Mountain Of A Man

Sonam Wangchuk’s acclaimed innovations in his native Ladakh could revolutionise India’s education system and green arid highlands

1/2/2018 7:39:30 PM
written By : Shobha Tsering Bhalla Print

In a future where robots and smart technologies are predicted to take over key jobs, experts say that the jobs remaining for humans will involve the skills that technology cannot replicate, such as critical thinking, innovation, creativity and emotional engagement with other humans. 

While governments of major economies are only just starting to wake up to this daunting scenario, one modest innovator in Ladakh has already been doing something about it in a novel experiment that could revolutionise how students learn.

For the last 22 years, Ladakhi engineer Sonam Wangchuk has been running an alternative school in his home state - the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) – which uses innovative ways to expose students to real-life skills and empowers them to map their own course. It was founded by him to reform the rigid educational system in the region which lacked relevance to their lives and led to many “failures”. His school’s only criterion for admission is that the students must have failed in the mainstream system multiple times.

The school gives an environment to the students where they can grow, not just in the mind, but also through the three Hs – Head, Hand and Heart. The soft-spoken 51-year old calls this model, ‘Bright Head, Skilled Hands and Kind Heart’. Today, many of the alumni of this “School of Failures” have earned international acclaim in their chosen fields and one is the Education Minister of Jammu & Kashmir. 

For a man who has won worldwide plaudits for his work and the prestigious Rolex Award for Enterprise, Sonam Wangchuk comes across as touchingly affable and humble with a palpable passion for what he does. This writer spent a few days interacting with him as a fellow keynote speaker at the Kanchan-Panda Startup Festival, the first such event in Northeast India.

Almost child-like in his candour, the only time he is guarded is when the topic comes up of Aamir Khan’s hit film 3 Idiots, which is loosely based on him. Apologetically he says it “trivialised” his work.

SECMOL had been doing all this work far from the public gaze, but his popularity boomed when Wangchuk helped build the Ice Stupas - a discovery that has the potential to reduce the problem of water shortage significantly in dry high-altitude regions like Ladakh. His seminal work has garnered him many awards including Rs1 crore in December 2016 from the Rolex Award for Enterprise. He is using this as seed money for his dream project, the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives (HIAL), the world’s first alternative university, which is set to open this year. 

Education has always been a catalyst in Wangchuk’s life. When he was just 18, he had to fend for himself in engineering college (in Srinagar) because he fell out with his father over his choice of subject. His father wanted him to take up civil engineering but young Wangchuk was set on becoming a mechanical engineer. So he took up tutoring students to pay his way through college. In three months he was making more than enough to pay his entire way through college. Today, his father is proud his son chose his own path. 

Here are some excerpts for an interview he gave India Se Magazine:

India Se: How did you start this change for the education system?

Sonam Wangchuk: After I had this experience of teaching students to fund my own education, I decided to bring reforms to the government school system. After getting my engineering degree, I went back and we started again teaching students in the 10th grade who were facing challenges. But soon we realised we couldn’t be doing this bandage work - repairing broken pieces. If we did that, we would be doing it for another five decades and the system would keep producing broken products for us to repair. So, instead, we decided to bring reform at the very root – rural primary schools. That’s where the children are made to fail or succeed. That was very successful and it took the pass rate, success rate, from 5 per cent to 75 per cent in a decade or so. After that, we started focusing on those that still failed, because why should anybody come out with the feeling of failure after spending 15 years of their life in school? For them, we started a special school, which was all about teaching experientially, hands on, and using more senses than just eyes and ears, like classroom lectures. We wanted it to become unforgettable where they could touch and do things. That led to this school (SECMOL) which is all about engaging young people in solving problems, using what they learn in their curriculum to build applications that can help people in their lives.

India Se: What were the admission criteria?

Sonam Wangchuk: This was a school which had as its admission criteria not percentage, not marks, but failure. So while teaching them maths, science, etc. we would apply it to solve problems. So for solving the problem of cold winters, we, together with our students, apply the chapter on heat in high school science to build buildings that would stay warm in winter using the energy from the sun. These are passive solar mud buildings, which stay at +15 and -15 degrees outside. Similarly for water problems, we developed this “Ice Stupa”, which is a way to store water that goes waste in winter, in the form of ice cones, which do not melt like other ice on the ground, because of this geometric shape - a cone. It stays till June which is when you need water. They stay up to temperatures of 25-30 degrees Celsius.

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