'The students need creative and analytical thinking'
Indian-American space scientist Dr Nazeer Ahmed, hailing from Tumkur, holds 14 American patents in advanced composites, a material that goes into making space ships and shuttles.
He emerged as one among the top space scientists in the US while working on solid propellant rockets at the Caltech University labs and later on Hubble Telescope. He is a household name in Tumkur for laurels he won in academics during 1950s and 60s and his philanthropy in recent years. Known as ‘Rank Nazeer’, He had even contested and won an election to the Karnataka Assembly in 1978 from Tumkur, only to resign a year later and return to space research in the US. Possessing two doctorates, in space sciences and theoretical and applied mechanics from Caltech in California, and advanced mechanics from Cornell University in New York, Dr Nazeer was instrumental in devising the most sensitive mirror ever devised for Hubble Telescope. A socially conscious person, Nazeer Ahmed frequents Tumkur very often and devotes a considerable amount of the proceeds from his patents, on promoting scholarship among students in the district. M A Siraj spoke to him on the state of technical education in India during his recent visit. Excerpts:
A recent ‘Wall Street Journal’ report says that 75 per cent of India’s technical graduates are unemployable. Earlier a survey by a marketing and research firm had come out with same conclusion. How do you view this?
I concur with this view. A large majority of engineering graduates from Indian universities are unemployable. But at the same time the top 10 per cent among these graduates (mainly the ones from the IITs, RECs, and some specialised centres of learning) are the best brains in the world. It is useful to be reminded that education cannot be isolated from society and culture.
Engineering graduates in India lack both hard skills and soft skills. Indian educational system mainly rests on learning by rote and regurgitation at the time of the exams. Education requires the ability to think and ask questions. It is not encouraged here. Students in American universities are encouraged to ask and think critically. So we need to question, why is it so? It is because we were told to obey and not ask questions. Respect for teachers meant that they were not to be asked questions. Learning by book was the norm. The students are then only superficially obedient. ‘Yes sir’ attitude does not gel with the international system of education.
Secondly, there is an ethical aspect to it. In the American system people accept moral responsibility. Here, people point fingers at others for their own failings. As for soft skills, our kids are never encouraged and trained in communication skills. They stumble when they speak. Even SSLC students do not develop capacity to make full sentences for the purpose of communication. Thirdly, we need to have shorter and more frequent exams. Wish-list could be longer. Overall, we have quantity but no quality.
Does comparison with American system help? The US has elaborate infrastructure which helps learning in multiple ways. Should not we be focusing on infrastructure?
Learning is an internal process. One could be exposed to books. It is not related to infrastructure. During my school days, we sat on mud floor. But we had good teachers and great learning. I remember when I stood first in the third standard, my teacher in the government primary school gifted me a 32-page notebook. I will never forget this token of love. I still remember my maths teacher Subbarao and Urdu teacher Maulvi Quddoos for their consummate skills in teaching. Even parental involvement was more and it was very crucial. Unfortunately, the public education system in India is in a shambles today. There is a need to rejuvenate it.
Isn’t the insistence on English medium for higher and especially technical education, a reason for mugging up and non-comprehension?
Two basic skills required are: mastery of language and creative and analytical thinking. All measures should be taken to impart and inculcate them. There will always be some difficulty. English is of course a hindrance, but then regional vocabulary is poor in technology. Concepts have to be explained. Teachers need to walk the extra mile.
India is producing almost one million and odd engineering graduates annually. But this vast reservoir of talent does not translate into commensurate innovation. Where lies the lacuna?
Corruption in thinking has crept into education. Things are concocted in surveys and research. Integrity in thinking has to go along with critical thinking. Worst crimes are reported in matters of patent infringement from three countries viz, China, India and Indonesia, in that order. Moreover, the technical graduates in India do not read anything after graduation. Together with exposure, even openness should be inculcated among them. But the attitude is that ‘I am willing to be a serf, as long as my employer is paying me money’. This attitude does not help innovation.