Leading academics who attended the University Meet organised as part of the 97th Indian Science Congress have resolved to come up with a set of recommendations to help science education overcome its present shortcomings like poor quality of teaching and a low-impact, fragmented syllabi.

In response to the cries of alarm raised over the falling standards of science education in the nation's institutes of higher learning and over the falling numbers of students opting for basic science courses, the University Meet organised as part of the 97th Indian Science Congress—that was hosted by the University of Kerala and the Indian Space Research Organisation at Thiruvananthapuram from January 3 to 7—resolved to come up with a set of recommendations to reinvent science education in India.

Ambitious though this task may seem, the kernel of such recommendations could already be discerned in the presentations made by leading academics who took part in the meet.

The concerns of these academics ranged from the fragmented and low-impact syllabi of science courses, uninspiring teachers whose communication skills leave much to be desired, to the absence of a concerted national effort, a master plan, to resuscitate science education.

The former Vice Chancellor of the Madras University S. P. Thyagarajan and the Raman Chair professor at the IGNOU P. T. Manoharan were among those who articulated their disquiet over the compartmentalisation of the syllabi of science courses.

In his presentation ‘Status and future perspectives of science education-research manpower and capacity building', Dr. Thyagarajan pointed out that the syllabi for graduate courses have gone in for unnecessary specialisation over the years.

Graduate education should be broad based and not specialised for that is the time when fundamental concepts get ingrained in the students. In the case of biological sciences or life sciences, education has shrunk to mean botany, zoology and even molecular biology and nanotechnology. This has also happened to chemical sciences, physical sciences and mathematical sciences. “Compartmentalisation has caused maximum damage to science education,” he told the delegates to the ISC.

Dr. Manoharan too in his presentation ‘Science education current status and perspectives', spelt out the dangers of fragmented teaching and learning of science. Syllabi are being prepared by persons with no vision. These syllabi are then being presented to students in an even more fragmented manner by teachers who themselves do not keep pace with the latest developments in their fields.

Moreover, heavy syllabi pass for rich syllabi in the nation's science education system. The mere addition of some topics to a B.Sc. course does not make an M.Sc. programme. Then there is a dichotomy between curricula of science courses and those for technology courses. There is very little of one in the other. As if all this weren't enough, there is a disconnect between theory and practice.

In other words, the teaching-learning process has very little scope, if at all, for putting into practice what science is taught in the classrooms, Dr. Thyagarajan pointed out.

The quality of teachers who handle science in the nation's educational institutions too came in for criticism at the ISC. Many delegates who attended the University Meet and others who were asked to respond to the concerns aired at the meet agreed that the teaching of science is uninspiring in most colleges and universities.

The teaching-learning process often does not challenge students to do better or do anything different. The communication skills—both oral and written—of most teachers of science leave much to be desired.

More importantly, the teaching of science in many institutions remains divorced from research. Very little is being done to kindle the spirit of enquiry in students.

Dr. Thyagarajan's lament that what little talent there exists among teachers of science across the country goes unrecognised and unrewarded, found resonance at the meet. Good teachers frustrated by this indifference are migrating to central institutes; a kind of internal brain drain in the country whose impact on science education hardly needs any articulation.

Even now, the graduate and postgraduate programmes in most colleges and universities are memory-based. This is particularly true of the examinations that students have to take at the end of such courses. The thrust of such courses—both from the perspective of the student and the teacher—end up being the generation of marks than the generation of ideas. Anything and everything is aimed at generating a respectable pass percentage.

Even the top end of the spectrum—the research theses churned out from varsities—is corrupted, Dr. Thyagarajan pointed out. In the mad race for numbers, quality takes a back seat. As with science education in colleges, mediocre guides cause research scholars to produce mediocre theses that are non-innovative and repetitive. The fact that no doctoral thesis gets rejected in the university system is shocking, he said adding that there exists no system now to check plagiarism in doctoral theses.

The solutions

The University Meet was not just about the flipside of science education. It was also about possible solutions to the same.

Both Dr. Thyagarajan and Dr. Manoharan called for a broad-based science curricula in colleges and universities; those which allow for “cross-fertilisation” between various science disciplines and between science and humanities subjects.

The curriculum should essentially be credit-based with provision for credit transfer and should be modular in nature. A high level of competence in a multi-disciplinary mode should be the end product of a science curriculum. Teaching should compulsorily be combined with research. The spirit of inquiry should be an integral part of teaching and learning science.

It is clear now to academia in the country that large, affiliating universities are stumbling blocks in the path of educational reforms. Small, multidisciplinary universities which have autonomous science institutions inside constituent colleges would go a long way in enhancing the quality of teaching and learning of science, both academics recommended.

The current mode of examinations has to go. Examinations should be faculty-centric; only a teacher who has taught a group of students would know best how to test their skills and knowledge.

Moreover, examinations should not solely consist of something written in a period of three hours. The concept of examinations should be widened and must include projects done by the student, assignments, studies, reports… Teacher-training should be a continuous process at the Academic Staff Colleges. Teachers of science should be given sabbaticals to bring themselves up to speed on both subject skills and on delivery skills.

Dr. Thyagarajan pointed out that the science academies of India have already endorsed a plan to reform science education in the country. After Plus Two a student of science could choose from among the following options.

Four-year B.S. degree followed by Ph.D. in basic sciences, with a provision for early exit with M.Sc. degree or dual degrees after completion.

Four-year B.Tech. degree followed by Ph.D. in basic sciences.

Four-year B.S. degree followed by M. Tech. /Ph.D. in professional (technology) field.

Three-year B.Sc. degree followed by two-year M.Sc. degree. And then Ph.D. or three-year B.Sc. degree followed by integrated M.Sc.-Ph.D.

Three-year B.Sc. degree followed by two-year B.Tech.

Five-year integrated M.Sc. degree followed by Ph.D.

Vocational courses.

Funding woes

Excellence requires funding, participants of a panel discussion at the meet agreed. While the delegates acknowledged that much more Central funding was now available for science education, there were those—including the former Vice Chancellor of CUSAT Gangan Prathap—who wanted a robust framework to be put in place for public-private-partnership in higher education.

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