Science in its broadest aspects ensures that we as individuals develop an outlook towards life and our surroundings, which would equip us to understand and learn about the workings of almost everything. The purpose of science education is to instill young minds with a curiosity for seeking out ways to understand how nature works. This curiosity is something that the kids already have in them. While scientists can answer their questions systematically with hypothesis building and testing, children mostly rely on asking questions from elders around them to provide them with answers to quench their curiosity. Most of the teaching happens in schools and colleges where unless the teachers aren't equipped themselves with the right skills, they can kill that inherent curiosity in students. This is what is happening to science education in the country, which has turned science teaching into passive lectures creating a learning environment that amounts to just cramming of definitions and facts that may not be very useful for students. This is much scarier than you or I can imagine. We are creating minds that would not question anything unless it doesn’t affect them directly, thus removing not just curiosity but empathy and compassion too from them.
As a science teacher whose been teaching undergraduate college course, I felt a lot that has been going astray in creating this dismal state of science education. Over the past few months, I came in contact with some wonderful scientists and researchers who have been working not just on diverse scientific questions in their research pursuits as scientists and PhDs, but are contributing in a multifaceted manner to bring a change, ten teachers or hundred students at a time. I had the opportunity of working closely with one of the CSIR laboratories that is situated in Delhi (Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, where the public outreach is handled by Dr. Beena Pillai and Dr. Malabika Dutta) and has been conducting multiple public outreach events since past few years as part of CSIR's Project Jigyasa.
CSIR or Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, one of the foremost government organization for conducting research in the country has taken up an initiative to carry out its social scientific responsibility by launching Project Jigyasa. As part of these outreach activities, most of the STEM institutes in the country organize Open Days, student summer training, teacher training workshops, popular lectures, pay visit to schools and essentially open their hearts and minds for school students and their teachers along with opening the gates to their laboratories for them to observe, question and learn how the science they study in their science classes is made possible to understand and most importantly understand the applications of that science.
One of the teachers (Valli Bhaskar, Salwan Public School) who has been associated with CSIR IGIB since a long time, bringing her students at each Open Day shares her experience as she says that visit to IGIB is indeed a very enriching learning experience to the students as they get a first-hand experience of the research work. They also get to interact with the eminent faculty and research scholars and get an insight into the research being carried out there.
The beauty of this program is that not just school students and teachers gain the most out of it, but the research scholars like Samatha Mathew, who works at IGIB and has been an active volunteer for public outreach activities of the institute, find these experiences rewarding in a manner that makes pursuing scientific research worthwhile for them. Samatha says that it's typical to get lost in the busyness of everyday research and forget why it's important to do what we do. Science suddenly becomes a lot more than experiments that worked or failed, when she sees a glint in the eye of a young student who just learnt about something new.
Lastly, there is a new niche that is being created in our country. These are science communicators that have been working tirelessly with understanding the needs of public and with scientists to create a connect between the two. Many scientists are excellent communicators and enjoy sharing their excitement for science with students and general public, but some do require a little nudge in that direction and that is where science communicators are playing an essential role in this whole scheme of things. One such brilliant science communicator in the country is Somdatta Karak who works at Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad. She says that CSIR's Jigyasa project has allowed them to go and experiment new ways to share their science with public, mostly school and college students. The support has allowed them to move from just didactic lectures to get resource people to design more holistic approaches of engaging with their audience.
It became clear to me as a science teacher that efforts are required to be taken in the direction of making science education to not just providing knowledge, but also building a scientific temperament in students along with instilling confidence for a future. I could as a teacher in my capacity do that for my students, but there is a much greater need than that. It was, therefore, a wonderful experience to see that CSIR Jigyasa is doing exactly this by connecting students with scientists. Although, there are other changes too that are needed, like not to focus on grades instead of learning and a lack of imparting knowledge of ethics, which in the field of science is as essential as learning science itself and as a teacher, I'd make sure to get my students to learn all this and more. Other teachers too across the country have been making an active effort in this direction since a very long time. I'm certain that teachers and scientists together can bring back the science in science classrooms of the country and make a much-needed difference in the science education ecosystem of our country.