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September 8, 2009

Need to promote pure science education in India

For the best part of two decades now, there has been a marked decline in the pursuit of the pure sciences in favour of technology and studies related to making a tool easier to use, namely, the computer. The fallout of this neglect of the pure sciences has not gone unnoticed. The rate and the enthusiasm with the pure sciences were pursued earlier underwent a sharp decline, and India’s ability to stand on its feet in respect of its indigenous technology seemed seriously threatened. After all, the level of a nation’s technology can be only as good as its level of science. Our ability to manage reasonably well without a lot of outside help in matters technological was about to take a beating. This was unfortunate, after our former President, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, had demonstrated to the world how much had been achieved in India in something as esoteric and specialized as the launching of missiles. Here was a scientist, who had never studied abroad, leading a team of highly specialized scientists very successfully in an area where the disinclination to part with technology is well known. But today, we are alarmingly short of people who study pure science because (a) pure science courses are tougher than what everyone is chasing – courses related to the computer; and (b) students and their parents realize that studying a course related to computers is far more profitable in terms of high salaries and far prompter placements. In a sense, therefore, the spiralling prices (despite the confusing talk of negative inflation) and the very high cost of education have prompted a larger number of students to cold-shoulder the pure sciences or what are referred to as the ‘classical sciences’.

Amid this disheartening scenario of a neglect of the pure sciences, it is heartening to discover that the urge to pursue the classical sciences has not disappeared completely. There are still a reassuring number of students who would like to pursue the pure sciences. The Indian Institute of Science (IIS), Bangalore has accordingly decided to introduce a four-year, research-based undergraduate course in science that will promote the spirit of research right from the beginning in a course of the student’s choice in subjects like physics, chemistry, biology and engineering. The courses will encourage the spirit of research from the first day and include interaction between students and researchers. The IIS hopes to be able to lure and retain the best brains in path-breaking science and engineering with this unique Bachelor in Science (BS) programme.

Much of the problem with science education in India is that science courses do not encourage research from the school level. There is an unshakable misconception that research should wait till after the postgraduate level of science learning. It is perhaps only in south India, where there is a very solid tradition of both science education and research, that one notices even school students being encouraged to undertake interesting research projects even at the school level. In fact the unfortunate tradition of most undergraduate science courses of discouraging the research mindset and even good questions from students that could inconvenience the teacher has been quietly dealing the death blow to the scientific temper that we hear both politicians and academicians talking about so irresponsibly. We are convinced that the innovative undergraduate science course launched in the centenary year of the IIS will go a very long way to lend substance and purpose to science education in the country where it has been turned into a ritual with such determination and earnestness that the scientific temper has long been compelled to fly out of the classroom through the nearest window. The moral of all this is, of course, a familiar one: every good endeavour in India lives on not because of the establishment but in spite of it. THE SENTINEL

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