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]


A V G Rao said...

I would like to see a debate on how to tackle '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'. Much is being done to tackle'Secondly, the way they are conceived and taught in schools they generate little interest or enthusiasm in the students'

Gananath said...

Adequate quality is subjective and most managements would argue that they provide 'adequate quality'. Do we have a meeting point?

Teacher education scenario is horrifying and nearly 99 percent of D.Ed. students do not have science background (in PUC) and how do we even hope to teach good science and maths with these teachers?

More questions and fewer answers.


Siva Sankaran said...

Very well written one. We really need to build a feature India, with a very strong foundation based on Scientific research community.

We should also start thinking and getting support from corporates in this endeavor.

Sivasankaran L
Abhava Foundation