Putting STEM to work

Shweta Sharan 27 September 2019 18:46 IST
Updated: 28 September 2019 14:30 IST

It is not enough to learn science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We need to encourage innovation and help students connect their lessons with real-world problems

In a popular private school in Bengaluru, the top-performing students enrolled in a science programme were asked to build a truss bridge — a load-bearing superstructure made up of triangular units or trusses — using toothpicks. Though they’d all learned that the sum of any two sides of a triangle must be greater than the measure of the third, none could apply it to build the bridge.

Vishnuteerth Agnihotri, who conducted the programme, and heads GenWise, arguably India’s most experienced team in gifted education and talent development, says this reflects the gap in India’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) culture. It doesn’t value hands-on work in science, and there is very little application of STEM learning to real-world problems.

“A student who comes up with ideas for a pulley brake to draw water in a village uses science to think critically and solve problems,” he adds. “Engaging with even such simple mechanisms on your own is better than building a robot based on instructions.” In fact, the NCERT’s 2017 National Achievement Survey — which found that 44% of students in Grade 3 failed to solve daily problems using maths, a figure that jumped to 62% among Grade 8 students — only proves Agnihotri’s statement.


Unfit for the workplace?

STEM is an important buzzword today. It finds a mention in every country’s national skilling agenda. Interestingly, India has the highest number of students receiving bachelor’s degrees in its related subjects, even beating China. Yet, according to a 2018 study by Aspiring Minds, the employability assessment company, 95% of engineering graduates are unfit for the job market. In a recent interview with the Economic Times, CP Gurnani, CEO-MD of Tech Mahindra, stated how, with the widening skill gap, the industry has to retrain even those who get hired. “For learnability, skill development and being ready for the market, the onus is now shifting on to the industry,” he says. “If you come to Tech Mahindra, I’ve created a five-acre tech and learning centre. Other top companies have also created similar facilities to skill employees.”

So, where lies the problem? The common consensus is that most students who take up STEM subjects are not necessarily passionate about them; India is dominated by a system that is obsessed with marks. My friend, a computer programmer and a mother to an eight-year-old, made a startling revelation recently. “Most engineering graduates don’t have the motivation to build anything. They just want to do their jobs, get the money and go home. The aptitude and passion for programming just isn’t there.” She is now trying to kindle a love for STEM by volunteering and teaching coding in our children’s school.

Getting more hands-on

The tide is slowly shifting though. Ten years ago, India had ranked 72 out of the 74 participating countries at the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide study to understand 15-year-old school students and their proficiency in maths, science and reading. Crushed by our poor performance, we hadn’t gone back. But that’s set to change in 2021. The reason for our renewed participation, according to the Ministry of Human Resource Development, is the attempt to move our institutes away from rote learning and set global benchmarks.

Strong foundations
  • From genome editing and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to Machine Learning (ML), STEM careers of the future will require both technical capability and creativity. Ramjee Swaminathan, CTO of CliX — an outcome of the collaboration between Tata Truss, MIT and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences — advocates strong apprenticeship models and vocational courses to tackle our skills gap. The. “We need a community or cadre of travelling STEM teachers, both at the school and undergraduate levels,” he says. “Jobs in science require fluency in cognitive skills, critical thinking, and the resolution of complex and creative problems.”

One of the government’s initiatives (among several like Vigyan Jyoti, INSPIRE and Skill India) is NITI Aayog’s Atal Tinkering Lab, a workspace in schools to encourage scientific temperament and innovation, and help students to connect STEM with real-world problems. It is already paying dividends. For instance, an all-girls team from Delhi Public School, Bengaluru, recently made it to the ATL Tinkering Innovation Marathon with a prototype for a ceiling broom (developed after they noticed their housekeeping staff struggling). “Every project is driven by empathy and a need to solve common problems,” says the lab’s facilitator, Srivatsala R. NITI Aayog’s thrust on AI and programmes in coding is also immensely popular, which is, today, being further supplemented by the explosion of workshops, from robotics to maths, nationwide.

But, according to Utpal Chattopadhyay, a physicist and mathematician who works with gifted undergraduate maths majors, mindsets need to change, too. He believes students buckle under parental pressure (to score marks or get into a top college) and opt for narrow career choices within STEM. “They are forced to choose specialisations too early. The chance to switch or to major in two subjects is not generally available, although places like the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research are coming up with innovative and flexible undergraduate programmes,” he says.

Bridging the gender gap

Another challenge is the gender gap. While the All India Survey on Higher Education’s 2018-19 report, released last Saturday — showing that the gap is narrowing in higher education — is heartening, the fact is there are more boys than girls studying STEM subjects. What happens to all those who outperform boys in school exams? Some are ‘encouraged’ to prioritise marriage and family, others to opt for less time-consuming careers. Lack of adequate female representation in research institutes and teaching positions is also part of the problem (a World Economic Forum report puts science researchers in India who are women at only 14.3%).

Sukanya Sinha, who teaches physics at the Indian Statistical Institute in Bengaluru, agrees. Her mother, Purnima Sinha, was the first woman in India to receive a doctorate degree in Physics, but Sukanya insists that was more of an exception than the rule. “My mother’s family and her PhD supervisor were very supportive,” she says. To bring more girls into STEM, we need to build powerful role models for our children, she adds.

Books are a great medium. Pratham Books produces excellent STEM picture books with central female characters. “[A couple of months ago] they published The Rock Reader, about a brilliant woman geologist named Sudipta Sengupta. Even I was not aware of her work,” says Sukanya. If we want to raise the profile of STEM opportunities in the country, we need a culture that eliminates biases and is not driven by a student’s performance in exams.

Shweta Sharan is a freelance education journalist and the founder of Bangalore Schools, a community of parents, teachers and educationists in the city.