The challenge of achieving universal enrolment is daunting enough for a country with nearly half its children out of school. Meanwhile questions of quality need to be addressed urgently so that children who are in school can make the most of their school careers. For teachers, education managers and policy makers alike, the focus is understandably on improving learning outcomes in reading and mathematics. But some want to go further, to create a generation of scientists, innovators and thinkers.

“People tend to see science as something disconnected from society and everyday life,” says Muhammad Sabieh Anwar, Secretary of the Khwarizmi Science Society (KSS). “It is only by getting out of this way of thinking that we can become scientists.” The KSS promotes the study of science and aims to spark the imagination of students.

“Science is a journey of exploration and a way of looking at the world,” says Anwar, who has a PhD in physics from Oxford University and is the Chair of the Department of Physics at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. “In Pakistan we think of science as something that is just about books, an exam, a degree, and then you become a doctor or engineer.” The KSS wants to change this perception.

The KSS was founded in 1997 by a group of students at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore. “We wanted to visit schools all over Pakistan to show students the possibilities of science. We wanted to demonstrate that science was not just about rote memorisation but something that is fun and can be experienced in life, in nature, even in a rock,” Anwar says.

To inspire students to become excited about science, the KSS conducts seminars and symposiums, offers lectures and workshops, provides counselling, and organises public science exhibits and demonstrations like the popular Falakiyati Mela (astronomy festival) that is attended by thousands of students, teachers and parents. Every year the KSS focuses on a single theme and develops a range of related activities. Their theme for the year 2000 was the genome code, in 2005 the focus was on laser technology and 2009 was the year of astronomy.

“There are times we go to villages and we find hidden diamonds,” says Anwar about the experience of taking science out into small towns and villages across Pakistan. “There are always one or two children who are naturally inclined towards science and are inspired by us or demonstrate innate skill and inventiveness. We had one child from Okara who on his own built the largest reflecting telescope in Pakistan.” This type of innate talent and an impulse for scientific discovery is exactly what the KSS wants to bring out in children across the country.

What the KSS hopes to achieve with students as well as teachers is to create a love of scientific knowledge and to show that it has practical benefits. Countries that excel in science are not necessarily those that have the most money, Anwar believes, citing the example of Iran, which has produced many innovators. “The way science is treated in Pakistan has a bad effect on students. There is a mindset that studying science is about becoming a doctor or an engineer, and becoming a scientist or innovator is not a goal worth pursuing. People are just studying the subject to become practitioners. We want to create great thinkers.”

KSS charges 1,000 rupees for a lifetime membership and these funds go toward financing its activities. It is also supported by scientists, philanthropists, schools and research institutions. Many scientists and well-wishers donate telescopes, microscopes and other scientific instruments that KSS in turn donates to schools across the country. Recently the KSS acquired the largest telescope in Pakistan, which is to be installed in an observatory at a school in rural Punjab.

Anwar believes there is a misconception that science is expensive and needs costly equipment. “This is not the case. You don’t need high-tech equipment for activity-based learning.” KSS has been able to demonstrate this in schools around Pakistan. “Along with students, I think teachers have also benefitted from our activities. They can now develop more interactive lessons and make learning fun.”

Given the scale of the national education emergency, it is easy to forget that a quality education is a journey of discovery. The KSS is a reminder to us all that for the children who are in school, learning should be about inspiring young minds and sparking the desire to seek knowledge.