Science Day: A golden opportunity lost!

A Star Wars themed bionic arm. Credit: Open Bionics

National Science Day was observed on February 28 last. The day is celebrated each year to mark the discovery of the Raman Effect by Indian physicist Sir Chandrashekhara Venkata Raman on 28 February 1928. For his discovery, CV Raman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1930.

The day is marked by various activities in schools and colleges as well as national and state science institutions which include talks, exhibitions, debates, quiz competitions, live projects by students and so on. Big focus is put on schools as a major aim of the celebration is to encourage children in the field of science by highlighting the marvels of science as well as its impact on daily life.

A theme is assigned to the celebration each year so that the activities can focus on a common issue and consolidate action. The theme for this year was 'Science and Technology for Specially-Abled Persons’. In essence, the thrust this year was on the use of science and assistive technology in the lives of people with disabilities and how these various technologies can improve their quality of life. It was meant to encourage awareness, innovation and reach of accessibility solutions to the millions of people with disabilities in the country and around the world.

So, how did the Nagaland schools celebrate the day? As per newspaper reports, it was just another science day observation with activities centred on every other use and advancement of science and technology except those related to disability. Special programmes, talks, exhibitions and video shows were held in many schools and institutions, but as far as I could observe, the impact of science and technology in the lives of people with disability did not make it into any of these activities. In fact, the only times that disability was mentioned in any way at all was when the theme was mentioned!

According to reports, videos shown in some of the programmes included ‘Life in International Space Station’ and ‘Ill-effect of Global-Warming’. Talks were on Earth-like Planets discovered by NASA and 104 Satellites launched by ISRO and, of course, about the importance of fostering a scientific temper. A school is said to have enacted a skit on the theme ‘This is my story….when a Smart Phone came’ – I wonder whether they touched on the features and apps that have helped people with visual impairment immeasurably or the touch-free smartphones that have changed the lives of people who cannot use their hands or arms.

For years, people with disabilities had to rely on somebody else doing things for them. But while it may have sounded nothing more than science fiction a few decades ago, today science and technology is transforming lives of people with disabilities in unimaginable ways. They can now do things once thought impossible - from switching on a light to reading to getting a voice to express themselves. There are numerous apps and gadgets these days that aid people with disabilities and enhance their quality of life. All these because of innovative science!

Thanks to advances in microelectronics, hydraulics, and motors, nearly every amputee can today achieve goals and accomplish feats that were not possible at the turn of the century. A new generation of prosthetic devices are also allowing people to control them with their thoughts. From self-balancing and stair climbing wheelchairs to cars which replace driver’s seat with wheelchair, science, technology and innovative minds have done it all.

By the way, did you know that the stair-climbing wheelchair, the Scalevo Wheelchair, is the brainchild of 10 Zurich students at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) and industrial design at the Zurich University of the Arts? This is how the wheelchair works: when the wheelchair operator is faced with stairs, he simply has to press a button to release rubber tracks that work on most staircases, including ones that are uneven, cracked, and even spiral. The wheelchair ascends the stairs backwards, but has a video camera that allows the driver to see what's going on behind him, like a reverse parking camera in a car. Using this technology, the driver is able to climb one stair per second.

There’s a great video on this stair-climbing wheelchair and many others related to disability technology and inventions. I wish they had been shown to students. It would have gone a long way in exciting their minds to the possibilities of science in the everyday life of ordinary people. It makes science real!

The Scalevo Wheelchair

Then there are the amazing inventions that are helping people with visual disability – such as shoes that guide you in the right direction, glasses that help the colour blind see colour, a bionic eye, an app that points out who and what’s around you, and the one that brings a Brailler to your tablet, etc.

One of the main impacts of hearing loss is on the individual’s ability to communicate with others, since spoken language development is often delayed in children with deafness.  Limited access to services and exclusion from communication can have a significant impact on everyday life, causing feelings of loneliness, isolation and frustration, particularly among older people with hearing loss. Advances in technology have gone a long way in improving the quality of life for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

One such innovation is the Solar Ear. More than half of the 360 million people worldwide with a disabling hearing loss live in low- to- middle-income countries. Current production levels of hearing aids meets less than 10% of the global need, and the cost of hearing aids and batteries has often been beyond the reach of the poor. Solar Ear is a solar-powered hearing aid battery that costs a fraction of what traditional batteries cost, and lasts for 2-3 years (rather than one week). (Forbes)

Then there’s the Live-Time Closed Captioning System which instantly turns speech into scrolling text displaying on a tiny screen clipped to a pair of glasses. The system is being developed by a team of high school students for people who are deaf and the teen inventors say it “restores the user's ability to engage in a naturally flowing conversation.” Yes, that’s what I said – high school students. When the project started, the creator Daniil Frants was 17. His VP of Frants Innovators, Inc., Ilan Pesselev, was 14. The rest of his team were 18 and under. Most of them attend the same Manhattan high school.

These are but a few examples of unbelievable innovation and revolutionary technology that are transforming the lives of millions of people with disabilities positively around the world. But many of these are either unavailable to us or cannot be used in our environment or simply unaffordable. If only the Science Day had been used to highlight some of the amazing game-changing technologies with accompanying talks that challenged young Naga minds to come up with inventions that could potentially change the lives of thousands of people living with disabilities in our state!

This would have achieved two things – created some much needed awareness on disability in general and sparked young minds to think about solutions to real-world problems, which in my book is real education.

Sadly, a golden opportunity was lost!