Updated: September 10, 2014 12:20:54 am
Science and Technology Minister Jitendra Singh’s announcement that researchers at all publicly funded institutions will have to take a minimum of 12 hours of undergraduate- or school-level lectures per year in order to “serve society in a wider capacity” could be a good beginning. Even if by diktat, the move could help take scientific expertise beyond the confines of the laboratory and campus, and into classrooms. Accomplished scientists would bring instructional value to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. Greater opportunities for engagement with a practising scientist across settings and communities could potentially encourage the exploration of scientific research as a career path and as a striving towards knowledge.
But the success of such a programme would hinge on the details of its implementation. How, for instance, would the government ensure that scientists are available even — and especially — to distant schools in small towns and villages? Could it design the scheme in a manner that sees it equitably executed, such that schools in big cities do not corner all the available teaching resources? There is also the possibility that the 12-hour floor will, in practice, become a ceiling, with education and public outreach (EPO) efforts by the scientific community limited to government-mandated classroom interactions. Properly trained science teachers — Singh alluded to their absence while introducing the programme — are at least as important as classroom visits by scientists. Internationally, institutes like Nasa emphasise educator-training modules, offering workshops, curriculum design assistance and classroom materials in STEM subjects. Space flight budgets are mandated to include a “significant” EPO component. Premier Indian institutes could begin by making their websites more attractive to children and developing structured programmes that allow scientists to engage with students in formal and informal ways, such as by offering learning opportunities in unorthodox environments like planetariums and labs.
India’s 600 million-strong young represent both a promise and a challenge. If properly trained, they could help it vault over emerging country competitors. Improving science education, and thereby attracting more young people to the sciences, is a win-win. The government’s initiative is a promising first step. It needs to be built upon.
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