Columns Education

Integrating research with under-graduate teaching: a personal recount

L S Shashidhara

Indian education system, like many other aspects of our society, is at the cross-roads trying to find a way to enhance the number and quality of future academic as well as industrial researchers of the country, while still maintaining a socialist approach to educate large masses of relatively underprivileged people.

Purely from the academic point of view, I have always been inclined to spend more and more time in undergraduate teaching. As research and teaching feed each other, I strongly believed in the notion that researchers benefit as much as students when they are directly involved in undergraduate teaching. Of course, a fine balance of time sharing between the two activities is must for the success of this model. My attempts at CCMB in this regard were very superficial: periodically giving lectures in different colleges and organizing lecture workshops for college students.

In 2006, Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs) were established up by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Govt. of India. IISERs, set up as autonomous research institutes, aim to integrate high quality research with undergraduate teaching to improve science education in India. I received an invitation from IISER Pune to head the biology division. It took less than 24h for me to make up my mind. Fortunately, my family stood by me and strongly supported to pursue this challenge, although this meant their uprooting from Hyderabad. Director, CCMB too was more than supportive and within two months, I was deeply involved in the IISER experiment. The two years since have been here constitute one of the best times I have had in my academic life. Interacting with undergraduate students, freshly come out of the school, keeps us always on our toes. The energy levels of the students are so high, it is a different world compared to a research institute with mostly PhD students and/​or post-doctoral research associates.

A good learning process should be concept-based and inquiry-driven, as opposed to the more traditional content-based models. There is a strong emphasis on the interdisciplinary nature of today’s science, and recognition of the importance of research experience during the process of learning science. A most important feature of modern undergraduate education is curriculum-free learning process. This makes undergraduate teaching most enjoyable. The learning becomes more interactive, concept based and we teachers and students together explore unknown” domains of knowledge rather than we imparting on students the facts” that are known and (anyway) available in all text-books and internet. It is so much fun to discuss with students the unsolved problems in biology: be it protein folding or membrane biology or cognitive neuroscience. My first lesson at IISER was that we always underestimate the learning and thinking capabilities of our undergraduate students. With little motivation and encouragement, it is very easy to make students speak their mind: more often than not, students are logical and original in thinking.

A good undergraduate teaching would also employ research-based learning techniques such as small open-ended experiments during lab hours, summer projects etc. Students would learn more in a laboratory than in a classroom. In addition to facilitating the learning process, undergraduate research excites and motivates students and make them hungry for exploring unknown domains of science. A good feature of undergraduate research is its ability to pursue daring and challenging paths.