Former US president John F. Kennedy once said, “Not everyone has equal abilities, but everyone should have equal opportunity for education.” Cisco’s purpose is to Power an Inclusive Future for All and it cuts across not only our products and services, but also the way we engage with the community. Providing quality education and equal opportunity as a basic human right is a dream every visionary leader wants to turn into a reality, and that’s the story we saw unfolding through the thingQbator program.
thingQbator, a flagship initiative of the Cisco India Cash Grant Program, aims to facilitate and empower the next generation of job creators and problem solvers. The primary goals of the program have been to foster innovation and create a platform for learning, developing digital skills, and mentoring, thereby helping young innovators and entrepreneurs turn their ideas into holistic solutions for our greatest problems.
Himanshu Chaurasia, a graduate of the program, hails from a remote village in India. Himanshu and his friends studied in rural schools that lacked the resources that schools in cities can provide to students. This gap became very evident when Himanshu started to pursue his higher education. In college, he observed that several of his classmates received better employment opportunities based on the diverse learning experiences they were exposed to throughout their schooling. He was eager to address this problem.
In his free time, he started teaching aeromodeling, electronics, robotics, and other subjects with a few like-minded friends, to students from rural villages. They soon realized that the problem was much deeper and often a vicious cycle that is difficult to break. On one hand, there was a dire need for quality education at the K-12 level. On the other, there was a lack of targeted career guidance to develop a talent pool that lay dormant in many inaccessible corners of India.
While on this journey of discovery and problem-solving, when he was a student at Motilal Nehru National Institute of Technology (MNNIT), Allahabad, Himanshu applied for the third cohort of the thingQbator program, with a goal to address the problem of educational inequity in rural schools.
CoGrad: Creating the next generation of schools in rural India
The initial solution that Himanshu and his team created was called Counseling Gurus, a reference to the expert counseling support that it provided to 12th grade students from schools in rural areas. During implementation, they observed that students they counseled from schools in rural education systems weren’t ready to compete with their urban counterparts due to various challenges in their primary and secondary education. For example, children keen on a quality education had to travel 20 to 25 kilometers (12 to 16 miles), increasing costs for families that are already struggling financially. These students also had an acute lack of awareness of higher education opportunities. All of this widened the already-existing gap between students competing at an undergraduate level. With these issues in mind, Counseling Gurus evolved to CoGrad, with a keener focus on the K-12 problem in villages and the factors that influence it the most. They now bring qualified teachers to local schools, reducing the barriers for students to get a quality K-12 education that equips them to gain the skills they need to succeed.
During the pandemic, the CoGrad team developed a simple tech solution to help schools continue classes virtually. Now that in-person engagement has resumed, they are developing a more robust Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) tool to manage student data, share knowledge among teachers and principals, and organize online activities and tests.
Today CoGrad focuses on:
- Partnering with private rural schools that lack infrastructure and equipping them with adequate resourcing and support as well as curriculum designed to align to the education policy.
- Focusing on digital infrastructure by setting up an audio-visual room with internet access, desktop computers, and exposing students to new technology.
- Providing after-school hours for local youth so they can learn employable skills training. Popular topics include Microsoft Excel, Photoshop, navigating social media, and more.
- The team is currently operating at three private rural schools in Uttar Pradesh, India. They are adding a fourth school shortly.
- In one of the first schools that they have engaged in, enrollment numbers have increased by 8X, and the local community is very appreciative of the efforts to educate their youth.
- 100 local students are currently enrolled in after-school skills training.
- They employ 60 people (including principals, coordinators, teachers, staff members, and interns).
With the motto of “Innovating Schools: Building Next-Gen Schools in Unreached India,” CoGrad strives to raise the standard of rural education, leveling the playing field and improving employability options for the next generation.
During their engagement with thingQbator, CoGrad went from an idea to a start-up, gaining credibility as a business today. Here are some of the aspects of the thingQbator program that Himanshu and his team of innovators leveraged:
- Continuous support and mentoring from the thingQbator team to evolve their approach to problem-solving.
- Early on, the thingQbator team helped them create a clear plan based on the Design Thinking methodology to build a start-up.
- The team leveraged the makerspace environment to collaborate regularly and build a more concrete plan for their solution.
- The thingQbator brand has helped CoGrad attract interns and students keen to support their cause.
- The knowledge gained through thingQbator, helped the team build a website for digital presence and an app for their initial focus on career counseling. They have subsequently built a Learning Management System and leveraged technology to connect schools internally.
- The learnings of Robotics and IoT from thingQbator is being passed on to students, making them future ready.
- In the future, the team is keen on setting up physical spaces for innovation to give students an opportunity to enrich and equip themselves technologically.
Accessibility and support of universal higher education form a nation’s quality talent infrastructure. Countries that actively promote quality education in every stratum of society become nations of innovation, progress, and intellectual leadership. Although there are many higher education institutes across India, people living in villages and rural parts of the country have limited access to them, preventing them from pursuing higher career goals.
India has a relatively young population, and 70 percent of the country lives in rural areas with inadequate access to advanced and innovative education. Tapping this potential is only possible by imparting advanced education and creating an ecosystem that nurtures young minds, and we are making it a priority to support organizations leveraging this unrealized potential.
For every young entrepreneur with a bright idea, thingQbator is a safe, thriving, buzzing, maker space where they can learn, grow, and evolve.
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