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As if by magic

Some people think what happens in a SOLE is a little bit magic; they might well be right. But if you happen to drop by the Chandrakona lab lately, magic is exactly what you’ll see.

When faced with a science question they couldn’t answer these Indian children did what comes naturally to them: look to the Internet for help.

A small group of boys turned to YouTube to teach themselves about chemical reaction and science so they could learn magic tricks to perform for their ‘Grannies’ over Skype.

And as their next session approached, they gathered the materials they needed to take to the lab: one water bottle, a rubber balloon, a funnel, a little baking powder and some vinegar and water.

Firstly, they filled a quarter of the bottle with water. Then they put some baking powder into the balloon using the funnel. After they had put the funnel onto the water bottle and mixed the vinegar in the water, they were ready. “Now we will show the magic,” they said. “The magic is the balloon will blow up automatically.”

The boys then fitted the balloon onto the mouth of the bottle, causing the baking soda in the balloon to fall down into it, mixing with the water and vinegar. The balloon then automatically blows up, as predicted!

“All who were at the lab including the kids clapped when they saw the magic,” says co-ordinator Joydev Goswami. “They were very much excited because their first experiment which they had learned from YouTube was successful. They told the Granny that they had wanted to work out how to blow a balloon without air pressure.”

Those present were really impressed not only by the tricks, but by the level of understanding shown by the children about what they were doing. For example, one was able to explain that when ‘the candle goes out the oxygen runs out’ during one particular experiment.

Chandrakona has had its fair share of challenges over the past year, as is the case with all of our remote locations. Lizards laying their eggs in the CPUs is just one downside of building a lab here! It is also extremely hot for a substantial part of the year, so the introduction of an air conditioning system last summer brought with it welcome relief for both the co-ordinators and the children.

There have been some cultural issues to iron out as well: the appointment of a young local man as co-ordinator did not go down well with some of the parents of the young girls. They were concerned about them being on their own in the lab with a young man, so a compromise was sought where he now has a wonderful assistant co-ordinator, Sumita, an older lady from the nearby village.

Everyone was relieved to find an agreeable solution, as in a short space of time Joydev has become an integral and enthusiastic member of the team. We look forward to hearing more about how Joydev and these budding scientists get on in the future!

Chandrakona is in Kiageria Village, District Paschim, West Bengal, about 170km from Kolkata. It was established in March 2014 as one of the TED Prize labs. There are nearly 2,000 people living nearby, with approx 800 of those children under 16. Children come to the lab from nearby villages, either on foot or by bicycle. Agriculture is the main industry – largely rice and potatoes. Previously, the children had heard about computers but had never used them. In schools, Bengali is the medium of instruction while English is taught as a subject.