Monday, May 30, 2011

Promotion of HRD through School Science Education

[This is the text of a talk I delivered on 26 May 2011 at a plenary session of the Second State Level Science & Technology Conference – 2011 on the theme “Initiatives for Human Resource Development in Science & Technology” organized jointly by the Karnataka State Council for Science & Technology (KSCST), the state Vision Group on Science & Technology (VGS&T) and the Department of Science & Technology (DST) and held at the J N Tata Auditorium of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore]


The spectacular growth of the Indian economy in recent years has posed the challenge of developing human resources at a matching pace in various fields to sustain the high growth rate.  Despite the huge annual output of scientific and technical manpower in the country, there is a yawning gap between supply and demand in terms of quality and this requires special efforts and initiatives to bridge.  The situation is particularly acute in the area of basic sciences and mathematics which are essential to provide a strong foundation and fuel for the ongoing technological revolution in the country.  A well trained manpower in the basic sciences is required in almost all fields of scientific and industrial activity in the country as also to carry out research and teaching in universities and higher educational institutions.  An accelerated programme for promotion and development needs to be put in place to meet the growing requirements of such human resources of adequate and acceptable quality.  Some suggestions are offered here regarding how this challenge can be met through a vigorous promotion of science education at the grass roots level – in schools where the seeds of growth really need to be sown.

Current Scenario

It has often been said that India produces the third largest scientific and technical manpower in the world; but it is also admitted that the quality, employability and productivity of the products are seriously deficient.  When it comes to the basic sciences, there is a severe shortfall even in the raw numbers.  Echoing a worldwide phenomenon, most students and professionals are not attracted to basic sciences as a career option for a variety of reasons.  Unless radical steps are initiated speedily, the basic sciences are in danger of joining the list of ‘endangered species’.   To make a significant impact in the long term, such steps need to be initiated or strengthened at the school level first.

In most Indian states, school education is spread over a twelve year period – eight years of primary, two years of secondary and two more years of senior secondary education.  Karnataka state is yet to fall in line with this pattern. The last two years of school education come under ‘pre-university’ education, an anomalous and unsatisfactory situation.  The comments and suggestions made in this document are based on a twelve year schooling period, with the last two years viewed as a seamless continuation of the secondary stage.     

Let us first examine why the basic sciences don’t attract most students.  Primarily there are two reasons.  Firstly, there is the widespread perception that basic sciences do not provide the same level of job opportunities as professional fields like engineering and medicine do.  Secondly, the way they are conceived and taught in schools they generate little interest or enthusiasm in the students.  They are treated as a body of established knowledge to be consumed and digested rather than as a process of inquiry into the workings of the world around us. The textbooks are often uninteresting, uninspiring, incoherent, loaded with factual information, devoid of efforts to promote an in-depth understanding of the underlying scientific concepts and principles, and their contents are geared more to help students pass examinations than to learn anything meaningfully.  The learning outcomes do not in any way reflect the excitement of science as a dynamic and on-going adventure to understand the world around us.

The teaching of science at any level is virtually meaningless if students don’t get adequate opportunities to learn by doing – through observation and experimentation, with an investigatory approach.  This underscores the importance of teaching aids, equipment and laboratory facilities to make science teaching effective.  Even more so, this points to the need for using the resources available in the natural and physical environment around the school.  Yet, science teaching is almost always confined to the classroom and the only aid that the teachers seem to use is the blackboard. Very rarely do the students get a chance to do anything in the school laboratory or the larger world outside.  Indeed such laboratory facilities rarely exist except in some elite private schools.  When the students are not exposed to the fundamental nature of science as an experiment-centered discipline it is futile to expect them to develop a scientific attitude towards looking at problems in the everyday world.   Let us remember that, under the Indian Constitution, it is the fundamental duty of every citizen to “develop a scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”. 

The INSPIRE Initiative

The Department of Science & Technology (DST) of the Government of India (GoI) launched a major nationwide initiative two years ago to promote basic sciences as a future career option for school students through its INSPIRE programme.  An acronym for the rather high sounding and difficult-to-digest term ‘Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research’, the INSPIRE programme seeks, in its own words to “communicate to the youth of the country the excitements of creative pursuit of science, attract talent to the study of science at an early age and thus build the required critical human resource pool for strengthening and expanding the Science & Technology system and R&D base”.  This multi-dimensional effort has three principal components: (i) Scheme for Early Attraction of Talent (SEATS), (ii) Scholarship for Higher Education (SHE), and (iii) Assured Opportunity for Research Careers (AORC).   One hopes that these strange acronyms do not take away anything from the primary objectives of the worthy initiatives.

INSPIRE Science Camps of five days duration are being organized at key locations in almost all the states to bring the creamy layer of secondary school student population in contact with eminent scientists and science educators for a shared experience of the excitement of science.  As a regular invitee to some of these camps, this speaker has found it possible to create the level of interest and excitement that can induce the participants to view basic sciences with a positive attitude and as a possible future career option.  A notable example is the hosting of a large number of INSPIRE Science camps at the International Institute for Information Technology (I2IT) in Pune for students of Maharashtra state.  With its impressive infrastructural resources the institution has been managing to bring together over 400 students at a time in three parallel batches, providing residential facilities for all of them.   This speaker’s frequent visits to these camps as a ‘mentor’ have been particularly memorable for the quality and extent of interaction with the students.

DST has been able to secure quite a substantial financial support for the programme from GoI and has been able to provide attractive incentives for the participants.  The programme is being taken up in other ways by the states and addressing teachers also.  In Karnataka, pre-university science teachers are being covered under a subject enrichment programme by the Pre-university Board with DST and KSCST support in four different regions. This speaker has been associated with all of them as a resource person in Physics.

A midterm SWOT analysis and review of the INSPIRE and related programmes for students and teachers is desirable to place them on a firmer footing.

A Blueprint for the Future

Here is a suggested blueprint for promoting HRD through school science education in the state, with emphasis as much on the quality of education imparted as on increasing enrollment in basic sciences.
  • Draw up a new curriculum that clearly reflects the nature, scope and purpose of science education, with adequate focus on the inculcation of a scientific temper.
  • Produce a set of textbooks fully aligned with the curriculum objectives, emphasizing understanding and application oriented learning with minimum of information content.  The textbooks should also emphasize learning by doing and written in a self-instructional style to minimize dependence on classroom teaching.
  • Give top priority to provide every school with a science laboratory adequately equipped to provide hands-on experience to students.  Even in terms of cold statistics, the existing laboratory facilities are particularly pathetic in government schools, both at the all India and Karnataka state levels.
  • [The seriousness of this particular issue is illustrated in the Appendix with available data extracted from the 7th All India School Education Survey, showing the status of school science laboratories.  It is not clear what criteria were employed to judge any science lab as ‘adequate’]
  • Reduce the emphasis now placed on terminal examinations and switch over to a system of continuous comprehensive evaluation so that the textbook contents and teaching strategies are not examination driven.
  • Train teachers on a large scale with special emphasis on the revised goals of the science curriculum and textbook content using the EduSat two-way mode available at the DSERT premises in Bangalore.
  • Make it mandatory for all teachers in Pre-university institutions to have a degree in teacher education in addition to a master’s degree in the subject concerned.
  • Initiate special measures, including a system of monetary incentives, to attract students to opt for a study of the basic sciences at all levels, particularly at the post school level.  Encouraging migration of students to basic science streams from other streams should be one of the goals of these special measures. Girl students need to be specially targeted.
  • Secure a wider implementation of the DST sponsored INSPIRE programme in the state, enhance the duration of the contact programme to two weeks for both students and teachers and make it fully residential, hosted by institutions which have the necessary infrastructure and instructional resources. Provide essential training in the use of the more important laboratory aids and equipment to teachers.  Apart from some essential hands-on experience, ensure a more purposeful usage of the tools and techniques of modern Information and Communication Technology (ICT).
  • Bestow special care to the choice of resource persons for the contact programmes.  They should combine good communication skills with a high level of expertise in the subject.  They should also focus on topics with a strong bearing on the basic sciences and their contemporary importance.
  • Persuade universities and other higher educational institutions in both public and private sectors to take up special measures to expose school students and teachers to current scientific developments using their own human and material resources.  An example of this is the work of the Committee for Development of School Science of the Mysore University focusing mainly on rural schools in nearby districts through a variety of contact programmes, both in the schools and at the university headquarters.  This speaker is intimately associated with these programmes.
  • Let organizations like the KSCST, KRVP and experienced voluntary NGOs play a more active role in matters of curriculum, textbooks and teacher training. 


It is evident that, apart from considerably strengthening existing programmes like INSPIRE, a number of drastically new measures need to be initiated and implemented to meet the growing need for human resources in basic sciences in the country, not only in adequate numbers but also of an adequate and acceptable quality.


Schools equipped with Science labs [Data extracted from the 7th All India School Education Survey]

Secondary Schools
Higher Secondary Schools
Total Number
Science Lab
With Adequate Science Lab
Total Number*
Science Lab
With Adequate Science Lab
All India
Private Aided
Private Unaided

*having secondary stage
[Differentiated data not available for individual states]

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Banyans of Manasagangothri – Personal Photo Album Part 8

Trees are the Earth's endless effort to speak to the listening heaven.
 Rabindranath Tagore, Fireflies, 1928

The University of Mysore is one of the oldest and best known universities in the country.  Its present headquarters and post-graduate centre, named Manasagangothri by the famous Kannada poet and former vice-chancellor of the university, popularly known as Kuvempu, is located in a sprawling 740 acre campus created in 1960 in Mysore.  The large scenic Kukkarahalli Lake separates the university administrative building known as Crawford Hall from the much larger post-graduate centre housing most of the university departments to its East.  The campus is the centerpiece of several educational complexes in the city, including the Regional Institute of Education which I served for 36 years before retiring in the year 2000.  The campus, dotted with departmental buildings and served by public thoroughfares, is liberally sprinkled with open spaces and rich patches of vegetation, not all of which are well maintained.  For me, the most impressive aspect of the campus is the presence of spectacular banyan trees at numerous locations.  In this photo album, I present a selection of my photographs of the great trees, marking out the location of each on appropriate Google maps of the campus.  I hope any visitor to the campus will identify them and look at them in their pristine glory with the kind of awe, wonder and reverence that they deserve.

Before I unfold my album, a few words about trees in general and banyans in particular may be in order.

Though trees account for the majority of the Earth's biomass, their crucial importance for the very existence and diversity of life on Earth is not fully appreciated.  The biosphere is dependent on the metabolism, death, and recycling of plants, especially trees. The vast trunks and root systems of the trees absorb carbon dioxide, recycle water, and generate oxygen which is released into the atmosphere. The organic matter of the soil is formed primarily from decayed leaves, twigs, branches, roots, and fallen trees, all of which recycle nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, and other important nutrients.  There are few organisms as important as trees for sustaining the Earth's ecosystem.  They are among the most valuable and indispensable assets of our planet.  The mindless felling of trees resorted to in the name of ‘development’ should be regarded as a crime against humanity.

The banyan tree (Ficus indica or Ficus benghalensis), very widely found in the country, is of the Fig genus in the mulberry family (Moraceae) native to tropical Asia.  It is remarkable for numerous aerial roots that grow down from the branches and take root in the soil, forming prop roots or secondary trunks.  They form a bewildering variety of shapes, structures and sizes, stretching out in different directions without any noticeable pattern.  In this manner the trees spread out laterally over a wide and indefinite area; they also grow to considerable heights.  Some trees grow large enough to provide shade and shelter to hundreds of people under their canopy.  In course of time a tree may assume the appearance of a very dense thicket as a result of the tangle of roots and trunks spread irregularly all around. As the tree ages, the original trunk decays, and the tree breaks up into several sections, the props becoming separate trunks for the different sections.  Most of the banyans in Manasagangothri campus have not reached this stage and appear to be relatively young and no less impressive for this reason.

I would like to take the reader on a long walking tour of the university campus pointing out the pictures of the banyan trees in this album, starting northward from the Radhakrishnan avenue just beyond the university guest house.  Our first stop is at the Mathematics department, punctuated by the first of the majestic trees in my album.

[As with all my previous photo albums, any picture can be enlarged to its full size by clicking on it and opening it in a separate web page.  Almost all the photographs are presented in high resolution, typically 12 MP.  For easy identification of the location of the trees, the photos are numbered in sequence and the corresponding number shown in an appropriate Google map]

Next, move westward along the road till you reach the Physics department at the end of the road.  The tree captured very early in the morning is just opposite the entrance to the building.

Just across the tree on the other side of the road lies a splendidly isolated small region of dense vegetation where one can lose oneself in quiet contemplation of nature without having to go too far away from the madding crowd of the city.

The next photograph captures a spectacular group of banyans lying between the Physics and Chemistry buildings.  The place leaves the viewer with an eerie feeling, unsure of his surroundings.

A gigantic tree lying behind the nearby Chemistry building in splendid isolation is shown in the next picture.  You can form an idea of its size when you look at the building behind it.

A short distance northward is our next tree, lying in a corner behind the Botany/Zoology building.  If anyone thinks that banyans don’t have a sense of geometry, the branch on the left, jutting out at a near perfect right angle to the trunk, provides a rare exception.

Walk westward and look at the two trees in front of the university canteen building.  The larger of the two trees is captured in all its fullness and glory in the next picture.  I couldn’t avoid the (stationary) car; perhaps it serves to put the scene in the right perspective.

I was so fascinated by the tree in the last picture that I shot it from about a dozen different angles, including one quite close up.  Here is the zoomed in view, highlighting the intricate division, patterns and structure of the large trunk and the roots.

The next picture presents a panoramic view of part of the previous tree and one of its long horizontal branches against the background of a thicket of banyans on the other side of the road.

A close up of the thicket of banyans referred to previously is shown in the next picture.  The largest and most impressive tree in this thicket is the one at the corner of the road close to the large building which continues to be called the ‘Senate Hall’ though the university doesn’t have a senate anymore.

For easy identification, the locations of the trees appearing in the nine pictures shown so far, as well as another (number 20) described at the end, are indicated by the corresponding picture numbers in the Google map given below:

The Karnataka State Open University (KSOU) located to the north of the PG centre was originally part of the University of Mysore campus and has a number of spectacular banyan trees in front of its main building.  The following picture gives a view of the main road leading from the Mysore University campus to the north of the oval housing the ‘Senate Hall’.  All the photographs of this album relate to the trees on either side of this road.

The superbly elegant tree with a well maintained garden in the foreground of the following picture is to be seen just opposite to the main entrance of KSOU.

The next picture presents a rather sad story.  I had taken the picture of the marvelous tree shown here some years ago, but it no longer exists!  In its place lie the possible remnants of a tree almost totally destroyed, presenting a sorry picture (not shown here).  I have no idea when, how and why this happened.  Quite possibly it died of natural causes as evidenced by the poor condition of the existing vegetation in its immediate neighborhood.

Look at the placard placed on the trunk of the gigantic tree shown in the next photograph.  You can easily read it by blowing it up to its full size. It says; “HERITAGE TREE–2; FICUS RELIGIOSA; PEEPAL; MORACEAE”.  The older version of the Google map for the university region prominently identifies it as “The Great Banyan Tree”.  In fact it is not a banyan tree at all, but a variant of it called peepal which is also as widely found in the country as the banyan itself.  It appears that this particular peepal tree in the university campus takes the second rank among a list of heritage trees identified in the city and its neighborhood.

Again for easy identification, the locations of the trees appearing in the pictures numbered 10 to 13 are indicated by the corresponding picture numbers in the Google map given below.  You have to travel a fair distance if you want to reach this one near the Biochemistry department from the KSOU campus.

The next tree in my list can be reached in either of two ways.  One can walk into the Academic Staff College campus close to the university guest house and look for it on the edge of the Kukkarahalli lake.   Alternatively, one can walk along the eastern side of the lake bund and reach the back of the college building. This tree is the biggest in the neighborhood and dwarfs the college building by a long shot.

The rest of the trees in this album are all to be found at the south-western edge of the Kukkarahalli lake.  The spectacular banyans in the next four photographs lie very close to each other and can be easily reached from a pedestrian entrance located close to the railway gate behind the Crawford Hall.  It leads the visitor to the lake through a dense thicket of trees that include the ones shown here.  The place is frequented by tourists and locals, including those who take a long morning walk all around the lake, a distance of about 4 km.

The great cluster of trees in the next picture lies inside the compound of the state government school textbooks distribution centre which is not part of the Mysore University campus.  It lies very close to the trees seen in the last four photographs and I have included it because of a special fascination I have for it.  I hope the readers will overlook this transgression.

As before, the locations of the last six photographs are indicated on the following Google map for easy identification.  Regrettably, I have not explored the large area of wilderness seen in the map adjoining the lake.


When I had nearly finalized this blog post, my constant and indefatigable companion Chiranjeevi excitedly discovered that I had missed out on one other great banyan tree in the Manasagangothri campus and pleaded that my account would be seriously deficient if I left it out.  Camera in hand, I went with him to the Sericulture department opposite the Botany/Zoology department where, sure enough, he showed me the tree captured by me belatedly in the following photograph. In full agreement with him, I am presenting it as an appendix and showing it as picture number 20 in my first map.   I had missed it out earlier apparently because it was hidden rather inconspicuously behind some rich vegetation lining the road side.  Its spectacular appearance has been somewhat marred by a rubber tyre sticking out of a branch at the top right.  I wonder how and why it got there.  It is certainly some mindless human handiwork.  Nevertheless the tree is a great sight and richly deserves to be part of the album.