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“Make problem-solving an integral part of UG classrooms”

Reeteka Sud

Panel discussion with representatives from industry and academia
Panel discussion with representatives from industry and academia  

A two-day workshop co-organised by IndiaBioscience and Abasaheb Garware college in Pune (Feb 3-4, 2017), featured sessions where undergraduate teachers interacted with senior educators, and scientists from research centers as well as from industry. The final session was an open discussion focusing on prominent challenges faced by teachers, and panelists’ views on possible solutions. A conspicuous part of the discussion centered on how undergraduate teachers should mentor their students — what should their top priorities be?

Graduates from life science streams typically have low employability. Popular opinion is that it’s because BSc is not a “technical degree”. But is that all there is: a difference of what degree a student has, what coursework they have done? What is expected of students — what should they know if they wish to enter the job market after BSc; and how can teachers support them while they pursue their undergraduate degrees. “I look for an attitude to solve problems”, remarked  Abhay Jere (Persistent Labs, Pune). “Sadly, the importance of problem solving ability — the approach, attitude and the aptitude— is not part of college education”, lamented Jere. Along the same lines, Ashok Giri (National Chemical Labs, Pune), shared “I don’t expect a fresh graduate to know about machines they have never seen before… I am not looking to see whether the student has information. I want to see they know what to do with the information they have”. Chaitanya Athale (IISER Pune) echoed these sentiments, and added that “for higher education to have any meaning, it has to be able to connect factual information (terms, equations, techniques, etc.) with the ability to think (and know how to use the facts). When that connection is successfully made, it equips the students to pursue any career path they choose. What matters is the ability to think independently.” He encourages his students to not be afraid to make mistakes — it’s only then that they learn. He suggested teachers pose problems within the structured learning environment that is the norm for our classrooms.

The premise of present day education seems directed at a single objective: high scores. Highest scorer in a class is, by default, deemed the smartest one. It seems teachers and students alike buy into the belief that if you score well, it makes your CV more attractive. But people doing the hiring say otherwise. “When making decision on who to hire, we don’t look at marks. All we see is if it’s above 60%! Beyond that, it is not their marks that matter”, commented Giri. “The paradox in India is that while a lot of graduates are looking for jobs, not many are trained for jobs”, he said.

The conversation subsequently veered into lack of necessary resources for training - a concern shared by virtually all participating faculty. While acknowledging this reality, panelists also maintained that there are still steps that can be taken to improve status quo, without waiting for authorities to take rectifying measures. Abhay Jere strongly asserted we are limiting our own thinking this way. “Facilities don’t define us, rather it is the problem statement that should define the facilities.” B.D.Bhole, Head of Microbiology department at Garware college, laid out his view on currently under-utilised, rather un-utilised, resources already available to educators. For instance, he suggested to invite scientists from industry, from research centres, to join ‘Board of studies’ meetings where curricular outlook for a given academic year is defined. Colleges can also foster small informal gatherings where students can interact with scientists. The second un-utilised resource, according to him, are the alumni. Not only can they provide much-needed input to students on employability, current students can also learn to network their way to new opportunities.

After the discussion, Niranjan Patil, currently teaching Microbiology at Garware college after having worked in industry (Invitrogen), shared “job-specific skills can be learned on the job. Inculcating problem-solving abilities in students is the direction we have to head”; adding that teachers may need resources so teaching can transition to that point.

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Education Coordinator