Why our schools need a total revamp in science education

Teaching of science requires an overhaul as it was done in the United States and Britain in the mid-fifties and early sixties by developing enquiry-based curricula and modernise teaching of science. These initiatives infused new life in teaching of science by shifting emphasis from teaching theory to making it more interesting and relevant to the learners.

The Bengal Renaissance is as much known for its monumental contribution in exact sciences as in literature, arts and social reforms. During the period, a number of leading Indian scientists like Satyendra Nath Bose, Meghnad Saha, Jagadish Chandra Bose, Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, Jnan Chandra Ghosh, etc, came from Bengal. These scientists are specifically known for their groundbreaking discoveries and innovations, besides laying down the foundation of experimental science. It was during this period when the city of Calcutta bagged the second Nobel Prize, in Physics. The city now takes the crown to have produced five Nobel laureates within a span of nine decades. The beginning was made by Rabindranath Tagore in 1913 followed by Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman in 1930, Mother Teresa in 1979, Amartya Sen in 1998 and Abhijit Banerjee in 2019.

The influence of the Bengal renaissance, which continued for a long time, was such that it transformed Mahendralal Sircar into a crusader of science. He was a multifaceted personality, a medical doctor by training, a leading Homeopath by practice and an obsessive science lover. He was a great visionary. His vision was to humanise science for national reconstruction. While on the one hand he wanted to create a pool of scientists, on the other he wanted to bring knowledge of science to the doorstep of every child with a view to inculcating amongst them both the ‘scientific temper’ and the ‘universal values’. Initially, he made a modest beginning to inculcate scientific temper amongst school-going children through some simple scientific toys and equipment. But as his idea caught the public imagination, he laid the foundation of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IASC) at Calcutta on 29 July 1876 with luminaries like Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Keshab Chandra Sen as the Trustees of the Board.

It is heartening to note that IACS, which is the oldest scientific institution in Asia, has successfully kept its tradition of maintaining excellence in all aspects of teaching and research. It is the birth place of C.V. Raman’s contribution to science in the discovery of the “Raman Effect”, which won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1930. IACS is the only research institution in India that brought a Nobel Prize in Science from the work done in India. Luminaries like S.N. Bose, known for his pioneering work on Bose-Einstein condensate, served as the National Professor in Physics at IASC. Meghnad Saha, the author of the celebrated Saha ionisation theory in stars served as its first director.

It is a matter of pride that IASC is now amongst the major research centres of India working in several frontier areas of physics, chemistry and biology with an interdisciplinary perspective. IACS has to its credit the highest number of Bhatnagar awardees, JC Bose National Fellows, elected Fellows of the Indian Academy of Sciences, National Science Academy and other international Academies, including the world Academy of Sciences. Today, 140 years after its inception, it is gratifying to know that IASC, which continues to adore the mantle of academic and intellectual excellence both in India and abroad, has partly realised the vision of Mahendralal Sircar by way of creating a pool of outstanding scientists.

Somehow the second part of the vision of Mahendralal Sircar to inculcate “scientific temper” and “universal values” amongst school children remains unfulfilled. It is sad that teaching of science at school level leaves a great deal to be desired. Most of the school graduates are found lacking in abilities like critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, decision making, courage to question, humility, honesty, quest for truth, empathy, etc, which are critical life skills one can learn experiencing science.

There may be multiple reasons for the failure of development of these essential life skills. It can safely be ascribed to substandard quality of curriculum, instructional materials, pedagogical processes, assessment procedures, and teacher preparation. These skills can be developed only when children have access to first-rate curriculum and improved classroom processes which are ensured by teachers who understand the philosophy of the subject and have the professional competence to design tools for the assessment of individuals’ potential. Regrettably, that is hugely missing and which is why we have not been able to develop the right kind of culture to teach science and learn science. It is primarily because of these inadequacies that teaching of science has remained under severe criticism.

Teaching of science essentially requires a complete overhaul as it was done in America and England in the mid-fifties and early sixties. The successful launch of the ‘Sputnik’ by the Soviet Russia on 4 October 1957 made the Western world realise that something was seriously wrong with their science education. Consequently, a number of science development projects were launched in America and England targeting different stages of school education. Prominent amongst them were the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) Project, Biological Science Curriculum Study (BSCS) Project, Chemical Education Material Study (CHEM) Project, Science Curriculum Improvement Study (SCIS) Project, Nuffield Science Teaching Project. These projects were undertaken to develop enquiry-based curricula and modernise teaching of science. These initiatives infused new life in teaching of science by shifting emphasis from teaching theory to making it more interesting and relevant to the learners.

The National Council of Educational Research & Training (NCERT) took a leaf out of the US and UK experiments and set up six Study Groups in 1964 to revamp science curricula by drawing experts from different Indian universities as also from USSR and UK. The project was based on the premise of learning from experiments to theory. It took a great deal of work to develop curricular materials in the form of instructional material, laboratory manual, teachers’ handbooks and science kits. But somehow the outcome of these efforts remained unutilised and the system maintained business as usual.

It is often observed that science is taught in the form of isolated facts; neither as principles of enquiry common to science, nor teaching of science is used to promote universal values. Somehow most consider that values can be integrated only in subjects like languages, humanities and social sciences and not in exact sciences which is wholly incorrect. Both are achievable propositions provided vital changes are made in curriculum development, approach to developing textbooks and teaching of science.

Firstly, a database needs to be created around every single concept right from simple to complex, like from the concept of colour of an object to Boyle’s law. Secondly, teachers should carry out experiments with active participation of students, using simulations wherever necessary, for clarification of concepts. Thirdly, they should carefully record the language used by the students during the course of experimentation. Fourthly, they should develop all the instructional materials in simple language used by the students and arrange all the educational experiences in a hierarchical manner. It would, in a way, amount to students constructing their own textbook. Such an approach will have an added advantage for the teachers as they can focus more on those chapters which provide the basic conceptual understanding and leave others for self-learning.

Lastly, teachers need to identify such spots of learning in the course content wherein universal values could be easily integrated. For example, whilst teaching the composition of atmospheric air, teachers may cite the example of Lord Henry Cavendish’s experiment of 1781 in which he could not resolve the mystery of the little bubble that he repeatedly noticed in the corner of the jar. His candid confession in his paper that he could not understand the mystery of the little bubble and had left it for posterity to resolve can be used to instil universal values like quest for truth, admission of failure, humility, significance of perseverance, concern for posterity and faith in future. Interestingly, as foreseen by Cavendish, Ramsay and his team discovered the bubble as a noble gas, Argon, in the same Cavendish Lab after a gap of hundred years in 1881.

Since the National Education Policy (NEP), 2020 has envisaged restructuring of school curriculum and pedagogy, reduction of curriculum content to enhance critical thinking and development of National Curriculum Framework (NCF), it would be the most opportune time to commission Science Development Projects to some of our premier institutions as it would require extraordinary level of expertise. There is a good network of eight premier institutions, seven Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISERs) and one Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. They are best positioned to shoulder this responsibility in every aspect. Due to their country-wide presence they would be in a better position to develop curriculum and instructional materials in local vernacular which is extremely essential for advancement of science education in a diverse country like ours. This would be a win-win situation for both science education at school level and high-end research at university level. This would eventually help bring science education to the doorstep of every child and instil in them the universal values as envisioned by Mahendralal Sircar.

The writer is former Chairman, UGC. The views expressed are personal.