'Technology is a good delivery mechanism, but you cannot replace teachers'

Indian parents still consider research and science as the last option after engineering and medical for their children. There are not many pure science-focused research universities in the country. But, if the country needs to look at long-term progress, students should be trained in basic science and learning should be fun. 

“This can be achieved by training the educators, thereby reaching millions of school students,” says S D SHIBULAL, co-founder Infosys and president of the Board of Trustees, Infosys Science Foundation, in an interview with Ayan Pramanik and Raghu Krishnan. Edited excerpts:

How has been the progress of Infosys Science Foundation during the past eight years?

We had started the Mathematics Prize before and once we realised the impact, then we set up the Science Foundation. The purpose of the award is to recognise people for outstanding achievement, but more important is to create role models for youngsters.

This has become an aspirational award. When I talk to scientists, they are looking forward to this prize and many of the winners have gone on to do bigger things and have been recognised further like (former Reserve Bank governor) Raghuram Rajan, we have (Department of Biotechnology secretary) K Vijay Raghavan, and (fields medals winner) Manjul Bhargava. We have launched a number of programmes; connecting with the Prize is the Infosys Science Foundation lectures that is the way to take science to the common man - both in rural and urban places. This has been going on for 3-4 years. We have to start with the children as our education system discourages curiosity among students.

This year, we have started a deep-dive in physics. An initiative called Immersion Program, where we have taken 50 children through an application process and taken them to Regional Institute of Education, Mysuru, from all over India. We have some of the best teachers teaching physics. The pilot programme has started this year. We want to also teach Mathematics this way.

How has been science education during the past decade in the country?

If you look at the recent government activities, there have been a lot of focus on basic science. First of all, our school education is very broad-based and not experience-oriented. We don't have many research universities. Most universities are education-oriented but we need to have more research-based universities and there has to be a link with the research work and the industry. Some of the research work are also based on what the industry needs. Outside India, there is a close link between research and industry.

India is a country where issues are there in almost everything - healthcare, sanitation, water, education, etc. Many of the problems need local solutions and some can be solved using basic science.

There has been enough talk about quality of education. How do you solve this problem of academic focus versus improving concepts of basic science?

If you look at courses in CBSE and ICSE, they are starting to make the shift. But, the challenge is also to change teachers' mindset. That is where a programme like Gnanadeepa will make sense. We are working with Agastya International Foundation to train teachers from rural schools, where they have a concept called mobile science labs to reach out to schools in villages.

How do you plan to take it to the national level?

Most parents are asking their children to take up either engineering or medical streams. The idea is to promote research as a career in life. There is a re-thinking happening. The winners are either taking up bigger responsibilities or interacting with different stakeholders. They're the ones who should influence the ecosystem. We are creating agents of change. That is one path we have chosen. These numbers are not small. Under Gnanadeepa, we are training 2,400 teachers. When they get out of the training, they are expected to teach at least 100 students each. The most important thing for us is also to understand the impact.

People say technology can be used to deliver courses...

Our eco-system is very large and it takes time to implement things. There is a will and sense of need; sometimes sense of urgency is slightly less. The scale is daunting. Technology can be used as a delivery mechanism but you cannot replace the person.

Do you see people who are experienced in labs will get into teaching in rural areas?

We need to figure out a way to give them respect. There are enough good teachers in the system, but we need a lot more. Their ability to come out with the research work or idea and commercialising is still difficult. Outside India, that ability and framework are there. I'm hoping the government will create those frameworks here.

Are you seeing a reverse brain drain in science in India?

Definitely, there is a reverse brain drain, especially in the commercial space. But, not in the field of science.

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