Then came along Project Topi...
By Saad Anis
TOPI: In the remote village of Topi in the Swabi district of NWFP sprawls the generous campus of the Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute Of Engineering Sciences and Technology (GIKI). Students with the promise of brilliant industry careers come here to study Artificial Intelligence and neural networks and numerical solutions for sandwich beams, and work with machines like a magnetic flux flaw detector.
But, not so far from the campus, in stark contrast to its hub of knowledge, live the residents of Topi village whose literacy rate has hit rock bottom. The village has only two schools of any mentionable standing. The dropout rate before their matriculation is overwhelming largely due to financial problems and partly because village parents widely believe that education is useless. Only a handful of students, who do appear in the board examinations, manage to pass.
Then came along Project Topi. The students of GIKI realised that while they were studying state-of-the-art science, village children outside couldn’t even tell how a light bulb worked. Project Topi thus involves teaching, scholarships and fund-raising for village children, who are taught by GIKI students themselves.
Project Topi was founded in the fall of 2000, and students started taking out time from their study schedules to teach the children from the village. “It has always been a team effort,” says Farhan Ayaz, the current coordinator of the project. He is in charge of managing the project’s activities and funds.
“The students of Topi haven’t seen much of the world,” says Zarak, one volunteer. “Their luxuries are our needs. I can’t pay Zakat and this is my way of fulfilling my duty towards deserving people.”
The teaching section involves volunteer GIKI students who tutor local students, who come to GIKI on weekdays, where they are taught in lecture rooms on the institute’s campus. Each class is taught by two volunteer students. As a matter of policy, the stress is on English.
“We like to emphasise English because the medium of instruction in the local educational institutes is Urdu,” says Farhan. According to him, every subject, including Mathematics and the sciences, is taught in Urdu at the village school. “This is a serious problem because most of the village students intend to join English medium schools later on,” he says.
But how can science and technology students without any experience in education teach village children? Zarak Khan Khattak and Zain Kazmi, two students who teach in the programme say they come up with their own teaching methods. “Zain pretends that he can’t speak Urdu or Pushto and only talks in English,” says Zarak. “This forces the students to talk to him in English. I talk to them in Pusto, Urdu and English, which helps them communicate with Zain. In the end, if they can talk to him without my help, we achieve our objective!”
Project Topi realised that many students simply couldn’t afford to go to school. GIKI students now go door-to-door every month for voluntary contributions from the members of the GIKI student body. A minimum donation of Rs 10 is asked but often students contribute more. “We had a total of about Rs 30,000 in the Project Topi account at the end of this spring semester,” said Bilal Ali, member of the fund-raising section.
A large majority of promising village students drop out because of financial problems. To make sure that this does not happen, the scholarship section of Project Topi was introduced. Scholarships are awarded to students who wish to continue studying after matriculating. “We funded three students last year,” says Farhan, “and this year we will be able to fund about fifteen students.” Nonetheless, he says not all students can be granted full scholarships. “So we are thinking of giving partial scholarships to some of students,” he says.
But administratively Project Topi hasn’t always been supported completely. “We have experienced some tough resistance from the GIKI administration,” says Farhan. The administration has initiated a strict policy against Project Topi, forbidding local students from entering the institute’s premises under the pretext of “security reasons”. “This (administration’s decision) has made life very difficult,” Farhan says.
The students would also welcome help from the government. “No professors or administration are involved in the project and senior students are the sole managers of the project. If even one batch of seniors loses interest, the project would not be sustained. So a more professional infrastructure wouldn’t hurt,” says Zarak.
Do the students think that their efforts are really making a difference? “We are helping them as much as we can,” says Zarak. “We would certainly like to do more for the project.” But for now, it certainly seems like Project Topi is going to produce top of the class students.