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Crafting Your Career (CYC) | 16 Informational Interview with Pragya Verma — Science Education | Part 1

Lakshmi Ganesan

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This is part 1 of the eleventh “informational interview” in the season on Crafting your Career in science. Here IndiaBioscience chats with Pragya Verma, a researcher-turned educator, who still manages to do her science and take along with her school students as well as carry out social projects to promote application-based learning among students of all levels.

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Note to listeners: This recording was done during the COVID-19 lockdown over a zoom meeting call. This has resulted in a slightly diminished audio quality with some mild disturbances in the recording, compared to a studio quality recording.

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Lakshmi Ganesan 0:01

You're listening to IndiaBiospeaks, your one stop resource for science news and careers. Welcome everybody to our show on crafting your career in science. We thought to do a couple of bonus episodes in the informational interviews with various science professionals and in this one, we will feature a profession that I'm sure is very close to all our hearts - that of a teacher.

Today we are chatting with Pragya Verma, she is a researcher turned a science educator. She still manages to find ways to do her science, but with high school students. Pragya, it's a pleasure to have you in this informational interview chat today.

Pragya Verma 0:50

Thanks a lot Lakshmi. It's a pleasure to be here with IndiaBioscience.

Lakshmi Ganesan 1:01

Can you describe your career path from being a researcher at the bench to that of being a teacher?

Pragya Verma 1:07

I completed my Masters and PhD from University of Texas in Dallas in cellular and molecular biology. Here, I studied molecular mechanisms of neuro degeneration in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. I was very clear during the early years of my PhD and postdoc that I wanted to return to India and I wanted to teach children. I was not clear what age group I wanted to teach, but I really wanted to teach kids and encourage them to come towards research. Research is generally introduced to the children later in the academic trajectory. I wanted to contribute to an early intervention, introducing research in the school curriculum. I went to my alma mater in New Delhi where I started giving talks to children. A new branch had just started that nurtured a more application based curriculum with opportunities to do projects and research. This school is DPS international, which is situated in South Delhi.

Lakshmi Ganesan 3:05

Pragya, I think early intervention is a great idea. I would like to know how early this is. So, which classes and which subjects do you teach?

Pragya Verma 3:26

I teach Biology and science for class 5 and for classes 10 and 11, I teach a more application-based curriculum, where I link science with experimentation. The freedom and the encouragement from the school enabled me conduct and even publish school level projects. Children learn to take their project to its logical conclusion and write a paper. There are two publications that we are presently working on and we are trying to get them out by next year.

Lakshmi Ganesan 5:08

Pragya, this sounds very exciting!! In one of my informational interviews with a researcher, an interesting and perhaps a very important point of view arose: students generally, and especially in India view success in a certain way: specifically, they equate it with grades. This becomes a real challenge when they enter a research ecosystem where failures are widely encountered. In fact, I have often heard that success in research is measured by your ability to embrace failures. So, how does one go about bringing a paradigm shift in moving from theory to application-based learning, which really involves rewiring of some very “deep-rooted” and if I may say so, “sub-conscious” ideas, and concepts?

Pragya Verma 5:57

This is a really good and critical question / problem Lakshmi, which we encounter when we enter the school ecosystem. Here when the kids take up a project in which they make some progress and say in the end they don't have an outcome, they discover early on that science is not about getting the desired result at the end. It really has to do with how you troubleshoot and navigate through the problem, and what you learn along the way. This way, the children learn through experience that the journey is more important than the outcome. And of course, what they learn through this experience takes deep roots in them and remains with them to carry forward.

Lakshmi Ganesan 7:48

Pragya that's very beautifully stated. What are your roles and responsibilities and core deliverables and expectations as a school teacher?

Pragya Verma 8:08

Lakshmi, my core responsibilities are to teach different subjects that I do, and also to be able to design activities for the students to help them apply the principles learnt. Every month, a set of international projects comes in. These projects aim to make the children think out of the box on diverse topics like environment, statistics and so on... I encourage the children to choose a project and think on their own to come up with something out of the box. I can act as a mentor to guide their ideas to fruition.

Example, the concept of osmosis is explained in a simple manner using the walking water experiment. Here we place three glasses of water and connect them with a tissue paper. The movement of water from one glass to another is through osmosis. A recent experiment was in using stubble to make cutlery. Smoke from stubble burning is a major pollutant in New Delhi and my kids have devised methods to recycle stubble to make cutlery which is used in school canteens. We have also published this work. A 11th grade student of mine is preparing bioplastics from wheatgrass and was able to make small pouches using these bioplastics. These children are from a good financial background and some of them have converted their basement into laboratories. Some of my kids are also motivated enough to share their learnings and teach financially less privileged children from surrounding villages through experimentation, the way I do with them. I guide them and they do this in their after hours as a social service project. The children are able to grasp and retain concepts much better when they practice the principles through doing an experiment or teach it by way of hands-on projects to others. At the end of the project if we have some results, we publish the paper if there are no results to publish, we write a review article from the literature reviewed. The children also learn to make posters from their work and present to their peers and even participate in some University presentations.

Lakshmi Ganesan 13:54

Pragya this is fantastic! I can only imagine the level of enthusiasm children can bring to the laboratory and poster presentations are always a lot of fun... and perhaps you are working with them at the right intellectual age at which they can start these activities.

Pragya Verma 14:12

That's right!, it’s also the make or break age when you can make the children love the subjects or make them feel like academics is a burden. I have seen remarkable changes in students, some of them are so hooked to the subject and have applied and secured admissions in elite institutions to pursue their education further. Delhi University conducts poster presentations for undergraduates and first year students. I connected with the organisers to ask them if they could accommodate school children of class 11 and 12. The children got so excited and felt incentivized to be able to present at scientific conferences where many scientists in the community could look at their work and provide feedback.

Lakshmi Ganesan 16:28

Pragya, that sounds really forward looking and progressive, and it seems to be aligned with the new education policy that has been tabled recently.

Listeners will take a bit of a break at this point. And we will return back to our conversation with Pragya in part two of this informational interview. And in this we will talk about a day in the life of a school educator and also valuable skills that one might need to acquire in order to become a successful school educator.

So do stay tuned and join us back in part two of our informational interview with Pragya Verma.

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Shreya Ghosh 17:18

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Manoj Rangan 17:24

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Shreya Ghosh 17:27

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Shreya Ghosh 17:39

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Manoj Rangan 17:46

Until next time, enjoy your science and stay engaged to enable change