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Symposium on “Teaching of Sciences in Higher Education”: a report

Reeteka Sud

Panel discussion on "Knowledge construction in the sciences"
Panel discussion on "Knowledge construction in the sciences"   (Photo: Smita Jain)

Organised by Department of Physics, Bangalore University, and sponsored by DST-PURSE, the symposium on “Teaching of Sciences in Higher Education” held on 27-28 May 2016, put forth a multi-faceted view of higher education-related issues in India. The two-day event covered a vast gamut of topics, from what constitutes knowledge to social inclusion of students. The audience consisted of faculty from colleges and universities (both public and private), as well as research scholars.

Sharath Ananthamurthy, faculty coordinator for DST-PURSE in the Department of Physics, succinctly put forth reasons for organising the conference—securing the future of students after they graduate and how teachers can enable them to this end while they are students. In his inaugural address, Subhash Chandra Lakhotia, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Zoology at Banaras Hindu University, called on teachers to encourage their students to introspect, to instil in them a love for learning.“Our job is not to satisfy their curiosity, but to kindle it.” Regarding the theme of the conference, he asked if any teachers wonder why they should care about pedagogy at higher education levels, “students can learn without teachers, but not the other way around.”

The keynote was delivered by ISRO Chairman (and Bangalore University alum), Kiran Kumar, who talked about “use of technology in ensuring quality research & inclusion in higher education.” He appealed to science teachers in higher education centres throughout the country to make their students aware of challenges in the changing world. Solving them will require the students of today to have interdisciplinary training. He encouraged teachers teach students how to approach and solve questions. Ram Ramaswamy, faculty in Department of Physics at JNU, New Delhi, in his presentation urged that the teaching community explicitly recognise the need of collective nature of teaching, where the efficacy of what one teacher imparts depends crucially on what is taught by another. Presentations were interspersed with panel discussions, which included discussion topics as “integrating research and teaching at higher education levels”, and “pedagogy and motivation”.

Milind Watve, from IISER Pune, in his presentation on “Teaching and Research in Biology” asserted that the process of scientific thinking is intrinsic to human mind. He shared a story of the Bushmen (indigenous hunter-gatherer people of Southern Africa) to support his point. When the Bushmen hunt, it is a scientific process, even though they do not have a system of formal education. They make an observation (pug marks of animal, for instance), develop a hypothesis on that basis (ex. direction the animal is headed, whether the marks are fresh, etc.), they follow that up with action until there is falsifying evidence; at which point they give up the original hypothesis and develop a new one. Thus, he argued, students already have a “scientific mind”; all a teacher has to do is not discourage their creativity. He contended that instead of undergraduate education being a prerequisite for doing research, as is the current norm; why not use research as a tool for pursuing undergraduate education? “By its very nature, a PhD research project has to be low-risk, as it is a considerable investment on behalf of a student and he/she must have a positive outcome to show for it. But undergraduate students do not have any such constraints. Even if they fail completely in their research, they get their degree anyway. But their success at this stage can yield huge returns. He closed with “once research begins, education naturally follows.”

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Education Coordinator