A throwback to the past
The Regional Institute of Education Mysore Alumni Association [RIEMAA] is making its presence felt in several ways through Facebook as well as its own website, http://riemaa.com/, and has recently come out with its own charter. As a former principal of this prestigious institution, I keep myself in touch with some of its active members through the enormously popular social networking portal. Recently I came across a number of group photos posted in the portal, including the one reproduced below, which jolted my memory strongly. On seeing it, I wrote by way of a comment; "This combined group photo was taken in the summer of 1965 when the Physics and Chemistry departments of both the University of Mysore and RIE Mysore held their first ever summer institutes for college teachers with active support from the USAID. It has opened up the flood gates of my memory and I intend to write about these events in some detail one of these days in my own blog." As promised, I am travelling a long time down memory lane to narrate the story associated with this photo dating back to the summer of 1965. While the associated events and people are deeply etched in my memory, it is astonishing that I couldn't even remember that such a photograph had ever been taken even though the RIE main building provides the backdrop for it. So, one can imagine what a pleasant surprise I had in discovering it. I don't know how this precious photo was unearthed, but am thankful to whoever did so, scanned it and posted it in the RIEMAA portal. Three of us had been correctly tagged in the picture and I have identified as many others as I could recognize in the caption provided below the photo.
[Click to enlarge]
Seated from left: (5) Prof G Chaurasia, Principal, RCE; (6) Prof K L Shrimali, VC of Mysore University and former Union Minister for Education; (7) Prof Steve Cram of Kansas University, USA (Physics Consultant attached to RCE); (8) Prof Koelsche (Chemistry Consultant from USA attached to RCE); (9) Prof S Chandrasekhar FRS, HOD University Physics Dept; (11) Prof M Devadasan, Vice Principal and HoD Education of RCE.
Standing from left: (1) Mr N Ganesan (Administrative Officer, RCE); (3) Prof K N Srinivasa Rao (University Physics Dept); (6) Mr S Raghavendra Rao, RCE HoD in Chemistry; (7) Dr V Rajamadhav Rao, RCE HoD in Physics; (9) Self!; (11) Mr B N Singh, RCE Chemistry lecturer.
The National Council of Educational Research & Training (NCERT) was founded as an apex body for school education in the country in 1961 and two years later its regional units, including the Regional College of Education (RCE) in Mysore, were set up. Later upgraded as the Regional Institute of Education (RIE), I joined the RCE Mysore on my birthday in September 1964 and soon got busy with the developmental activities of the fledgling institution. Incidentally, the chairman of the committee at NCERT headquarters which selected me for the job of lecturer was, by a happy coincidence, Prof S Chandrasekhar, then Head of the Physics Department in the Mysore University who is seen prominently in the above photograph. My association with this famous physicist was to continue in many ways as this narrative unfolds.
The main focus at the RCEs was on the four-year integrated in-service teacher education courses (BSc Ed, BA Ed and the short lived BTech Ed) which brought subject specialists like me and pedagogy experts like Prof P N Dave together for the first time in the country. Dr V Rajamadhav Rao (seen in the photo) was my senior colleague in the Physics faculty and together we put in a lot of effort in designing the curriculum and course content for the BSc Ed programme. We also had a modest role in the more traditional one year B Ed course. Developing the Physics laboratories was a huge effort in which we were aided by a large consignment of excellent science teaching equipment and materials of Russian origin received through the Unesco.
The American Connection
Around the same time, the NCERT and the RCEs became beneficiaries under the academic assistance programme of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) which provided the real stimulus for the RCEs embarking on the four-year integrated programmes, much on the lines prevailing in American institutions. The RCEs came to be associated with the Ohio State University College of Education which organized advanced training for some of their academic staff in the USA. I was to be a beneficiary of this in 1966-67. But, before that came the summer institutes in several science subjects for college teachers in the country, organized with active support from the USAID through a number of American universities and institutions. RCE Mysore was selected to host a six-week summer programme each in Physics and Chemistry for in-service teachers from colleges of education in the southern region, as was the University of Mysore for teachers from degree colleges. This was a rare distinction for an institution so new, young and inexperienced. We had to prove ourselves worthy of the trust. We needed to put in some very hard work.
New Science and Mathematics Curricula in USA
Stung by the shock treatment meted out by the Russians in the space race, the American administration challenged the education system in the country to come up with grass roots level reforms in Science and Mathematics curricula, particularly at the school level, to regain its dominance. A number of new curricular programmes were hurriedly developed and implemented all over the country. Hosted by the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) came up with a radically new and innovative curriculum in Physics that came to be known as PSSC Physics. It was designed to promote a sound understanding of the basic concepts of Physics through new text material supported by investigative laboratory activities centered on simple and inexpensive equipment, a very comprehensive teachers' guide, student manuals, a set of standardized achievement tests, supplementary reading materials and a large number of 16 mm films related to the curriculum content. Similar curriculum projects were developed in Chemistry and Mathematics as well. Some of the best known scientists and science educators in the country were associated with these projects, including a number of Nobel laureates in both Physics and Chemistry. These projects erred on the side of over ambition and could not be sustained for long in the American system. However, they were the forerunners of more pragmatic versions to come. The PSSC made way later for a less demanding, more liberal and broad based Harvard Physics Project (HPP).
The Indian Context
In those days India had come under the umbrella of the USA in many spheres, including secondary and tertiary education. The Indian education system welcomed American initiatives in introducing the new science and mathematics curricular programmes for tryout in many institutions in the country, including the RCEs, through specially tailored summer training programmes for teachers and teacher educators. All the curricular materials had been shipped to us in multiple sets sufficiently in advance. We therefore had adequate time to study and familiarize ourselves with them. For me and many others like me, it was a highly enriching experience doing this and thereby learning some really meaningful Physics for the first time in our lives.
For teaching Physics at collegiate level, USAID sources had identified a number of resources including laboratory equipment for advanced level experiments, some of which had been designed and prototyped in institutions like Caltech and MIT. Apparently because of the four-year integrated science and technology programmes, the RCEs also received complete sets of these equipment and materials apart from selected institutions like the University of Mysore. Though these were not intended for use specifically at the 1965 summer institutes, they were to be used extensively in the undergraduate and later postgraduate pre-service courses at RIEM.
USAID also realized the need for competent and experienced human resources for a successful conduct of the summer institutes. To ensure this, a senior professor from reputed American educational institutions was attached to each of the summer programmes in India as an academic consultant and adviser. At RCEM we had the services of Professor Steve Cram (seen in the photo) of Kansas University who had a rich experience of the formative processes involved in the development of the PSSC Physics curriculum. A very kind and fatherly figure, he was a major source of inspiration for my own activities in the summer institute. We also had the part time services of Prof Lane Branson, a physicist-cum-electronics engineer to help us with the laboratory equipment and materials. He liked Mysore city and the college so much that he returned to RCEM for a long-term association with our USAID supported Physics Resource Materials project in the late sixties.
Some dramatis personae in the photo
The group photo was taken presumably at the time of the joint inauguration at the RCEM campus of the four summer institute programmes, two each by the University of Mysore and RCEM, by Dr K L Shrimali, the then Vice-chancellor of the university to which RCEM was and still is affiliated. Dr Shrimali was an eminent educationist of the country, a former minister for education in the central cabinet under Jawaharlal Nehru, a Padma Vibhushana awardee later in life and a worthy successor to the legendary Sardar K M Panikkar as the university's vice-chancellor. He was a great friend of the college and evidenced special interest in its development.
Dr Chaurasia was the founder-principal of the college and the architect of its sprawling 130- acre campus which is one of the most picturesque sights today in the city. Dr Devadasan was the vice-principal of the college and nominated as the joint director of the two summer institutes held in its campus. As he had no science background he looked after only the administrative aspects. He was assisted by Mr N Ganesan, the Administrative Officer of the college. Dr Rajamadhav Rao and I represented Physics while Mr S R Rao and Mr B N Singh looked after Chemistry. Dr Koelsche was attached to the Chemistry institute as the visiting consultant.
Apart from Dr Shrimali, the most important person seen in the photograph is Prof S Chandrasekhar, the then HoD of the University Physics department and a nephew of the great Indian physicist and Noble Laureate, Prof C V Raman. He should not be mistaken with his namesake the Indian-born astrophysicist Prof S Chandrasekhar, of the University of Chicago, but the two Chandrasekhars happened to be cousins. The astrophysicist Chandrasekhar was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1983 for his stellar work on stellar evolution done half a century earlier [see my blog post titled, "Chandrasekhar, Fermi-Dirac and White Dwarfs (Aug 11)"]. The Chandrasekhar seen in the photograph went on to become an outstanding Liquid Crystals physicist at the famous Raman Research Institute (RRI) in Bangalore, founded by his great uncle. His achievements merited the fellowship of the Royal Society of England, an honor often regarded as only one rung below that of the Nobel Prize. I had the great good fortune of working for my doctorate degree in Physics under him during 1977-81 as a UGC Fellow at RRI. I had assisted him in several ways while he was at Mysore and he rewarded me for this by sponsoring me for a UGC fellowship when the scheme was first introduced in 1977. Under this scheme I was attached to RRI on study leave even while remaining in the college service on full pay and other benefits. The four year span I spent in the Liquid Crystals Labs of RRI was some of the most memorable in my life since it exposed me to frontline research in the field as well as bringing me in touch with some of the very eminent physicists of the day. A particularly memorable event of this period was an international seminar on Raman Spectroscopy organized in Bangalore by RRI to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of the famous Raman Effect in 1928. I was one of the active volunteers in its organizing committee.
Another person seen in the photograph that I remember very fondly is Prof K N Srinivasa Rao, an outstanding Mathematical Physicist who was earlier my teacher at the Central College, Bangalore during 1956-59. With a wry sense of humor and wit, he was an exceptionally gifted and inspiring teacher who came to his classes with just a few pieces of chalk and could work out even the most complex derivations and problems of mathematical physics in a spontaneous and beautifully organized handwriting on the black boards, without reference to any written notes or books. Curiously, he had only four fingers in his writing hand and I had seen him play some decent tennis as well using it. The tennis I myself learnt and played later was a closer imitation of his prowess in the game than I was ever able to manage in measuring up to the mastery of Physics he displayed!
Finally, let me shift the glare of attention in the photo to myself. People who have known me over the last two or three decades may find it impossible to believe that the funny looking skinny little figure in the ill fitting coat and very ill at ease as well, with part of the lower left side of the anatomy appearing to be missing, is really me as I was the year after I had joined the college! Perhaps the saving grace in the photo is that I was obviously the youngest of the lot! When I first saw the photo in the Facebook, I too couldn't believe the sight, but then I found to my chagrin an old photo of mine at home from the same period mocking at me in the face, dispelling any doubts whatever. So, I have to own up to my identity. Fortunately, the face doesn't betray my hard work and exertions during those days when day and night as well as home and work-place had merged into a continuum to make the enterprise a success.
A look back
Enough planning and organizational effort had gone in to make the Summer Institutes of 1965 a success and a landmark in the history of the institution. The traditional lectures made way for interactive discussion sessions with liberal use of teaching aids, supported strongly by laboratory exercises built around the PSSC equipment and materials. The films also played a very useful role. Some sessions were devoted exclusively to the role of teacher educators in promoting science education. I was as much a participant in the programme as a resource person and, in purely academic terms, ended up receiving much more than I could give; such was the impact of the new PSSC curriculum materials at our disposal. The participant enthusiasm and feedback were both encouraging. The institute laid the foundation for more such efforts in the future, on a regular annual basis, for well over a decade from then on. They added significantly to RIEM's reputation and status as a premier institution for teacher education in the country, something that is sadly on the decline in the recent past. RIEMAA should contemplate how it can contribute to arresting this trend and even reversing it if possible.