Any discussion on the state of science in India must begin with discussing how our children learn science in schools. Most of our children are forced to learn by rote in schools and colleges. We have to help them become adept at analytical thinking and problem solving.
The urgent need is to train our children to translate what they learn in the classroom into an understanding of the natural and physical phenomena of science in the real world, and thinking of solving problems in the society around them. Independent thinking and a healthy skepticism of widely-accepted theories should be placed above students’ mastery of school notes.
Let me cite just two books that can enhance thinking power and problem solving capability of our high school children. “Thinking Physics: Understandable Practical Reality”by Lewis Carroll Epstein is known to help them appreciate the role of physics in understanding daily-life phenomena, and, therefore, improve their curiosity and critical thinking.
For students of high school economics, I would recommend “The Economic Naturalist: Why Economics explains almost everything”by Robert Frank. This book will help students think critically about fundamental concepts of economics. We would have succeeded in helping the next generation to think critically and to analyse deeply if our children start using such books.
There is an overwhelming need to shift our focus from passing examinations to understanding the concepts. In my conversations with several students of computer science at Infosys, I am sad that most of them had forgotten even the fundamental concepts like semaphores within three months of their examinations!
We should also create platforms for competition in scientific and mathematical thinking in every small town in the country so that the kids are encouraged to think critically. The best of these should be sent to state level, regional level and national level competitions. The winners at the national level should be sent to international competitions so that our children can compete with the best in the world. We should also submit our school system to global comparisons and benchmarks to measure where we stand. I was told by a very enlightened bureaucrat that we used to do it in the past but stopped it when we found we were consistently rated low!
These suggestions aimed at reforming our school level teaching may seem very ambitious but several countries have indeed succeeded in changing their educational systems using some of these well-known ideas. Singapore and South Korea are two good examples to emulate.
Let me now come to some reforms at the college level. The universities that have created the most impact in the world have excelled both in research and in teaching. Therefore, our higher educational institutions must focus not just on teaching but on research as well. Currently, our research output — measured by papers published in internationally-acclaimed conferences and peer-reviewed journals, and patent filings — lags behind China, the U.S., and several developed countries.
The best way to improve our performance in this area is to work on developing a research-oriented mindset among undergraduate students by focusing on independent and critical thinking. For instance, expecting students to read the material to be discussed in the class, devoting a small part of the class time to just teaching critical issues in the material that the students have studied at home, and allotting most of the class time to questions and answers can be the first steps in improving curiosity and analytical thinking.
A classical example of such a method would be the well-known course onJusticeby Prof. Michael Sandel at Harvard University. This is a very popular undergraduate course in Philosophy and is held at the Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts to accommodate around 1,500 students who take this class every year. The course video is available free for downloading atITunesUniversity.
It may be a good idea to encourage our undergraduates to spend a semester doing independent research on a topic chosen by them in consultation with their teachers. The outcome of research is less important compared with a change in the students’ mindset. At the least, this scheme will help our youngsters gain confidence in independent and critical thinking. Thanks to such a scheme, I have seen several bright students excel in research at Cornell, Stanford and Tokyo Universities. In fact, professors at many well-known universities in the U.S., have told me about the effectiveness of this scheme in attracting young minds to research careers.
Such a focus on analytical thinking and problem solving is extremely important in a country like India that is riddled with socio-economic and developmental challenges. These challenges to our inclusive growthactually represent a significant opportunity and source of inspiration for our young researchers. In a country where 350 million-plus people lack access to decent primary education, healthcare, shelter, safe drinking water and basic sanitation, a research-and-problem-solving orientation among the young will play a seminal role in improving the overall quality of life for the poorest of the poor. We have to encourage such efforts with awards and recognition. This is where theInfosys Prizesfrom Infosys will, hopefully, play a role in saluting the efforts of our young researchers.
The only way we can ignite the minds of our children and youngsters is by making them proud of the impact of our educational institutions on our society. The world will recognize our institutions and salute them if these institutions help transform the lives of every Indian like many of the universities in the developed countries have done. We would have arrived when we have ten Indian high schools among the global fifty, and ten Indian universities among the global fifty. This will happen when our universities and institutes compare favourably with universities like MIT, Harvard, Oxford, Ecole Polytechnique, Cornell, Cambridge, and Tokyo University in their research output, citation index and patents.
I am optimistic and confident we can achieve this. We can do it as long as we supplement our desire to get there with a single-minded focus on speed and execution. We have an abundance of scientific talent. That has never been in doubt. It is now up to us to unleash the full potential of our young minds.
N.R. Narayana Murthy
Trustee - Infosys Science Foundation and
Chairman Emeritus Infosys Limited,