizmi Science Society and the Ali Institute of Education were the major bodies organising the event. After a couple of meetings with Dr Sabieh, it became evident that a lot of effort and dedication had to be put into the mela. The idea was to present science in its most accessible form through interactive demonstrations, lively experiments and visually appealing models to the diverse Pakistani community, regardless of any boundaries like age, gender, class.
A national celebration of science
A national celebration of science at such a scale was unheard of in the country. With all the uncertainties haunting us, we started work four months before the mela. Dr Saadat Anwar Siddiqi, president of KSS, and Dr Hamid Zaman, professor at Boston University, were already on board as the pioneers and a few science graduates and undergraduates had also joined the team.
We invited individuals, educational institutions, hospitals, museums, pharmaceutical companies, science outreach organisations and technological start-ups.In the end roughly 45 stalls were arranged, each depicting a specific domain of science and adding to the spectrum of the festival.
The long stream of efforts bore fruit on the morning of January 28th when the event kicked off with the national anthem at the Ali Institute of Education. Scores of schools, hundreds of families and thousands of individuals poured in just on the first day of the mela.
Where the attendees were able to see the macro-cosmos of stars and galaxies via telescopes, there they also had the chance to see the micro-cosmos of living cancer cells through microscopes. Young and old alike gathered excitedly around the tables exhibiting fuzzy chemical reactions and mini-blasts as if they were magic shows.
Even grade five kids were able to learn the concept of dimensions and the Mobius strip through 3D models. Exhibits of a miniature working weather station and seismograph were highly informative for the audience, plus disaster management robots and real-time image processing projects were perhaps for the first time witnessed by the general public.
Educational institutes from around the country also participated in the mela. It was heart-warming to see school and college students travel hundreds of miles to exhibit their innovative science projects and experiments. The festivity rose exponentially on the second day when people learned about aerodynamics by launching water rockets.
An inflatable planetarium and a mobile laboratory were also highlights of the two-day event. Something else that grabbed the public's attention was fire dancing to the beats of the anthem prepared exclusively for the mela.
The gleeful memories of the mela still run through my mind as I pen these words. Besides working on the mela, I was able to complete semester projects and do well in the exams, but it is the Lahore Science Mela 2017 that will always symbolise this semester for me.