Saturday, October 18, 2008

Restructuring UG programs in the sciences

The three science academies of the country have issued a position paper entitled Restructuring Post-School Science Teaching Programmes (pdf, 770 kB). The most far-reaching, and definitely the most important among its recommendations is the creation of a four-year BS program in the sciences. In fact, the paper follows up on the discussion meeting in May 2008 on this very topic.

But there are several other recommendations as well, which explicitly take into account the need for diverse and flexible undergraduate programs in science. Thus, the paper recommends retaining the current 3-year BSc + 2-year MSc model, but suggests that "these courses ... be restructured to provide integrated learning, rather than making the students specialise too early." It also has two other new and noteworthy recommendations which will provide interesting options for 3-year BSc graduates: (a) a 2-year professional degree (BTech) option, and (b) vocational courses in such job-oriented fields such as bio-medical lab techniques and computer applications.

The BTech option is a rehash of a program that IISc used to run up until the late sixties! [Interestingly, this program was converted into a 3-year BE degree program, which was replaced with a 4-yaer 'integrated' ME program, which died in 2000!]

I guess the target audience of this position paper is the UGC. But can UGC take a decision as important as the creation of a 4-year BS program (which, presumably, will be taught, at least in the beginning, in IISERs and Central universities) just in the sciences? Wouldn't it want to extend this program to humanities and social sciences?

Let me end this post with an excerpt that highlights the limitations of the current system, and articulates the need for a new regime:

The rigid bifurcation insisted upon at the first non-professional science degree course (B.Sc.), is severely limiting the competence of our country’s science graduates in the current global scenario of interdisciplinarity. An extreme of this compartmentalized education is the introduction of specialized courses like those in biotechnology, genetics, bioinformatics, nanotechnology etc., at B.Sc. level. In most of these programmes, the students hardly learn the basic science part and thus remain incompetent for basic as well as technological applications.

It is clear that the contemporary cutting edge questions in life sciences cannot be solved without knowing the concepts, tools and techniques employed by professional physicists and chemists and without developing adequate computational and mathematical skills. It becomes extremely difficult to demarcate specific subject boundaries in many emerging areas of science and technology, like those in smart materials, nanomaterials, micro (molecular) electronics, biotechnologies, biosensors, etc,. More broadly, it is difficult to distinguish between electronics and physics, materials science and chemistry, and between biology and biomaterials. Without understanding the basics of one field, it is no longer possible to exploit the possibilities offered by another. One of the major reasons for the relative poor innovative R&D activity in the country indeed is the lack of in-depth interdisciplinary teaching and the required level of flexibility in moving from one discipline to another.

Thanks to my colleague Prof. Ranganathan for alerting me about the position paper.


  1. Pratik . said...

    Here's my 2 cents, although I dont know if most people would agree with it.

    I think it is high time we started admitting students to science AND engineering based on a common exam. Whether we like it or not, in most cases, the undergraduate department and institute chosen by a student is largely dictated by perceived job opportunities. Hence, science and humanities seem to take a back seat as opposed to engineering.

    Now consider this: a large chunk of the jobs taken by fresh engineering graduates from a variety of disciplines are in areas not remotely related to their undergraduate field - eg: large number of IT professionals actually have a non-IT undergrad background; a huge chunk of student opt for management, despite at best studying a 2 credit / 50 marks management course during their undergrad.

    What emerges is that the employers in many of these jobs look for employees who have "learnability", rather than students from one specific branch. One measure (and I dwell on whether this is a correct measure or not) is, if the student did well in a tough exam, then he must be fairly good. Hence, a marked preference for engineering studentts who cleared the "tough" JEE and state engineering entrance exams.

    To attract students to science departments (as their first choice) it might be a good idea to include admissions to science courses based on the merit list for the engineering entrance exams. This would mean that a student studying basic science in a good college would have cleared the same "tough" exam. I believe this would make a good contribution to job prospects for science students.

    The bonus for academicians is that since many more students who would now study science by forgoing engineering seats at some of the less reputable colleges, there would be, hopefully, an increase in the number of bright students who are attracted to basic science as a research career.

    Where does this fit into a discussion of 4 year science courses? Well, definitely a 4 year undergrad program would give a better background to jump into research. Secondly, if one were to follow this idea of a common admission test for science and engineering alongwith a 4 year undergrad program in science, we might even be able to eliminate the need for a 2 year BE following a 3 year BSc in order for the science grad to land a job. That way, the student actually ends up saving an year.

    Ideally, what type of institutes would be in a best position to attract the best students (presumably, because they would impart the best education) under this scheme (ie common merit list for science and engineering, as well as a 4 year undergrad program)? The answer, I think, is what Prof Abinandanan likes to call "real universities". Institutes where science departments are as strong and crucial as engineering departments, so that students of basic sciences can get a decent number of electives from the engineering departments, while the engineering students would be taught the basic concepts in sciences by active researchers in that field. Humanities would be a strong component in such universities too. Due to my rather unfortunate knowledge about humanities I would rather not say much about it ;)

    So here's hoping that the govt, instead of simply starting institutes of *technical* education (eg. the new IITs), focus the resources on starting institutes of education.

  2. Anonymous said...

    The post above ignores the essential reason why companies recruit from 'other' majors. This is because the demand for employees is more than the number of qualified IT students. However, it is foolish to build a society and base plans for higher education on this assumption. When the demand drops the other way, only students schooled in the necessary art will be employable.

    However, I do agree, all students must be schooled in fundamental sciences and strong math skills that go beyond a single field. Having said that, it is also important not to churn generic science majors who are ill qualified to any real industry with the hopes that some industry will be magnanimous and teach these students the necessary art.

    Yes R&D need could use students schooled in pure science, but even a healthy society needs only a small fraction of students in these disciplines, not the bulk of the population as in the current educational system.

    I believe, the focus of education should always be to 'hope for the best, but plan for the worst,' and not the other way as this post suggests.