'We must teach science in a more hands-on manner'

A professor in the department of chemistry, Delhi University, K V Sane has been instrumental in organising and directing a project on locally-produced low-cost equipment for chemical education that is sponsored by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and UNESCO. The recipient of many prestigious awards, Sane has also been awarded UNESCO's Einstein Medal recently. S SANKARAPANDI interviews the man who is trying to bring about significant changes in teaching methods:

Published: Friday 30 September 1994

How did you become interested in the development of low-cost laboratory equipment for universities?
Over the last 20 to 30 years, there has been a growing emphasis in both the fields of research and industry on the use of sophisticated instrumentation. Yet there has been hardly any progress in teaching laboratories. In my own university laboratories, students at the B Sc and M Sc levels today are using the same instruments that I did 40 years ago.

But if students are to develop into scientists, they need to be acquainted with the latest techniques involved. However, the high cost of sophisticated laboratory equipment makes it virtually impossible for small labs to obtain them.

So, as early as 1979, with the help of the IUPAC, we decided to develop low-cost equipment for university laboratories. Important criteria were to ensure that all the components were made in India and were cheap.

Is there a difference in the kind of equipment developed for the laboratory and for research and industry ?
A teaching instrument can be quite different from a research or industrial instrument. In industry, efficiency and time take top priority while research stresses upon versatility. For the purposes of teaching, versatility and efficiency are not of prime importance, which makes it possible to simplify teaching equipment.

How do you reduce costs and simplify the equipment so that it can be easily produced ?
We began with a project that concentrated on developing basic electronic equipment required to teach electrochemistry. It started almost as a hobby without any external funds. We could make simple pH meter circuits for as little Rs 50. We managed to reduce the costs greatly, but the electrodes used in the meters cost a handsome amount. So we began exploring cheaper substances, like carbon which could substitute for the more expensive platinum.

Another way of cutting costs is by not calibrating (marking with a standard scale of readings) a teaching instrument. The student should be encouraged to calibrate the equipment. You can buy general purpose meters and calibrate them yourself, depending on what you plan to measure. Students must also be encouraged to take precise and accurate measurements. Without this mastery, how can he work in the industry or do proper research?

What is the work that you are involved with right now?
Since 1980, I have been directing a project entitled Locally Produced Low-Cost Equipment for Chemical Education. This is jointly funded by UNESCO, IUPAC, the department of science and technology and the University Grants Commission.

Not only are teachers being trained in the development of low cost electronic equipment, laboratory glassware and methods of reducing the use of expensive chemicals in the laboratory, but we also develop cheap documentation in-house, using desktop publishing technology.

We are now trying to identify themes through which chemistry instrumentation can be taught. We plan to concentrate on environmental chemistry, helping students measure and understand air and water pollution using low-cost equipment. For example, the students can collect rain water from where they live and measure its acidity or alkalinity. This would orient them to acid rain in the real sense.

This, I feel, makes more sense than just teaching chemistry on the black board. Moreover, it also takes the student beyond just producing a pH meter. We are trying to create a culture of measurement, evaluation and discussion.

How do you envisage the future of this project ?
It has been very exciting and successful. But I retire next year, and I feel the need to convert it now into what I call an "educational industry". It would have a research and development wing, a teacher training wing, and a production section. The latter will have to controlled by industry. Training of teachers could be handled by the UGC and NCERT, while the universities would need to be responsible for research and development.

Is there a need to create separate faculties in universities for research in science education, as is the case in several other countries ?
Yes and no. In several countries, these departments concentrate on abstract studies, studying science teaching strategies and doing psychological studies. I think in India our science teaching priorities are different. We need to bring changes in the basic way in which we teach science. It needs to be more hands-on.

Don't you think that it is important to develop an interest in science at a younger age than when the student is at university? br> Yes, of course. The most important stage when interest can be created is during the child's time at school. To upgrade the teaching at the school level, it would make sense to attach several schools to each university in the hope that the culture of scientific enquiry catches on. Do you think of the money being spent on education as compared to the amount being spent on research is sufficient?
I am afraid that most of the research done in India is not in the true spirit of research. It is merely a ritual; people do not have the scientific spirit. You may have done your M Sc, but that does not mean that you have become a scientist. If this spirit is present, funding becomes secondary. A true researcher will make the best use of available funds, if he has the right focus. We are actually hampering any creativity that may exist, by forcing children to think in terms of examinations from an early stage.

What do you suggest we do to make the science curriculum more relevant to the country's needs?
We must have a curriculum which keeps evolving. We don't give our teachers much freedom -- which is absurd. If you can consider somebody good enough to teach, how can you think that he or she is not good enough to decide what to teach, how to teach and how to evaluate?

You have worked both at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and at university levels. How different from each other is the quality of teaching and learning?
Working with the IIT was very rewarding, because I had an opportunity to teach brilliant students. They know that the degree they will obtain has a value, so they work hard. However, the IIT curriculum is fairly irrelevant to the Indian situation. Instead of tackling the real problems that need to be addressed, the concentration is on abstract problems which are significant elsewhere.

But the university system is much worse. It has lost direction, the teachers have become indifferent, and so have the students.

What is your opinion about the newly emerging popular science movements like Bharat Jan Vigyan Jatha, Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samithy and various science fora?
I believe that the problem is too complex for a monolithic approach. But I welcome any initiative where someone is trying to do something. I strongly feel that even if our opinions differ from someone else's, we should respect it because in India, our problems are so complex that we need all the help possible. There are problems like teaching in villages, sometimes in vernacular languages or teaching the weaker sections. Much of the work done today may yield results decades later, but one day, they will definitely do so. The voluntary organisations can be good umpires. The government gets carried away with bureaucracy, industry gets carried with profits, academics get carried away with abstraction.

What role, would you say, science plays in shaping Indian values?
History shows us that no society has really been scientifically influenced in the true sense of the term. The biggest paradox was Germany, which saw the golden age of science in the '20s alongside the worst kind of human subjugation ever witnessed. I believe that doing science and being a scientist at heart are two very different things. The advanced philosophical concepts in science are closer to older philosophy in cultures like outs than they are to medieval societies. In practice, yes, there is a difference, because science and technology makes society materialistic and consumerist.

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