OPINION: Rethinking Science Education In India
By K. P. Mohanan | Academia
April 26, 2012
Prof. K. P. Mohanan discusses the key challenges for India’s science education, and how to help a significant number of these students develop into high-caliber scientists.
AsianScientist (Apr. 26, 2012) – The 21st century seems to have brought to India a new optimism, a confidence that it can become a global economic superpower alongside the US and China, and an eagerness to achieve this as quickly as possible.
Government agencies in control of funds are aware that an important prerequisite to economic growth is innovation and leadership in science and technology. They are also aware that India has sufficient human resources to be channeled into knowledge production. Finally, they are aware that the key to becoming world leaders in science and technology lies in a drastic transformation in education. The time is ripe, then, to rethink and transform science education in India.
At present, there are three key features of the Indian scene that are highly valued in the field of science education. First, unlike many funding agencies, the Indian government recognizes the value of pure science, without unduly worrying about its immediate application and the potential for short-term economic benefits. Second, it is aware that scientific talent should also be sought in rural and economically disadvantaged sections of Indian society. Third, many education circles are abuzz with discussions of the ‘scientific temper’ – the spirit of rational inquiry in the pursuit of science. The Indian constitution explicitly states that Indian citizens have the responsibility to acquire the scientific temper as a prerequisite to collective nation building.
About five years ago, the government of India set up five Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs) – at Bhopal, Kolkata, Mohali, Pune and Thiruvananthapuram – with a specific brief: to attract scientific talent from among the youth and to nurture them to become world-class researchers in science. The integrated five-year bachelor’s and master’s program at these institutions, along with the PhD program, is designed to guide students along the research path right from the beginning of their undergraduate education.
Despite the welcome attention, there are two major challenges with this approach. First, knowing how to select students with the potential to make important contributions to the growth of science. And second, implementing the kind of education that will develop and strengthen such potential, so that a significant subset of those students will become genuine scientific researchers.
The most difficult problem in identifying scientific talent is the enormous number of potential applicants to science programs. Currently, eligibility for application to the IISERs is determined by a ‘merit list’ consolidated from three channels: a joint entrance examination conducted by the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs); a test conducted by Kishore Vigyan Protsahan Yojna, a national scheme for encouraging scientific talent; and performance in the 12th-grade board examinations.
But gathering a merit list from these channels has its own drawbacks. In particular, selection is based primarily on tests that assess students’ familiarity with knowledge concepts and their ability to apply these concepts to standard textbook scenarios. Consequently, scientific talent is equated with doing well in tests, while the qualities of mind needed for scientific research are not assessed. This process emits the wrong signals to society regarding the nature of scientific research, and students are attracted who may not have the appropriate aptitude. It discourages and filters out students whose strengths may not lie with meaningless memorization and mechanical application, but whose potential for scientific research would emerge if they were exposed to the excitement of scientific inquiry.
In addition to these limitations, the IIT joint entrance examination poses a problem insofar as it relies on the multiple-choice-question format, which students must complete at high speed. This effectively discourages the exercise, and therefore the assessment, of thinking abilities and creativity. Furthermore, the content’s unrealistically high difficulty level, combined with the odds of scoring well through trained guessing, has resulted in the mushrooming of ‘coaching factories’ that train students to do well in these exams without either understanding the content or possessing scientific ability.
There have been many voices – from leaders in industry, politicians and even from among IIT faculty and alumni – expressing concern about the serious flaws of these tests and the mind-numbing effects of their preparation for students. The government is aware of the problems, yet the tests continue without any change. One solution is to design entrance exams that test the students’ thinking ability and potential to develop scientific inquiry abilities. For example, enhanced multiple-choice questions could be designed, which require students to spend longer thinking about each question and where wrong answers are penalized. Although detailed critiques of the current entrance tests do exist, and alternatives developed, authorities are yet to take up these options.
The second challenge is educating students in such a way that a significant number develop into high-caliber scientists. Three key areas call for special attention.
First, introducing students to scientific inquiry – and to rational inquiry in general – from the beginning of their undergraduate education and helping them develop the capacity for independent inquiry. This ability would then serve as the foundation for developing research skills during graduate studies, and for thinking and decision making in their professional and personal lives. The spirit of scientific inquiry (‘the scientific temper’) would be a natural outcome of the pursuit of these abilities.
Second, developing the capacity for scientific inquiry must be trans-disciplinary – it must focus on those aspects of (scientific) inquiry that are shared across disciplinary boundaries.
Third, India must focus on counteracting the growing trend of fragmentation in education and research, promote multidisciplinary research and facilitate the productive cross-pollination of ideas that transcend disciplinary boundaries. This requires the design of a curriculum embedded in an integrated trans-disciplinary perspective of (scientific) knowledge and inquiry. This in turn calls for an infrastructure of human knowledge that facilitates trans-disciplinary connections and the integration of knowledge across specializations, disciplines and even across traditional groupings like ‘natural sciences’, ‘social sciences’ and ‘humanities’.
Based on these three ideas, a new conception of education is emerging at institutes like IISER-Pune. Compulsory courses in mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology are complemented by compulsory courses on rational inquiry to help students develop the capacity for knowledge construction, validation and evaluation across a broad terrain of domains. These range from mathematics and physics to philosophy, history and art. India’s science education system might also consider another strategy whereby faculty members audit each other’s courses and discuss their teaching to make connections across courses. This would help students understand how seamlessly the different courses flow into one another.
A well-developed science education program can help India grow into an economic superpower by nurturing India’s youth to become world-class researchers – not only in engineering and technology, but also in pure science. To do this, relevant programs should encourage an integrated, inquiry-oriented scientific education grounded in a trans-disciplinary perspective of inquiry and knowledge. This approach demands an equal emphasis on (scientific) knowledge and (scientific) inquiry, and combining specialization in different disciplines with a broad-based multidisciplinary and trans-disciplinary education. As these initiatives are refined and strengthened, the lessons that are picked up along the way can be extended throughout the education system in general – in India and abroad.
Source: East Asia Forum.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.