Wednesday, 29 April 2009

entrance exam.

Just now, there is a program on TV. A gentleman is talking about IAS qualifying exam. He says that the aspirant must practise with old question papers such that when he/she sees an objective type question, the answer automatically comes to him/her...he says, once the aspirant starts thinking, he/she gets confused...the answer just comes to mind because of the amount of practice he/she has put in!!!!

This is what the coaching instt do ....he says it with pride, I say it with horror.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Manipal university has a new course BSc in animation. This is a good one.(but the course fees are not that good news--6lakhs).

They advertise that--

"The curriculum covers all the essential elements of animation training through a unique parallel track advancement programme, which incorporates:
Equal emphasis on traditional arts & digital techniques
Conceptual understanding & technical abilities
Hands-on workshops covering clay modelling & claymation, sculpting, puppetry, sound effects and theatre
Curriculum developed in conjunction with industry experts
Strong industry partnerships for placements "

I had posted before that we should have BSc in such areas and the course should teach skills as well as theory...more sound theory than the ITIs or polytechs do. This caters to those who want to get a BSc degree, but need to be employed well after that. Of course this example may not be the best, since the fees are high, but the idea is what I am talking about. No BSc Physics,Maths,Chemistry after which you dont get a job and you are not interested enough to go further for an MSc.

Monday, 27 April 2009

private universities?

"fund managers are focusing on this untapped segment to maximise returns"

The statement is the essence of private colleges. I dont know about private universities, but definitely, private colleges are viewed as a good source of income like a paan dukaan, or garment export. Some of the people who own colleges are local dadas who want to make a quick buck. The colleges are located in city centres on a main road in an apartment block. A couple of bedrooms are knocked together to make lecture rooms. For about one month in the year, these rooms are transformed into labs. About 25-30 students do their practicals in these 20'x12' rooms at one time that too chemistry practicals. The students don't pay very high fees. This and the fact that they are on bus routes make these colleges are very popular.

The teaching staff just come and teach 6 periods at a stretch and go home. They do not have any say in the college administration. They do not have any other role in the college.They are never made permanent and are always on contract basis for 9 months every year. They are paid a small salary (about 40-60% of the norm). The principal is also a dummy one with not much administrative role except the day-to-day running of the college. The owner holds the reins and his say is the ultimate in every aspect of college administration. Many of these owners are also local politicians (did I not say local dadas?) and some are not educated.

The low fees notwithstanding, these colleges make huge profits because they do not have much of capital expenditure (rented building and no labs) and have low running costs.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

IIT alumni

I was talking this morning to a person who recruits people for his company. They do analytical work and he recruits statisticians, mathematicians and some IITians. He says that nowadays, the IIT grads are not like they were in his days (he is from IITM). They lack inquisitiveness and creativity. He says they work to instructions, but show no creative problem solving skills.
I got on my favourite soap box. It is all because of the coaching classes.
I keep harping on this but I see the fallout regularly... and it has become worse of late...last 5 years or so.
Nowadays, coaching for IIT/Medicine starts in class 7 or 8.
Keeping 12 year olds inside a building for 10 hours a day , not encouraging language skills, arts, sports is not the way to produce creative people.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

thinking skills

Thinking critically is a skill that we need to live our lives. There are some good people working in science education-some NGOs, and the HBCSE. They have developed small interesting books on science. They develop kits to conduct small experiments using inexpensive materials. But often, these experiments are just that...experiments. One example:- blowing into a long narrow plastic bag. If you blow into it from a distance of a few inches, it fills up easily. If you blow with your mouth inside the bg, it takes a lot of effort. The demonstrator explains why. Fine.
But I really don't care why...I have never needed to blow into a huge long plastic bag. The thing is to explain daily-life processes--to teach critical thinking not as if it belongs to science.
In fact in our lives, we need to take decisions that must be done after critical thought...should I take up this job? should I give ORS to my sick child? should I get married? should I plant wheat or sugarcane?
and at a mundane level, should I take the umbrella with me today?
These are my day-to-day dilemmas. I must take proper decisions at each step I must think critically, weighing the pros and cons. I must be able to think out solutions to my daily problems, perhaps a creative solution. Teaching it as if it is the realm of science gives children an impression that only scientists need to think critically.
Thinking skills must be taught and taught using real life examples and activities.

Speaking of thermodynamics, what fascinates me is the thermodynamic miracle of life. Such perfect ordering. One doesn't need to know much to appreciate it. Most of us have all our biochemical reactions working perfectly with just tiny stepwise changes in free energy powering our hearts, muscles etc. And it happens day in and day out without a mistake. How can this happen? Most biochemical mechanisms(the little I know) are beautiful.

This was echoed by one student I mentioned earlier when I had explained the uptake of oxygen by hemoglobin....he stared at the blackboard and said "oh wow!!" I rarely find a student who truly appreciates science in this manner.

Monday, 20 April 2009

end of my holiday

My long vacation is coming to an end and soon it will be time to go back to the heat and the college routine. These six months were amazing....exploring villages in the hills, reading in the most quaint library I've seen, and trying out an experiment in teaching(not successful though).
The thesis was that 10-12 years old can be taught critical thinking.
There are two schools of thought..some believe that critical thinking must be embedded in regular teaching (infusion) ,while others believe it must be taught explicitly
I lean towards the latter.
So I went to this village school and told the principal that without disturbing their routine, I would like to try out an experiment.
My plan was that I would have a pretest, conduct my workshop,and after a few months I would have a post test. Lo behold!! the post test would be a dramatic improvement on the pretset and I would have a scientific basis for my claim that critical thinking can be taught.
Of course, it didn't workout. Some of the kids who came for the pretest attended two sessions and then said their mothers want them to come home early. In subsequent sessions, the demography was fluid...those who came one day, did not come the next, but came back after a few days. Real confusion. After a point I stopped figuring out who came for what and just had a bit of fun with the kids.

Sunday, 19 April 2009


In college, as I have already talked about, the people who taught me believed good teaching was reciting a textbook without looking at anything( note/book/paper). In fact one person never looked at anyone eye contact ever!!! I still cant understand how he could teach like that or why he did.... academia is full of weirdos.
Then I went to an institute. There, of course no one recited textbooks. A few were very good...taught me to like Chemistry again.But there were a few profs who believed teaching ignoramuses like us was beneath them. One particular prof taught (didnt) us thermodynamics. He regularly told us we were dumbos and wouldn't understand anything.... At that time, I accepted this because I (and all my classmates) did not understand much of what he taught. It is thanks to the system of relative grading we passed. Now I see that it was a failure on his part that none of us understood thermodynamics.
Teaching a class is fulfilling because you see faces concentrating on what you are saying, and suddenly many of them clear up..the faces suddenly's a good feeling.
That gentleman missed all the fun.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Occasionally, I get mail from my ex-students. It is heartening to hear that they are doing well. Some of them go on to join good institutions for their PhD. When I was teaching them, I knew they would do so. However, there is always one odd case where I am pleasantly surprised. Sometimes, suddenly, one old student comes to the college and tells me that he/she is doing well....a good business,or maybe an MBA, or even a PhD. That makes me really happy.
These are the moments that make teaching wonderful.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Classroom dynamics.

I am happy to see this link. Now there is good news for mothers -- that is another post
But more important, is the study of the class and how it works.
I don't know about small children (but I expect it is similar), but undergrad classes have an interesting dynamics. In most colleges, a group of students go through college together.
All classes are a mix of maybe 10-15% of students who are really interested in academics, about 40-50% who are there because they must study for some undiscovered reason, and the rest because they were put in college and told to get a degree of which a few are downright rowdies.
I teach these classes Chemistry for three years. (the % figures are just guesses though)
In some classes, the rowdies of the class,though few, make a great mark in it. The whole class slides. The once enthusiastic learners become apathetic and the once apathetic become useless. This trend starts by the middle of their first year and gains momentum throughout their stay in college. I lose the battle by their second year. I stop giving assignments(noone does them), or any extra inputs(noone cares) and just deliver my lecture and go home.
In other classes, the top 10-15% are the ones who dominate. The bright ones shine, lead discussions in class, ask questions. They make my lectures such fun, that I look forward to their class --and I have to read up well before such classes. These students end up in good institutions for their PG, go on to a research career.
The once apathetic ones perk up, do assignments, read what I ask them to read and by the end of three years, become quite good. Even the once rowdy elements, do a fairly good job and pass with decent marks. It is amazing and I never forget that class.
But try as I might, I cannot control the dynamics...I can only observe it.
I am not sure why...perhaps it is the numbers as the article says.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009


Unlearning is what we do in school nowadays.
A toddler is full of curiosity. Life with a 3 year old is full of questions. Why does the insect have a light (that was a glowworm) ? Then there was the question I had to answer everyday at bath time."what happens to this water you poured on me just now? Where does it go?" Then we put them in school.
Life in KG:-You have to stand in a line in kindergarten. You get a smack on the head if you don't. Have you ever seen a queue of adults at the post office or railway station? The line is as crooked as the proverbial drunken sailor's walk. Then why must 4 year olds know when tehy are not in line? How will they? You have to stand outside the line to be able to see that the line is crooked. Then why the smacking?
You must colour inside the lines. You must write between the lines. You must sing along with everyone's endless.
If you ask why, you are the class villain. After a few attempts at asking why, you stop. Even the most tenacious child stops asking questions by class 1.
Did you ask why our science education is not good?


Learning is a really complicated yet simple process. Neurobiologists and cognitive scientists would perhaps tell us how complex it is. But watch a child. How a baby learns to walk- it is truly amazing. It is so simple...all the baby does is try and try again, eventually it just walks as a matter of hype, no medal, it just walks----the learning is its own reward.

Monday, 13 April 2009

School education

I had a lovely time in the school where I studied from class 8 to class 11. Those days, we finished school by class 11.
The Principal of this school was an MA from Oxford. I never learnt what her subject of study was. However, she taught us Shakespeare, geography , and art at different times in my stay in that school. She once told us that she had taught all subjects except, hindi and sanskrit, at one time or the other.
The best of all these were her geography classes. Once a week, we had a geography walk. We would go for a long walk in the hills during which she would point out geographical features and discuss them. We would then sit and draw contour diagrams of some distant hill. On our way back, she would treat us all to a cup of tea at a roadside teastall. It was wonderful.
I loved those geography classes. I really learnt physical geography.
Nobody seems to like learning in schools nowadays.

Sunday, 12 April 2009


Parents of girl children, particularly those with conservative background, have this dichotomy within. They see successful women, wish their daughters similar success and hence educate them.
When a parent looks at a 10 year old daughter, he/she sees a great future for the child. But when the same daughter is 22, the parent feels that she must get married. One wants the best for our children and so feel we must not leave out anything.
Societal changes take a few generations and those in the in between generations, pay the price.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

The reasons for women giving up a good career in science or for that matter in any field, can be many. In the previous generation, it was usually social. Society had still not made up its mind about women taking up careers. On the one hand, daughters were educated to a great degree, on the other hand, these girls must grow up to be good wives and mothers. In many cases, in the tussle between the two roles, the career woman was lost.

The same society did not realise the loss it had incurred. How many scientists, lawyers, even doctors are lost to society because they had to spend most of their productive years in housework and child rearing.

Couple of generations before, litle girls were not educated. They were trained to keep house and rear children. They grew up to keep house and rear children. So there was no problem. The problem comes when girls are trained for a profession, but end up cooking and cleaning. Society loses trained human resource, the women lose out. That is the tragedy many women faced.

Nowadays, I see most girls train for a career, and manage to have a good career. Of course, even now, there are problems, but they are slowly being addressed.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

I have been cited after 25 years !!

After 25 years in the wilderness, some review article (in Coordination Chemistry Reviews) has cited four of my old(ancient) papers. Well, so I did some research...I wasn't imagining it. ---and I didn't "do" research.

Thanks to my son, I got a copy... getting hold of a paper is impossible for a lay person like me.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009


I have been reading some blogposts about how students spam various profs for internship. It must be annoying, but I think the fault does not lie with the students.
If the various professors saw the kind of schools and colleges they go to, they would not be surprised at all.
Science is taught as if it is a collection of facts, equations formulae and diagrams. If you get these right, you are a scientist.
Ever since the NAAC made research one of the criteria for getting a good report, all colleges want their teaching staff to "do research".
With no access to literature, current contents , reviews, many lecturers "do research". Their promotion depends on it. They also "do" PhD in the same fashion. One day they register, then suddenly, they submit and get their degree. They are in the college the whole day, never stay back in the evenings, may be do a couple of weeks of bench work in the vacation, and voila! they get their PhD.
So why are you surprised if students from such colleges want to "do" research for two weeks?

Monday, 6 April 2009

out of context

I was supposed to blog about education, but since I was uploading my photos, I couldn't resist putting a few up on all my blogs.
The WiS people are quite serious about their project. I am glad things are changing for the next generation of women scientists.
Many years ago, I used to watch the UGC programs regularly. One program was about Leelavati, the daughter of the ancient mathematician Bhaskara. He used to make up stories for his young daughter Leelavati. Each story was a mathematical problem and she had to figure it out. Later, when she grew up, she too became a great mathematician. I thought it was a lovely story.
The WiS has published a book 'Lilavati's daughters'

nice place I live in

politics and youth.

Just now, ndtv inerviewed some young people in a mall, about politics. I thought I was ignorant about politics, but one young man takes the cake...I like him, he's good for my ego.

interviewer: who is the candidate for the NDA this election?

young man:P V Narasimha Rao.

He has given a new meaning to the words "turning in his grave"

That's the educated urban youth for you.

Friday, 3 April 2009


They have built a robot that does scientific work!!
That's smarter than my friend who worked for his PhD along with me, in my lab. Most mornings, his guide(research supervisor..I see the terminology has changed since my time) would come up to our lab, hand him some small bottle and say"make a 0.01M solution of this and titrate your sample using XX indicator and then report the titre value to me".
He got his PhD much before I did...probably his guide got tired of his daily trip upstairs to our lab.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

An explanation

A valid comment by Shantanu, so here's a link to a brief description of Bloom's taxonomy.
...there is more on this, called the "new Bloom", where creativity is given more importance than was originally given by Benjamin Bloom. WiS refers to Women in Science , a project taken up by some women scientists and the Indian Academy of sciences(IAS).
The project is trying to establish the causes that led many women to leave a career in scientific research midway. It hopes to address this issue and make it easier for women to pursue a career in scientific research.

Bloom's taxonomy

The teaching in all or most of our colleges, including my classes, never go beyond the first tier in Bloom's pyramid.
I teach Coordination chemistry to BSc students and have to go over Werner's hypothesis. The class goes like this:-
"you know, he put forth this hypothesis before the discovery of the
electron "
I get blank looks
"That's intuitive isnt it? isn't it amazing?"
Then I give least for that year. Again next time I teach, the same script is rerun like an old serial.

I watch this TV show called Blue Bloods. It is about a family of New York Police Department officers. The show is fictional and makes all ...