New ideas to invigorate science education
Undergraduate education has increasingly become single-field oriented, neglecting vital support subjects
— Photo: A. Roy Chowdhury
Not offered: Hands-on experimental experience is not offered to students at the school and college levels.
In 1948, the Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan Commission on University Education said: “ Democracy depends for its very life on the high standard of general, vocational and professional education.
“Dissemination of learning, incessant search for new knowledge, increasing efforts to plumb the meaning of life, and provision of professional education to satisfy occupational needs of our society are the vital tasks of higher education”
This Radhakrishnan Desideratum defines what India should demand of its university and colleges. Today’s higher education has slid down in its purpose.
We have concentrated too much on professional education at the cost of vocational, scientific and general education. We need to amend and invigorate it so that it becomes an effective tool for the making of a just, vibrant and advancing society.
Education builds as a pyramid, with a broad base and an apex of excellence in a chosen discipline of expertise, from where horizons are expanded. With the mushrooming of cash-and-carry educational institutes, the pyramid has thinned into a stick.
Undergraduate education, which should provide the broad base, has increasingly become single-field oriented, neglecting vital support subjects. Many PhD degree holders in India today in, say biology, have not learnt physics, chemistry and mathematics beyond high school level, and are ignorant in economics, sociology, geography or languages.
What is true of a PhD in biology is also true of a Ph D in economics, physics or Urdu (with due variations).
Make undergraduate education all-rounded.
The National Knowledge Commission’s Report to the Nation 2006 admirably sums up the deficiencies and recommends a variety of ways to set higher education on its desired path (see www.knowledgecommission.gov.in).
It projects expansion, excellence and inclusion as the three principal objectives. In order to do so, it recommends an increase in the number of universities from the present 370 to as many as 1500 by the year 2015, and the setting up of up to 50 National Universities as exemplars of excellence.
It has further said that laws need to be changed so that universities can choose their own financial instruments.
The setting up of an Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education (IRAHE), out of reach of the tentacles of government, is a welcome idea as also that of a Central Board of Undergraduate Education (CBUE), along with its State equivalents (SBUEs).
It is clear that our undergraduate education first needs an overhaul. Some welcome steps have been taken already with the start of the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs), which give a five-year comprehensive M. Sc. in Science.
The curriculum they have devised is a composite one, inclusive of languages, humanities and social sciences, increased hands-on work, and opportunity to do research projects.
Likewise, the Birla Institutes of Technology & Science (BITS) insist that their students go through ‘practice schools’ (shop floor/laboratory/industry experience). We need more such bold experiments in other major branches of knowledge.
If we do not do so, we shall only be perpetuating the production of engineers, managers and doctors of inadequate experience and practical skills, while neglecting, at the same time, the much-needed expertise in sociology, political science, humanities, arts and letters — leave alone the physical and natural sciences.
Why are there more theoreticians than experimentalists in India, particularly in physical sciences and technology?
Many believe this is because hands-on experimental experience is not offered to students at the school and college levels. I have suggested that ‘practice schools’ be offered during vacation time to students, starting from the middle school level.
I am gratified that the Department of Science & Technology (DST) is indeed launching a sustained national program called INSPIRE (Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research). This scheme targets a spectrum of age groups – right from ten to thirty-two years.
A novel and insightful suggestion has been made by Professor M. A. Pai of Illinois (who taught at IIT Kanpur for 20 years, and then at the University of Illinois for another 20), and independently by Dr. Tushar Chakraborty of IICT Hyderabad.
This is to make the undergraduate courses in India into an 8-semester or 4-year programme, offering simply a Bachelor’s degree.
This is a departure from current practice, but not quite that new; it is reminiscent of the earlier Honours degrees.
During these four years, the students are expected to go through not only lecture classes, but spend a good bit of time in research/application/field work.
It is in this context that the setting up of CBUE and SBUEs is welcome. They can be effectively used to redraw the undergraduate degree programme and curricula.
For a start, they can (1) provide semester- based course programmes, with a continuous grading scheme, rather than just end-of-the course finals; (2) insist that the degree at the end of eight semesters is not a specialised one but simply a Bachelor degree; the specialisation would be in the subject course that the student chose to take and pass in his/ her course programme; (3) offer a vast menu of courses, ranging from language and literature on one hand to specialised science/ social science courses on the other; (4) arrange such that of the 40 courses during the undergraduate program, at least 10 be in humanities and social sciences, 10 in physical/natural sciences. Every summer there is an apprentice/ practice school, and the rest in subjects that the student chooses.
Such a programme prepares the graduate to enter the professional world just as an MBBS/ B.Tech/ M.Sc does, or go straight for a doctorate program.
The current 3-year Bachelor’s degree, as it stands, is a half-way street, leading the student to no meaningful career path. The Pai-Chakraborty idea is thus a vast improvement, worthy of implementation across the board in the country.
Ponder over what Pandit Nehru said half a century ago. “India cannot go ahead without scientific and technological knowledge.
“Yet, the studies of humanities cannot be neglected for otherwise it would become lopsided. The development of human resources is as essential as the construction of big projects”.
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