InnoVidya Event: R&D in Publicly-Funded Labs In India

National Chemical Laboratory, Pune, is one of the top R&D institutions in the country. With approximately 200 scientific staff working here, it is an interdisciplinary research center with wide research scope and specializes in polymer science, organic chemistry, catalysis, materials chemistry, chemical engineering, biochemical sciences and process development. It houses good infrastructure for measurement science and chemical information.

There are about 400 graduate students pursuing research towards doctoral degree; about 50 students are awarded Ph.D. degree every year. NCL publishes over 400 research papers annually in the field of chemical sciences and over 60 patents worldwide. It is a unique source of research education producing the largest number of PhDs in chemical sciences within India.

InnoVidya and IUCAA present a talk by Dr. Sourav Pal, the current Director of NCL, on Research and Development in Publicly Funded Laboratories in India, on Saturday, 23 Aug, 2014, at Bhaskara 3 Hall, IUCAA. This is the next talk in the InnoVidya/IUCAA SPARK lecture series.

About the Speaker – Dr. Sourav Pal

Dr Sourav Pal is the Director, of National Chemical Laboratory (NCL), Pune, and Director, Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute (CSMCRI), Bhavnagar. He holds an integrated Masters degree in Chemistry from Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, and a Ph.D. from Calcutta University. He was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Florida, Gainesville, USA and an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the University of Heidelberg, Germany . He was a visiting Professor at the University of Arizona, Tucson, USA and at the Institute for Molecular Sciences, Okazaki, Japan. Dr. Pal has been recognized by several awards and honours for his contribution to science and technology including the prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in Chemical Sciences, the SASTRA-CNR Rao Award in Chemistry & Materials Science. He is a Fellow of all the three National Academies of Science in India and the Royal Society of Chemistry, UK. He has published over 215 papers in peer-reviewed international journals, guided over 25 Ph D thesis, delivered more than 100 lectures in important conferences and is serving on the editorial boards of international journals.

Abstract of the talk:

Publicly funded Research and development laboratories play a major role in promoting scientific research and development of technology in India. In this presentation, Dr Pal will relate his experiences of working in such laboratories and presently as Director, NCL. He will highlight the role of these institutions in leading scientific research. He will bring out the expectations that the Government has from such publicly funded institutions.

About the InnoVidya IUCAA Spark Program

The SPARK program is a series of events jointly conducted by InnoVidya and IUCAA. These are special events that <spark> imagination & curiosity of our young, build bonds between participants of different disciplines, catalyze interactivity & promote peer links

If you’re interested in the state of education in India, please subscribe to get updates by email

Event Details

The event is on Saturday, Aug 23, 2014, at 11am, at Bhaskara 3 Hall, IUCAA, University of Pune Campus.

Fees and Registration

This event is free and open for anybody to attend. Register here

End education’s licence raj -Rahul Bajaj & Sanjay Bhargava

Rahul Bajaj and Sanjay Bhargava (of Shiksha Mandal, Wardha, an educational trust run by the Bajajs) have a hard-hitting and well-written article in the Economic Times on how we need to End Education’s Licence Raj

You should read the full article – the only reason we have not copy-pasted the entire thing here is that it would be a copyright violation.

Instead, here are a few excerpts to whet your appetite:

The education system in our country is largely dysfunctional, from schools to universities. And this dysfunctionality is because of the system, not despite it. Our system is now designed to produce bad quality. Unless we face up to this fact we will continue to produce unemployables.

and:

In most government aided institutions teacher jobs are sold. The going rate in Maharashtra for a college teacher exceeds Rs 20 lakh. What quality can be expected from such institutions and teachers?

and:

In aided institutions, though teacher salaries are good, funds for running the institution are scarce. In Maharashtra this is 5% of the salary grant, barely covering even the electricity bills.

and:

In Nagpur University, 250 colleges were functioning without teachers and yet students enrolled in them are being allowed to sit for exams. Even the much vaunted Pune University had over 70 such colleges.

But, here is the most important part:

All parts of the system are culpable. Governments running a licence raj and making rules that are supposed to improve quality but only increase costs and cause delays, managements who are not education but money minded, teachers who do not want to work or upgrade themselves, and students who are seeking degrees, not learning.

So, how do we fix this?

Essentially, the solutions in our view lie in, first, lifting the heavy hand of government from education. Decisions on starting and expanding an institution should be left to institutions, especially for institutions with a good track record.

Second, disband ‘electoral’ institutions in universities and empower ‘academic’ vice chancellors.

Third, give government aid to A grade institutions and stop giving it to non A grade institutions.

Fourth, move to a tenure track mode of selecting teachers, as in the US and Europe. At present, they are simply confirmed after a year. Given the bad quality of governance, this has the potential of turning away good teachers from teaching altogether.

Fifth, get the corporate sector involved in starting or supporting institutions from schools to universities. It is in their enlightened self-interest and they should use their CSR funds for this purpose. The important thing is to face reality and make real progress.

Read the full article

How Finland Keeps Kids Focused Through Free Play

The Atlantic has an interesting article on by Tim Walker on How Schools in Finland Keep Kids Focused Through Free Play.

Having come from the US, Walker was surprised by the Finnish school timetables:

Normally, students and teachers in Finland take a 15-minute break after every 45 minutes of instruction. During a typical break, students head outside to play and socialize with friends while teachers disappear to the lounge to chat over coffee.

It appears that To Walker, this seemed like typical European laziness. So he decided to fix it:

As a teacher in the United States, I’d spent several consecutive hours with my students in the classroom. And I was trying to replicate this model in Finland. The Finnish way seemed soft and I was convinced that kids learned better with longer stretches of instructional time.

The results were not what he expected. Students started rebelling and their performance went down. So he decided to embrace the Finnish way, and was surprised by the results:

Once I incorporated these short recesses into our timetable, I no longer saw feet-dragging, zombie-like kids in my classroom. Throughout the school year, my Finnish students would—without fail—enter the classroom with a bounce in their steps after a 15-minute break. And most importantly, they were more focused during lessons.

At first, I was convinced that I had made a groundbreaking discovery: frequent breaks kept students fresh throughout the day. But then I remembered that Finns have known this for years; they’ve been providing breaks to their students since the 1960s.

But is anecdotal evidence like this conclusive? Thankfully, we don’t have to rely on just Walker’s story. There is actually research by Anthony Pelligrini—author of Recess: Its Role in Education and Development and emeritus professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota—who has praised this approach for more than a decade.

Not satisfied with anecdotal evidence alone, Pellegrini and his colleagues ran a series of experiments at a public elementary school to explore the relationship between recess timing and attentiveness in the classroom. In every one of the experiments, students were more attentive after a break than before a break. They also found that the children were less attentive when the timing of the break was delayed—or in other words, when the lesson dragged on.

Sending children out for recess and then having to collect them again in a 15 minutes might not be practical for all schools. But, the interesting point is that the break does not have to be outside.

Although I favor the Finnish model, I realize that unleashing fifth graders on the playground every hour would be a huge shift for most schools. According to Pellegrini, breaks don’t have to be held outdoors to be beneficial. In one of his experiments at the public elementary school, students had their recess times inside the school and the results matched those of other experiments where students took their breaks outside

And the most important fact, that some people need to realize is that the converse is also true: Just because you give kids breaks, they are not going to be useful, if the activity during the breaks is directed by the teachers:

What’s most important is not where kids take breaks but how much freedom we give them from their structured work. When break times are teacher-directed, Pelligrini found, the recess loses its value. It’s free-play that gives students the opportunity to develop social competence. During these times, they not only rest and recharge—they also learn to cooperate, communicate, and compromise, all skills they need to succeed academically as well as in life.

Read the full article

Education: We need a national strategy – by @MeetaSengupta

@Meeta Sengupta in LiveMint talks about the need for a national strategy for education. There are various problems at various levels with our education system. Here are her suggestions on what the government needs to do to improve things:

  • Unbox Learning: […] Build on existing programmes to push content via multiple channels, create open libraries, let village school buildings become community learning centres after school time with open access to solar-powered connected computers. Commission science and reading vans, convert bus stops into educational game corners. Invest in creativity and research attitudes from the very beginning. Let learning be open to all, not just those who wear uniforms.
  • Unbind the education sector from these regulatory constraints, allow the private sector to participate and compete, and take on the role of good governance via agencies to ensure relentless focus on improving quality.
  • Build synergies between ministries. Let the digital literacy mission be integrated with the teachers’ mission. Vocational training and employability are inextricably linked with the labour ministry. Untangle the threads that do not allow student finance to flow freely, whether as loans, scholarships or vouchers.
  • The Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto and speeches spoke of maximum governance, minimum government. This is what education needs. Let the government provide oversight, not necessarily run operations

Read the full article where she goes into much more detail.

Skilling will power the India growth story (but there are challenges) – by @MeetaSengupta

@MeetaSengupta has an interesting article in the Hindustan Times talking about the challenges facing skills development in India

The first thing she does is point out that skills enhancement is extremely important for India, and our Demographic Dividend is useless unless we can educate all those people:

Skills development for employment and growth is on the front burner with a million new people to be trained and employed each month in India. The rise of this trained workforce is critical to India’s growth story — else who will power the engine? Without this soft infrastructure all investments in hard infrastructure are futile

Clearly, no one will disagree that across India people are interested in improving their skills, and that there are lots of companies interested in charging for training. In other words:

There is demand and supply, and yet the conversion to higher value addition  is lagging. What stands in the way?

Here are some of the problems as she sees them:

First: Accreditation

Who certifies that the skills that trainers provide are adequate and transferable across the industry? Certification must (i) be mobile, and (ii) provide an income boost.
[…]
Till the accreditation network is in place, operational and credible, few skills certificates have a market.

Second, Prior Learning Certification.

Experienced workers will not hop on to the skills bandwagon if you equate them with young starters. Give them credit for what they know, help them upgrade.

Third, Assessments.

Excerpt:

For example, the skills certification for driving licences in India has suffered because few believe it to be a credible test of skill.

There is more. Read the full article

How @BillGates caused a major education policy shift in the US: common standards

The Washington Post has a long article on how Bill Gates pulled off one of the swiftest shifts in US education policy – the common core revolution which asks for common standards of education across the various states and schools in the US.

Apparently, the problem they have is the opposite of the problem India has. Our education system is sluggish because of too much centralized control; their problem is the complete lack of centralized standards:

Coleman and Wilhoit told the Gateses that academic standards varied so wildly between states that high school diplomas had lost all meaning, that as many as 40 percent of college freshmen needed remedial classes and that U.S. students were falling behind their foreign competitors.

                      The pair also argued that a fragmented education system stifled innovation because textbook publishers and software developers were catering to a large number of small markets instead of exploring breakthrough products. That seemed to resonate with the man who led the creation of the world’s dominant computer operating system.

The biggest problem in any such major shift in education policy is that it is usually a highly politicized issue with lots of stakeholders all pulling in different directions, and hence any substantial change is almost impossible to push through the mess. That’s where Bill Gates, and the Gates Foundation comes in:

The Gates Foundation spread money across the political spectrum, to entities including the big teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, and business organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — groups that have clashed in the past but became vocal backers of the standards.

                      Money flowed to policy groups on the right and left, funding research by scholars of varying political persuasions who promoted the idea of common standards. Liberals at the Center for American Progress and conservatives affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council who routinely disagree on nearly every issue accepted Gates money and found common ground on the Common Core.

What exactly is the common core? Here is an example:

The math standards require students to learn multiple ways to solve problems and explain how they got their answers, while the English standards emphasize nonfiction and expect students to use evidence to back up oral and written arguments. The standards are not a curriculum but skills that students should acquire at each grade. How they are taught and materials used are decisions left to states and school districts.

Read the full article

India needs and education strategy by EduCable : Meeta Sengupta’s blog-The Times Of India

As we get ready for a new government, Meeta Sengupta has an interesting article where she acknowledges the achievements of our Education Policy so far, and charts out the way ahead

Here are some excerpts:

First, it would be graceful to acknowledge what went well, especially in the Education sector. Much was achieved including investments in infrastructure, near universal enrolment at the primary level, acknowledgement of the private sector contribution, the groundwork for the entry of foreign universities to India, the almost universal acceptance of the RTE Act (flawed as it is) and of course the slow but steady entry of technology in education.

and, as for the path forward:

The path forward is known and the structural gaps are identified. There can be nothing better to inherit for a team that knows that actions often speak larger than words. For example – it is acknowledged that Indian universities need to focus on research and international engagement to ride up the global rankings. (I of course advocate a diversified model for post secondary education that does not require all universities to fight for a spot on the same greasy pole). It is also clear that multiple accreditation bodies need to be set up with the blessings of the sector skills councils that represent the employer’s requirements  – these are to guide the content and certification of competencies to fill the skills gap. At the primary school level we know that qualified teacher gaps are a national emergency – this is already a national mission and must be executed well.

Read the full article

“Free Indian Science from Bureaucracy” – Mathai Joseph & Andrew Robinson

Nature has an interesting article by Mathai Joseph and Andrew Robinson who argue that Indian Science is being stifled by government bureaucracy and needs to be freed.

First, the government claims to care about science, but is not willing to invest in it:

Sadly, science and its administration, once seen as central to Indian development, are not currently on the agenda, despite some trenchant critiques from scientists and science policy-makers. Repeated government promises to increase the expenditure on research and development (R&D) to 2% of India’s gross domestic product have not been kept. R&D spend remains at about 0.9% of GDP — compared with 1.12% in Russia3 (down from 1.25% in 2009), 1.25% in Brazil and 1.84% in China2 (see ‘Brick benchmarking’).

And whatever science that does happen in India is limited by bureaucratic rules:

The basic problem is that Indian science has for too long been hamstrung by a bureaucratic mentality that values administrative power over scientific achievement. And, to preserve local control, research is still done mostly by small teams working in isolation rather than through collaboration — a key generator of impact

And the results of this bureaucracy are clear enough:

Today, although India ranks tenth in the world for output of scientific papers, it ranks 166th for average citations per paper (see go.nature.com/xl3ldg). Almost 20% of patents filed at the World Intellectual Property Organization in 2010 were from China, with just 1.9% from India (below Russia’s 2.1% but above Brazil’s 1.1%)

In other words, our scientific community is reacting as happens in any situation involving inflexible bureaucratic rules – by following the letter of the policy, but not the spirit.

Why is our scientific output so bad? The authors specify three important reasons:

First, scientists are promoted on the basis of years of service, rather than achievement, and once at the top they stay until retirement age; long after, in some cases. Even at the prestigious Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai, which is less rule-bound than many other institutions, research groups are almost invariably headed by those who have been there the longest.

and:

Second, although research in the leading institutions is well funded — with more money available than requested in credible grant applications, a striking contrast to the situation in many nations — the funding is subject to unsuitable restrictions applicable to the entire government bureaucracy. These include limited foreign travel and no travel support for research students, ruling out regular participation in leading conferences and research gatherings.

and finally:

Third, the movement of researchers from one institution to another is discouraged, because administrators prefer senior positions to be filled by internal promotion rather than lateral hiring.

Is there a solution?

More than two decades ago, the threat of imminent national bankruptcy forced India’s government to liberate its economy from the notorious ‘licence–permit raj’, which had strait-jacketed commerce and industry since 1947. What will it take in 2014 to reinvigorate India’s decrepit scientific empires, trapped for decades in a similarly rigid bureaucracy?

Instead of just complaining, the authors give 4 specific suggestions on what can be done:

The first step towards reinvigorating Indian science must be to create an empowered funding agency, staffed by working scientists, some of whom could be non-resident Indians

and:

A second step must be to ensure planned rotation of institutional roles and responsibilities.

and:

Third, the formation of trans-institutional groups that can undertake coordinated work in a few well-chosen areas should be encouraged at the funding stage.

and finally:

Fourth, how to spend that 2% of GDP when it finally materializes? Leading institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and many others are already well provided for, by any standards8. New research money should be spent on regenerating the scores of poorly provided university laboratories that lack the funds to procure and maintain modern scientific equipment; they currently receive only around 10% of the R&D budget but are expected to produce most of the country’s PhD

Read the full article – it has far more detail.

A simple yet BIG point – “Teachers need real feedback” – @TedTalk by @BillGates

@ShridharShukla points us to this TED Talk by Bill Gates, which focuses on the fact that everybody needs a teacher/coach to improve, but the one group of people who don’t get a coach or any useful feedback is teachers.

Some excerpts from the transcript:

Until recently, over 98 percent of teachers just got one word of feedback: Satisfactory. If all my bridge coach ever told me was that I was “satisfactory,” I would have no hope of ever getting better

He is talking about the US. Are there countries who do better?

out of all the places that do better than the U.S. in reading, how many of them have a formal system for helping teachers improve? Eleven out of 14.

Here’s what Shanghai does:

Let’s look at the best academic performer: the province of Shanghai, China. Now, they rank number one across the board, in reading, math and science, and one of the keys to Shanghai’s incredible success is the way they help teachers keep improving. They made sure that younger teachers get a chance to watch master teachers at work. They have weekly study groups, where teachers get together and talk about what’s working. They even require each teacher to observe and give feedback to their colleagues

The Gates Foundation has been experimenting with a teacher feedback system:

What would that system look like? Well, to find out, our foundation has been working with 3,000 teachers in districts across the country on a project called Measures of Effective Teaching. We had observers watch videos of teachers in the classroom and rate how they did on a range of practices. For example, did they ask their students challenging questions? Did they find multiple ways to explain an idea? We also had students fill out surveys with questions like, “Does your teacher know when the class understands a lesson?” “Do you learn to correct your mistakes?”

Does this work?

And what we found is very exciting. First, the teachers who did well on these observations had far better student outcomes. So it tells us we’re asking the right questions. And second, teachers in the program told us that these videos and these surveys from the students were very helpful diagnostic tools, because they pointed to specific places where they can improve

Feedback isn’t the only thing. Suggestions for improvement must also be made:

Diagnosing areas where a teacher needs to improve is only half the battle. We also have to give them the tools they need to act on the diagnosis. If you learn that you need to improve the way you teach fractions, you should be able to watch a video of the best person in the world teaching fractions.

What about resistance from teachers?

So building this complete teacher feedback and improvement system won’t be easy. For example, I know some teachers aren’t immediately comfortable with the idea of a camera in the classroom. That’s understandable, but our experience with MET suggests that if teachers manage the process, if they collect video in their own classrooms, and they pick the lessons they want to submit, a lot of them will be eager to participate.

See the full video or read the transcript

Our Maths education is broken because the curriculum is 1000 years old

Shrikant Patil points us to this interesting article on how the 1,000-year-old math curriculum cheats America’s kids

Imagine you had to take an art class in which you were taught how to paint a fence or a wall, but you were never shown the paintings of the great masters, and you weren’t even told that such paintings existed. Pretty soon you’d be asking, why study art?

                                       That's absurd, of course, but it's surprisingly close to the way we teach children mathematics.

That’s because the things we’re taught in school mathematics are all a 1000 years old (or much more):

Most of us never get to see the real mathematics because our current math curriculum is more than 1,000 years old. For example, the formula for solutions of quadratic equations was in al-Khwarizmi’s book published in 830, and Euclid laid the foundations of Euclidean geometry around 300 BC. If the same time warp were true in physics or biology, we wouldn’t know about the solar system, the atom and DNA. This creates an extraordinary educational gap for our kids, schools and society.

Just because something is old, we shouldn’t discard it; but we need to mix in some of the new with the old:

Of course, we still need to teach students multiplication tables, fractions and Euclidean geometry. But what if we spent just 20% of class time opening students’ eyes to the power and exquisite harmony of modern math? What if we showed them how these fascinating concepts apply to the real world, how the abstract meets the concrete? This would feed their natural curiosity, motivate them to study more and inspire them to engage math beyond the basic requirements — surely a more efficient way to spend class time than mindless memorization in preparation for standardized tests.

What is preventing us from doing this?

In my experience, kids are ready for this. It’s the adults that are hesitant.

Read the full article