The entire project process rarely lets students probe further, rarely allows them a real opportunity to learn

Recently, I was at SRM University, meeting a group of students who won an international aeronautics competition last month. The students had devised a ‘space tourism’ idea under which 50 people could be taken on a two-day trip around the world in a space craft. Media persons, mirroring an excitement that most of us share for anything to do with space, pounced on the students — when will your spaceship be ready, what will the people in it get to eat, how much will the journey cost them, why don’t you patent it — were only some of the questions posed. The students were overwhelmed by the barrage, and the leader of the group, somewhat apologetically, said, “It is a futuristic project – it is just an idea that was accepted. It will be ready only by 2025.” Most of the reporters lost interest then and one of them was heard muttering “It is only on paper. They don’t even have a model that we can take pictures of.”

We all seem to love science and the excitement it offers, but with a catch. We want ‘accessible’ science — basically, science that we can use now.

We want satellites that collect data every second, robots that fight, apps that help blood donors come forward during emergencies — anything that is easy to understand and has visible, tangible results in the here and now, rather than something that requires an effort at comprehension on our part.

The casualties of such a viewpoint are often students in various engineering colleges, who are asked to embark upon ambitious projects and provide immediate results – live working models that accomplish huge tasks.

A few months ago, I met another set of students who had won an international prize for devising a robo-arm that could blend juice, pick up and throw things, roll up mats and even give you a good pat on the back. Most of us in the audience were transfixed. Later, when I asked one of the students to explain how they had made it, he replied. “We have given you a press release. Everything is in that. You can publish it as it is.”

His teammate later admitted they had taken extensive help from a ‘robo-maker’ in Pudupet. “He got us all the material and designed a basic structure. The rest of it is there on the internet. No one makes basic projects these days. They fetch you neither marks, nor prizes in competition,” he said.

It is probably this attitude towards science that drives the thriving business of ‘project-makers’ in Burma Bazaar and Ritchie Street, who can conjure anything — from a compressor to improved wind turbines and solar street lights.

Students pay anything between Rs. 2,500 and Rs. 15,000 for these projects. “Their parents call and thank me because they win competitions and get good marks in practical exams,” one such project-maker told me. In March and October, he gets over 50 orders a week.

In our desire for students’ projects to be ambitious, while at the same time immediately relevant, do institutions often reduce innovations to mere additions to a student’s resume, and to the college’s reputation?

An immense amount of discipline and enthusiasm is needed for a project to succeed and complicated ones needs time, appreciation, support and adherence to fundamentals. How useful then, is a script on “how to design a compiler” that is downloaded from the internet? Do these projects really teach students the basics — building something from scratch or do students merely end up providing the finishing touches to a project executed by somebody else? The entire process rarely lets students probe further, rarely allows them a real opportunity to learn.

A computer engineering professor in a city college deals with this tendency very strictly. He begins by frowning on any project that is overreaching. “A student who does not know to write a program to display his age will submit an app that stores birthdays and even sends people a wish. Teachers are not fools but what most of us lack is the patience to tell students there is nothing wrong in working on simple, workable projects.” 

After all, one of the objectives of a science education is finding new approaches to basic ideas.

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Vasudha VenugopalJune 28, 2012

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