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Talk with teachers: rewarding student research requires college teachers to be recognised as guides

Urvashi Bhattacharyya

MB Madappa and Sandra Misquith are faculty at the St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore. Here they share views on undergraduate research funding and the impact of the DBT Star College scheme. 

St. Joseph'S College faculty - Sandra and M.B. Madappa
St. Joseph'S College faculty - Sandra and M.B. Madappa 

In your years of service, what changes in teaching requirements have you observed?

Sandra: The teacher mostly adapts to a methodology in accordance with the class. I feel that one has to be innovative. The chalk and board method is indispensable — students say it makes it easier to follow a lecture, compared to the use of transparency or PowerPoint. Introducing class quizzes helps keep students engaged.

Madappa: A strict curriculum has changed to more active learning. Newer methods largely involve students to arrive at conclusions on their own. Most of the curriculum today is skill development oriented, life science curriculum too, is evolving with this theme. Technology has transformed the role of a teacher to a facilitator.

How should the current system change to incorporate research at the undergraduate level? What changes would enable focus towards research?

Sandra: Recognising teachers as guides would enable students to enrol as researchers. Students desire both — research experience and remuneration; the latter being dependent on us being recognised as guides. Under Bangalore University, getting recognised as a department (and getting designated as a guide) have been tough battles to fight. For many years, only botany and chemistry were considered as departments, identifying microbiology or biotechnology as departments has been an uphill battle. Once we are a university, things should start improving.

Focus in universities is still around teaching, and less on research. Unless attitudes change, the shift won’t be easy. During hiring, we ensure that the candidates have a research-oriented aptitude.

Madappa: I would opt for a flexible syllabus. In our current jam-packed one, the priority is on finishing the cramped syllabus. For the Bangalore University syllabus, this is not possible. However, as an autonomous system, we would have the flexibility to design syllabus and set questions.

We should also not be expected to teach everything, we expect students to know the core of their subjects by 12th standard. However, syllabus structure requires us to go back to basics again. Strong foundations should be inculcated at school, especially at 9th and 10th standards. For this, the quality of school teaching needs to be better.

Students mostly conduct basic experimentation. It would be good to have a journal at the undergraduate level, where these efforts can be published. This would motivate students and give them the requisite learning experience for research.

Do teachers attend pedagogical workshops? Do you see the impact of workshops on teaching practices or student learning?

Sandra: We have introduced Research Based Pedagogical Tools (RBPTs) in our lab practicums. The knowledge of pedagogical tools has helped improve the overall quality of education. Implementation of RBPT in the curriculum has the students interested in research. We have seen an increase in questioning and class discussions. Overall, in the last 4 – 5 years, the number of students with an interest in science has gone up.

Madappa: We brought RBPTs conducted by IISER Pune to our classrooms. 

Hands on workshop for specific tools like bioinformatics, PCR techniques, next-generation sequencing have proved useful. Peer collaborations have also resulted from these interactions.

Organising lectures has also helped our students in understanding the useful skills of research presentation.

Do you have peer discussion groups? Do conferences help in the skill development of teachers?

Sandra: We have a research committee and a research colloquium (for teachers, post graduates and PhD students) that meets twice a month. We also have a Josephite Research Forum for undergraduates. In total, our college has 54 associations. These groups usually start with full enthusiasm and a packed house, but gradually trickle down by the 3rd meeting.

We have made efforts to go interdisciplinary with these associations. However, both students and teachers attend their domain specific forums. Only a handful of us go for everything.

Madappa: Attending scientific research conferences might help in content development. However, teachers can read academic papers on their own. There are many lecture videos available for listening to the best scientists in the world, overcoming the need for paying to attend conferences.

Conferences and workshops dealing with target-oriented teaching tools have been of help. Active teacher learning workshops for handling, say a class of 100 students are also helpful.

How is research funding in colleges? Are there resources available for teachers to conduct research?

Sandra: A few resources are available – the college grants seed fund to teachers. We call for research proposal, but do not find most of them up to mark. Many teachers lack grant writing skills. Moreover, a few, with their certain biases and preconceived notions, are resistant to new ideas. Thus, we have introduced workshops on science writing, grant writing and plagiarism awareness.

Madappa: Getting grants has become difficult off-late. In our department, 4 out of 5 faculty have minor UGC research grants, while in our college, there about 40 teachers with minor, and 8 with major research grants.

Resource requirement is dependent on the research type. Lacunae exist for funding sophisticated infrastructure. However, field research that is required to study climate, vegetation, and tree diversity, is much easier to conduct.

We asked a few questions to Sandra for details on the DBT Star College Scheme

How has the DBT Star college scheme impacted teachers?

Sandra: The DBT star college scheme has facilitated teachers to attend the programs organized by MHRD. The most popular being the RBPT workshops; they have fostered personal growth and collaborations.

The funds from the scheme have helped establish several research platforms in our institution. The procurement of a large number of small equipment has ensured that students have hands-on experience. Multi-disciplinary and productive research is encouraged.

How does DBT assess the research conducted under the program?

Sandra: In addition to annual project reports, an advisory group visits the institution and assesses the work done; this gets reported to DBT.

Projects are also monitored by the coordinators of the DBT star college scheme. The coordinator presents the work to the task force, which recommends whether the funds should be continued.

Does the college have any reward programs for conducting research? How practical is for students to engage in experimental research?

Sandra: Nothing at the moment, if you discount a mention in the College Day Report. It is important to look at the practical aspects of doing research. Some of my students travel two hours or more to reach home. They are unlikely to get time to do extensive projects.

We also have to rush to research institutes like National Centre for Biological Science or Indian Institute of Science to access facilities. Even though we get grants through the DBT Star College program, the conditions are stringent.