(July 14, 2023) “I was over the moon,” says Joy Agrawal, the teenager who found himself on the Diana Award 2023 winners list. The 17-year-old from Nagpur is making a difference with Project Gyan, an initiative that was birthed in 2020 to help impart practical STEM education to underprivileged kids. Three years in, the changemaker is keen to revolutionise the world through space technology, global education, and global studies. “More than validation, Diana Award is a motivation for me. What we do is different and amazing, and I strive to find solutions through space technology, engineering, and policy,” Joy tells Global Indian.
Project Gyan – that changed it all
Project Gyan seeks to mentor students in STEM and help them develop curiosity and long-lasting interest in asking the big questions. Joy was all of 13 when he had an epiphany while sitting for the Homi Bhaba exam in 2019 – the underprivileged students have no access to practical labs. A thought that kept him awake for weeks. He understood his privilege of having access to all the resources, while the disadvantaged had no money to even order science kits. This problem found a solution in Project Gyan. “It’s an effort to help quality STEM education reach the young minds through practical and application-based education, focusing on the underprivileged children,” adds the changemaker.
But in the last year, Project Gyan underwent restructuring, making it the world’s first decentralised STEM and entrepreneurship exploratory. “It’s like a lab where you can go explore anything and everything,” reveals Joy, for whom explorative education is the focus. He partnered with Padma Shri Dr Prakash Amte’s Lok Biradri Prakalp and Bridge The Gap Foundation to help educate rural and tribal kids through workshops and unconventional experiments. “We have a different perspective on experimentation. We mostly use things that are available in the kitchen, making it easier for kids to understand things. We don’t just focus on Chemistry but the Physics behind the experiment.”
Along with STEM education, Project Gyan has expanded its mission to entrepreneurship by exposing the elderly in rural and tribal areas of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh to practical entrepreneurial education and converting them into nano-entrepreneurs. Project Gyan is currently working with the Bharia tribe from Madhya Pradesh which still uses a barter system to make ends meet. “Since they are poor and don’t use any currency, they log wood from the valley of Patalkot, thus negatively impacting the environment. So we intervened and now teach them sellable skills like painting, pottery, clay art, and candle making, thus helping them make products and sell them,” adds the changemaker.
In partnership with Patalkot Tribal Community Welfare Organisation and Serendipity Lakes and Resorts in Tamia, Madhya Pradesh, Project Gyan is helping the women of Dhundi Shekhar, a village in Tamia, to make Kulhad Battis (candles in small pots), aiming to equip them with skills necessary to create and sell these candles. “The final products are sent to the Serendipity Lakes and Resorts where they are put on display for the visitors, who eventually end up buying the products, thus helping these women earn a livelihood,” reveals Joy, adding that according to the 2011 National Innovation Report over one lakh, unique inventions were made by tribals across India, something that’s still not known to the public. “I understood that rural and tribal people are jugaadu (make shifter) in India, and I wanted to empower such people through Project Gyan so that they learn to market and sell their innovations.” He credits his core team – Gurleen Batra, Mehak Chokhani, Tanmay Agrawal, Prisha Prasad, Pranjal Prasad and Sonit Sisolekar – for their hardwork and determination in making Project Gyan a success.
Love for space tech
The Bareilly-born is a space tech enthusiast who has always been fascinated by the outer world. However, it was a telescope gifted by his parents that piques his interest. “For a year, I’d sit every day gazing at the stars or looking at the asteroids. But with time, it became less frequent. However, lockdown changed it as the sky was clear again,” says the Centre Point School student who discovered two asteroids in 2021 as a part of Spaceport India Asteroid Search Campaign in association with Hardin-Simmons University Texas.
Making an impact through STEM
While the telescope turned out to be a game-changer for him in the world of space, it was a robotics course that made him fall in love with technology. Over the years, this led him to be selected by Peace First, the world’s largest incubator for youth-led social change initiatives, for a project grant. “It’s a mini-grant for projects along the lines of social change. I won $250 with which I started Project Gyan in 2020.” Started during the pandemic, he initially needed no funds as live workshops for the underprivileged kids were happening virtually.
Being the vice president of the Interact Club at his school, Joy came in touch with the Rotary Club and zeroed in on an institution that has many underprivileged kids. “I began with a 1–2-hour class every Saturday wherein I performed experiments and explained concepts. Later, I expanded Project Gyan to four more schools in Nagpur and two tribal schools in Maharashtra,” adds the changemaker who provides kits to schools for students to get hands-on experience in science practical. “I love science, and I understand its potential. I want these kids to explore their potential through Project Gyan,” says Joy, who is now working with a team that looks into distribution and planning, maintaining the website, social media, and creating videos.
What was earlier a two-month program has now turned into a year-long curriculum, thanks to the overhaul of Project Gyan – which now includes STEM education and entrepreneurship. “We wanted a holistic approach.” Having seen his mom always helping people, this feeling of giving back was inculcated in Joy at a very young age. For him, Project Gyan is very personal since it’s named after his grandmother. “Another reason I ventured into it was guilt. Seeing others who don’t have enough resources eats me up, while we have so many opportunities. I want to bridge that gap.”
Joy, who is currently in Class 12, has plans of pursuing a double major in computer science and international relations or public policy from the Ivy Leagues. “Working with the UN is my dream. But at some stage, I would want to launch my start-up in space tech,” says the teenager, who calls himself a “changemaker who wants to create an impact through STEM”.
At 17, Joy is busy creating social impact, and the teenager advises youngsters to “not follow the herd. Instead, explore your niche. Don’t replicate another person’s journey. Do your thing and only then you will be able to make a difference.”
- Follow Joy Agrawal on LinkedIn