Science education gets attention, at last

. Following a report submitted by the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), the Indian Academy of Sciences (IASc), and the National Academy of Sciences (NASI) on “restructuring post-school science teaching programmes,” a letter has now been addressed to the Centre to wind up all the so called ‘specialised’ courses offered at the school and undergraduate level.

According to the chairman of the IASc, any attempt at premature specialisation in science and its allied subjects, without learning the basics, is meaningless. Recent developments in school and college curricula have seen a spurt in market driven courses that will neither benefit the student nor his prospective employer.

The Centre has therefore been advised to take steps to remedy the situation by strengthening science and maths teaching in schools and colleges in order to enthuse students to study these subjects for their own sake first. The rest will follow without other interventions.

One of the major problems in a developing country like ours is the conflict between learning for its own sake, and learning for employment. A simple BSc degree in science is no longer a viable proposition for the undergraduate in these competitive times because it fails to secure him the kind of employment he dreams of. Nor does it prepare him to be a good scientist or a competent technologist. On the other hand, all that an undergraduate aspires for nowadays is a degree that will land him a plum job in fields like bio technology, information technology or computer sciences.

This urgent need for instant qualification without a proper foundation, has encouraged education sharks to provide quick fix solutions by launching all kinds of fancy undergraduate courses that may lead to nowhere. As it is, science and mathematics were notoriously weak areas in our school and college curricula. This, compounded with the new rush for quick and lucrative employment without proper qualification, has undermined our undergraduate education further.  If this corrosion in education has to be corrected, the entire concept of teaching and learning has to undergo a sea change.

It must be understood that the purpose of science education is not merely to generate more scientists or technologists. It is to produce good science teachers as well who will educate a whole generation of citizens to become scientifically literate. When our day-to-day life is increasingly influenced by science and technology, it is essential that people in all walks of life become so. So, unless the students’ scientific curiosity is stirred by new teaching methods and materials, it will be impossible to enthuse them to learn science.

The three science academies have identified such lacunae in the present system. They have focussed on problems like poor laboratory facilities, scant exposure to research methodologies, and limited options for movement between science and technology streams in addition to the “compartmentalised teaching/learning, sequential admissions to BSc, MSc, and PhD programmes and repetition of topics at the UG and PG levels.”

Finally, it must be remembered that our school and college education systems are relics inherited from colonial rule when education was not necessarily motivated by altruism. Today, the situation is different when schools and colleges must not only be hubs of knowledge but must also be the means to better peoples’ lives through gainful employment and enlightenment.

Encouraging a scientific outlook in undergraduates will serve the twin purpose of making them familiar with new technologies, in addition to equipping them with the tools to earn a living. If they are taught the essentials of science and mathematics before teaching them skills for a particular job, they will be better equipped to do any job in any field. After all, job requirements do change constantly. A strong foundation in science and maths will go a long way to adjust to this change.

It goes without saying that science education needs to be improved for the simple reason that the country needs scientists and science teachers. Without the former, we would slide backwards in all other areas of progress and development. Without the latter, there will be no future for education itself. The science academies have grasped this fundamental truth and their recommendations need to be seriously considered.

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