Monday, 23 December 2013

School Science Fair

After a couple of weeks of  very hard work, the science exhibition at the school got done. The 5th class children had done some charts........leaves, flowers and fruits in and around their campus. The 6th and 7th had a little more ambitious projects. Of these, a few worked quite hard while some children expected me to do it all for them and thought they just had to stand there and talk a bit. Of the few good ones was this 5th class boy who did some work for ALL the projects. He helped build the clay mountain with hidden  funnel and tube for the hydel plant, he built the  volcano with a hidden bottle for the soda volcano, he made a car with a cardboard carton for a balloon driven car,  he helped me with the solar oven and with my first unsuccessful biogas plant. I was very impressed with this little boy. There were others who did well too. One project that I did not even have to touch was the "Braino"....made totally by a 6th class  boy.  I just had to explain how the connections were to be made. After a couple of false starts, he got it right.
There was this girl who had heard about chromatography  and insisted on doing it. I tried to discourage it since I did not feel I could explain to them the principle behind it well enough for a 6th class child to understand. Finally, I used a strip of paper kitchen towel and separated green ink using water as mobile phase. The girl who had made a model of a solar oven and the boy who had made a model hydel did an excellent job of explaining what  their model was about.
My saviours in this whole episode were two young women who were studying for their MPharm. They had a break while they were waiting for some company to organise their internship. They helped me with some of the work, specially in view of my miserably inadequate Telugu, they could translate  what I said to make the younger kids understand.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Dropping out of MOOCs

I am the kind of person who works very hard when compelled to - I need deadlines or some such pressure to work hard. But, if someone told me that there was this rewarding work that  I could do if I wished to, it would never get done.
So, when I registered for a couple of Coursera courses, I told myself that I must see these through and prove to myself that I can motivate myself without external pressures. Guess what- I haven't completed the courses. No surprise.
But it is almost everyone- not just me. There is a  90% dropout by one estimate.  
"Some users -- including stay-at-home parents or retirees -- may sign up for the same reason they do a Sunday crossword puzzle, said Yvonne Belanger, the head of assessment and planning for the Center for Instructional Technology at Duke University.
But I swear my reason for enrolling is not the same as that common to the retirees mentioned here.
I was really interested in the courses, but somehow day to day chores always go up on my list of priorities.

Friday, 29 November 2013


As I had mentioned before, I go to this school in a neighbouring village  where, at present, I am trying to set up a 'Science Exhibition" for the 5th, 6th and 7th class children. I was reading the Environmental Studies text for the 5th class. It is surprisingly  broad in its coverage and goes further than the cliches... it gives anecdotal write ups about a shepherd in Palamuru, a cotton farmer, a poultry farmer and their problems. Then, there is a chapter on nutrition  and food pyramid, on our body, forest and tribal life, transport, one on safety and first aid, one on child labour. Then it covers the atmosphere,  energy sources,some basic geography and a bit of history etc.......There are some good things about it, and some deficiencies. The good thing is, it sensitises urban children to lives they otherwise do not get to even see. The bad thing is that it  takes on too many things and does not do justice. I think I learnt considerably more geography than this.
One other thing is that the publishers and editors have no concern for language. It is in English meant for English medium schools. At the age of 10 or 11, if they read a book with grammatical errors, they are going to learn just that. Language skill needs to be nurtured right from the beginning. After learning to say "he tell to me" and "he enquired me" till the age of 15, the child cannot suddenly change.
Lastly, there is a page that says
"I am an earthworm. I make the soil fertile......."
"I am a snake. I help farmers by swallowing rats......"
"I am tykrograma. The scientists from I C A R created me. My life span is only one week. I destroy the eggs of enemy insects that infect crops..."
I have looked up Google search, and ICAR website. I cannot find out what tykrograma is. I am curious.

PS:  The NBAII lists biopesticides.............There I found  Trichogramma australicum , T Brasiliensis etc. which act against sugarcane borer. I am relieved, but what about the generations of children who are looking for the mysterious tykograma?

Friday, 22 November 2013


 Why are Americans complaining  about their jobs being outsourced? Look at our police...THEY have outsourced their jobs and are quite happy to do so.  If someone is robbed at an ATM, the ATM people should deal with if there is a mugging or murder outside your house, you are at fault....why did you not post a security guard outside your gate? That's why Tehelka has not filed a police complaint yet. They are still looking for the agency that rape investigations are outsourced to.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Economist has an article on the dangers of an education system that focuses on competitive examinations.
Is education getting any less frenzied in India? Getting up at 3.30 am to go to an IIT coaching class from 4.30 am since when you are 15; writing 20 entrance tests...
Then there are these random aunties asking you why you are not in an IIT when both your parents went there (it happened to my son)
Are there perhaps a few smaller number of parents who put their children through this torture?

Sunday, 27 October 2013

drinks chiller

I had once wondered if the Ranque Hilsch vortex could not be used to make cheaper air cooling systems. Here's a drink cooler using another/similar vortex. Awesome! just cool it when you need it and the fridge space can be freed!

Monday, 21 October 2013

Never look at the big picture.

Reading a blogpost on open access reminded me of how closed access is sometimes.
When my younger kid started nursery school, I thought that the 3 hours she was in school could be spent reading up on current research. So I went to a research institution in the city, and asked their librarian if I may just read in their library. He was very nice about it and even got me a temporary pass made. However, he soon got transferred out. The next person was downright scandalised that I was using the library.  He said that I must pay Rs2500/ per annum. That was a large sum in 1990  and I wasn't earning a single paisa. So I had to give it up.
His logic was that my reading /leafing through journals would make it necessary  for more frequent rebinding and costs would go up. He really said this!!
This institution is funded by public money. I am a member of the said public. No one is likely to browse through JCS Dalton or Spectrochimica Acta to pass the time of the day till the movie started, or some such thing....JACS is not Femina! In fact after a gap of 6 years, I had to struggle to get through a review article and usually took quite a few visits to complete reading one. So why would the librarian not encourage the few people who wished to read journals? It is the effect of being in a bureaucracy.  Never look at the big picture...only read the fine print.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

A lesson for our state universities

One has to set some learning goals and stick with them  no matter how disgruntled the teachers and students are. Students may fail if they cannot learn what they are supposed to.
Our state universities have this policy of improving their "score" of numbers who graduate.  Hence the learning goal post is moved closer every time there is a curriculum "revision".
I used to teach more advanced topics 10 years ago than I did when I retired.

Monday, 14 October 2013

PhD and college teaching again

Whether a teacher in a college must have a PhD in order to be effective is an issue. I am of the opinion that being a good teacher has little to do with a PhD, but I do not have any data to  support this.
Here is an article-
"Data produced by the Glendale common final system enabled me to study how student learning varies across the classrooms of different instructors. On average, full-time instructors outperformed their part-time colleagues, and students learned more in the classrooms of instructors with an M.A. than those with a Ph.D. But the identity of indivdual instructor was a much stronger predictor of student performance than any specific characteristic." 

Read more: 
Inside Higher Ed 

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

this and that

I have a set of aunts and uncles who would keep saying that the water woes of Madras can be instantly solved if they desalinate the sea water and denounce the government for not doing so.
They also used to say that "it is so simple - just connect all the rivers of India - it will solve all our water woes". When young I did not see it, but as I grew up, I saw that they all think in black and white. I begin to suspect it is a typical of Madras-living Tam brahm 'mamas and mamis' of that generation.

I was reminded of this when I just heard a talk by Subranium Swamy where he gives nice facile solutions to all problems in the country.
"Connect all the rivers"
"Bring back all the money stashed in the Swiss banks" etc

His target audience......Mylapore mamas and mamis.

 A study on river linking in a region of India. They highlight some of the problems.

Swamy is an economist. I am sure he knows better than anyone else the consequence of infusing large amounts of money into our, or any, country.

As for my uncles' desalination scheme:-
According to Wikipedia, sea water has  3.5% salt on an average. A conservative estimate is that 1 million people will require 250 million litres of water per day for domestic use.  If they all rely on sea water, that would generate about 8000 Kg of salt per day on desalination. Assuming Chennai has about 5 million people, that is 40000 Kg of salt produced per day.  How much of this will get used by industries? Where will we put the remaining?

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

contract teachers

In the college I used to work in, the staff -- both teaching and non teaching were recruited through some selection process and put on a consolidated pay. After 4 years, they were put on a pay scale and their services regularised. Those recruited, barring a very few,  were usually very keen to work and put in their best efforts. But once their services were regularised, many of them slacked off. This was glaringly evident in the behaviour of the support staff. The cleaning ladies would just vanish from sight and if there was something to be cleaned in the lab, we had to do it ourselves. I have spent many hours cleaning conical flasks and beakers. This difference was not so glaring amongst the teaching staff-- perhaps because their primary job is teaching and one does not like to stand in front of 50 young people and teach badly if one can help it -- but still, the enthusiasm was considerably less after regularisation.

A report thanks to this blogpost. This study shows that recruiting contract teachers in govt. schools improved the quality of education considerably. The contract teachers were much more regular in their attendance and did their jobs better compared to the 'regular' teachers.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Electric cars

Most people think I am nuts when I say that electric cars charged at our household electric supply are more polluting than well-maintained petrol cars.  Here's a lifecycle costing.
So, unless it is charged by solar power, and until we get better long-living batteries, I am not a fan  of electric cars. And, if all this happens, it may be unaffordable. 

Monday, 23 September 2013

mental bandwidth

In a totally different context, this mental bandwidth occupancy is the main reason why  many women find it so difficult to do research or any seriously creative work after having children. Issues like "is there enough milk in the house", " is kid2 developing a flu", "what should I make for dinner when guests are expected", "did kid1 finish his project"  are not earth shattering, important issues. But these are the things that need immediate attention and HAVE to be done.
Hence, focusing on that research paper, or solving that problem of internal coordinate redundancy gets very difficult.
By tradition, or conditioning, most men do not seem to have these worries. Anyway, wife will attend to it, so why worry!!

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

A boy genius

There is this article in yesterday's Deccan Chronicle. A thirteen year old boy believes that "the quantum theory is not right" and the "Big Bang theory by Stephen Hawking needs to be expanded a lot more more".
Whether the quantum theory is wrong or not, is another issue. I am sure theories will undergo modifications as they always have.
Perhaps this boy really is a genius, and self confidence is a good thing. However, to believe at age 13, that one is really on the verge of proving that the quantum theory is wrong, is something else.
His credentials are that he can perform 100 multiplications of 2 digit numbers in 4 minutes and 46 seconds and various similar feats.
PS- Coincidentally, I just went on to read an interesting post.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

It always seems strange to me when someone advertises a HD TV on television. The ad. demonstrates to us how good the image quality is........duh! ...... If I saw good quality image on my 1998 vintage BPL TV, why would I need a HD TV?

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Undergrad teaching and research.

I have said before that a person teaching undergrads  need not be a fact, research takes away time from teaching and vice versa.  My opinion is based only on my observations , but here is a paper 

Friday, 6 September 2013

teachers' day

A few students made my day. I got such nice messages from some of them. Particularly, one long conversation on the phone with a student who has now joined for an MSc in Organic Chemistry.

I call my PhD guide on the phone once in a way and his wife says he enjoys his chats with me.
During  the work for my PhD,  my guide had a hands off method of guiding students (which suited me best), unlike a colleague of his who would micro-manage his student's work in the lab.
But what  I tried to learn from him, is to live life in a a balanced manner. Most importantly he was unflappable. It had a calming effect during the many crises that came up during the course of my doctoral studies. I owe him a lot for that.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013


There was this vague talk a few years back that the GHMC(greater hyderabad municipal corporation) was planning to dig up all the roads and lay one large pipeline all over the city. Any one needing to lay cable/pipe, must rent this pipeline and just thread their cable through this pipeline. It would fetch revenue for the GHMC, minimise the work for the canle laying organisation and best of all, save us, the common people from the relentless digging up of roads.
As with all good ideas, it fell by the wayside.
Two years back, the electricity supplier, APTRANSCO dug up all the major roads ..some 10-15 ft wide and 10 ft deep (I think), causing a drive to buy vegetables, to become a matter of life and death. You could, at anytime, be edged into the seemingly bottomless pit with your car. I had to watch helplessly a couple of times, when a tractor/car scraped and dented my car since there was no space to move away. After about a year, they filled up these trenches. However, one monsoon later, these patched up part of the roads sank. Now we have free roller coaster rides on our way to work.
This  whole exercise was meant to convert all overhead electric lines to underground cables. Now, two years later, there are no underground cables, only uneven roads to remind us of our ordeals. 

crime and punishment

Today the auto drivers are off the roads . They are protesting against the steep increase in the fines to be imposed for traffic violations. The traffic police of Hyderabad have adjusted for inflation and have decreed that jumping red light, which used to cost Rs.200, will now cost Rs 1000, drunken driving will attract larger fines.
Next all murderers are planning to go on strike............culpable homicide should merit a punishment of no more than 20 days in jail and the All India Union of Bank Robbers say they must be let off with a week in prison.
India is a democratic country. We all have the right to commit offences with impunity.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

when criminals fall out

When someone is jailed for a crime committed at another's behest, should he expose evidence against the mastermind  in small installments ?  If he provides  the evidence all at one go, in a surprise move, the danger of his being murdered in prison is less, for he has already exposed all he knew, and can say no more. If he just hints at a few clues, he can be murdered so that he really can say no more.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

A blog post that I found interesting 
As a child, I thought this story very funny.........a man sells the Taj mahal to a rich tourist and other versions of this.
 It's not funny anymore since it is really happening. Sell forest land to mining compnies, sell farm lands to real estate promoters...  

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

village school

It educative to see what problems a small school faces. I went to this school run by a group of women who offer their services voluntarily. It is a free school with children in classes LKG to seventh. They do not have much money and run on donations received. They pay a small salary to about six teachers. They give the children a hot meal of kichidi cooked in the school kitchen. Other volunteers help them in teaching and with the administration. But the problem is, the school is approached through a village road. The long spells of rain have left pits up to 3 ft deep all along this road. No volunteer is willing  to visit them. I myself did not visit the school for the past few weeks, since I was afraid to drive my old car over those roads. So the ladies running the school are now trying to fill up the potholes in the roads themselves since the graam panchayat is not willing to so.
In addition to running the school, they are now into road building.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

the business of politics

Today I met this person who seemed clued up about this Telangana issue. I asked him whether Ongole is really being considered as the capital city for Andhra. He said that influential people buy land in Ongole and then start a rumour that Ongole is going to be the new capital.  The real estate prices start soaring. They sell and move out. They then buy land in Vijayawada and start rumours about Vijayawada............This can be done quite a number of times......Vizag, Guntur, Cuddapah..........making a number of killings. 

Monday, 5 August 2013


I have two children, now grown up. When they were young, I was annoyed most days by their bickerings.......if I pull up one  of them for an offence, the defense would not be about that particular offence, but an accusation that when the other sibling did something comparable, I said nothing so why am I doing so now................Usually, I would not have any recollection of this previous offence, which would put me on the backfoot.
I am sure most parents of young children have the same experience.

Politicians do the to BJP about Gujarat riots, they say what about Congress and the anti Sikh riots.  CM of UP says what about Mayawati ill-treating IAS officers? So if someone commits a crime, it's now open season on that particular crime.
My children's bickering comes to mind every time.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013


I think current events are becoming  a great source of entertainment. It's just like a farce or a cartoon.
I commit fraud, I investigate it myself, I clear myself of all charges and reinstate myself. Like being the king of an uninhabited island........we are just watching mouths agape!!

Telangana is not entertainment, is worrisome wondering if they will make a mess of it,  or will the smaller states  indeed, be better governed.

Friday, 26 July 2013

A repeat post

I have already mentioned this before in this blog, but when the government introduces new institutions, there must be no disconnect. An example is this--
The criterion for employing faculty in  state universities and affiliated colleges is that the person must have an MSc in the subject that they are going to teach. They should  have scored at least 55% in the MSc. This is the basic criterion on which selection is made.
If a person has a PhD/MPhil, they get additional points or if they have cleared the NET/SLET exam, they get a few points. Teaching experience gives some more points.
If a person has an MSc in Botany, but a PhD with work done on a Microbiology topic, he/she can be employed only in the Botany department NOT the Microbiology department. (This  happened to a colleague who was told she could never be made a permanent employee in the Microbiology department). The university will not ratify the appointment even if the college makes it, and she is not entitled to the pay-scales approved by UGC.
Now, if the  government sets up institutions that give an integrated MS/MSc without a specialisation, then these graduates are not eligible for a post in state university or its affiliated colleges. They have to have  MSc Biochemistry or MSc Botany etc ...
While it may be true that none of  the graduates who pass from elite institutes will teach in a college affiliated to a state university, should the government itself  make it impossible for those few idealists who do wish to do so? If the government itself feels the state universities don't count, how will they improve?
Either introduce specialisation in all institutions or better still, remove this silly rule that MSc has to be in the same subject.  Surely the recruitment committee can determine if the person is knowledgeable in the subject she is going to teach !
This particular friend I mentioned, though with an MSc Botany, was definitely a Microbiologist and the requirement was for faculty in Microbiology.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

A trip long ago.

During my school days, I used to live in this hill station where I had the good fortune to study at an excellent school.
One of my friends had heard that there was a vaccine production institute nearby........about 10 -15 km away. We were all keen to see this and decided to go and see how vaccines are made. One holiday, we packed some picnic lunch and walked down. It was all downhill, so we had a good walk down to the institute. There we saw how they produced anti rabies retrospect, cruel and with no bio-hazard containment.....absolutely none, as far as I can remember. The infected sheep from whose spinal fluid the vaccine is made, were just kept in a pen in the garden.
We ate our picnic lunches and started walking back. Now this was all uphill obviously, and we were really tired. One of us pretended to be ill and lay on the grass beside the road while the rest tried to flag down a passing vehicle. After a lot of disappointments, we got a ride back in a tempo.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Unconventional schools

Long back, when my son was 3 years old, I saw this ad painted on a wall "Centre for Learning". It turned out to be school that was different........they taught in an unconventional manner. I  seriously contemplated  enrolling my son in that school, but decided not to since I felt that after school, he may not be able to fit into the conventional methods in college.
The school is still running. But they do not send the children for any board exam. The children have to write it as  private candidates if they wish to. Now, with the RTE, they are no longer permitted to run it as a proper school. So they teach in the afternoons only.
At the age of 3, we the parents, decide that the child is not going to be in the mainstream. While it maybe very good for actual learning, if the child wishes to study some conventional college course, it will be very difficult to get admission in a good college.
I think we do not have the right to close doors for our children. If the child gets a conventional education, he /she can drop out later and do something unconventional , or go on  to a conventional college education. . He/she has the choice.  But without accepted schooling, the choices are limited. For example, one cannot be a doctor without going to an established medical college.
With all its faults, we cannot deprive our children the right to a conventional education.

However, it can be argued that by enrolling our children in such schools, we are educating them better and they are learning better. Thus placing them in conventional schools when these choices are available is depriving the child of its right to good education.

So, the only thing to do is to improve conventional schools.

old bungalows

Whatever the British may have done or not done, they left behind beautiful bungalows. The Secunderabad cantonment has many. There is one in which Winston Churchill lived as a captain.
Most cantonments have these wonderful old houses with huge gardens, high ceilings. They all have ventilators high up near the roof which really keeps the house cool in summer.They are maintained fairly well by the army. Consequently, what an army officer calls home can range from a single room in a converted barrack, housing the officer, his wife and two kids, to a 10 roomed bungalow with outhouses, stables and  a garden big enough to grow wheat and rice. But one adapts. One enjoys both-- though I must say the one-room barrack comes when there are dozens of nappies to be dried  and the 10 roomed house comes when the children are away and the officer and his wife are the only occupants.

The hill stations have different kinds of bungalows. These are not high ceilinged. They look like large cottages and usually have an attic on the roof. They usually have climber rose or nasturtiums growing up the front. I love these bungalows. I lived in one in my childhood. Inspite of the scorpion that fell from the roof on to my mother's bed, and the loose floorboards,  I loved it. One monsoon, a spring sprang up behind my bedroom and every night, I would listen to its gurgle before dropping off to sleep. The spring dried up after that year.

Tamil isai

 My mother has started a blog on Tamil music.
For anyone who is interested in music and reads Tamil, my mother's blog about Tamil music is at-

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

to share or not to share

Our college has a few short courses in addition to the regular courses of the university. One of these we did was an introduction to bioinformatics. The person teaching this had to take a few days off and requested me to teach mass spectrometry of proteins and other such large molecules.
I had to read up a lot to teach this, since I did not remember anything beyond Aston's mass spectrograph and vaguely remembered  the term McLafferty rearrangement.
I learnt that the ion trap used in some mass spectrometers was based on the quadropole mass filter co-invented by a physicist Wolfgang Paul, who won the Nobel for this. The more famous Wolfgang Pauli referred to him as "my real part" !!
I thought of sharing this bit of humour with my students, but did not. Sadly, none of them would have understood the joke. 

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Study in the midst of saree shops

In case some people do not believe me when I talk of  colleges in Hyderabad, here's a college called simply "Vijay"- where they conduct an MSc course in Biochemistry.

The area, Dilsukhnagar, has more colleges than one can count... all housed in apartment buildings along the main road where the ground floors are occupied by saree shops and eating joints. 
A plus point is that you don't need a college canteen!
There is the  bus terminus, and a little ahead  one of the three largest fruit markets of Hyderabad.
This area is the main shopping area for places surrounding it.
If you study here, you can do your shopping easily.........just pop out when the lecturer starts taking  attendance and you are back before your roll number comes up.


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Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Clothes again

After the stint at the college, I went to an IIT. There were boys who wore what I think were the same pair of jeans for 4 years out of the 5 they spent there  (those days it was 5yrs for BTech). The day they joined, they stopped shaving (where's the time if you get up at 7 45 for the 8 am class).  So someone would say "This is  Vikram" and a bearded face would nod and say "Hello" ...or "This is Alok" and a slightly, imperceptibly different bearded face would nod. Both wore identical jeans of indeterminate color which was allegedly blue when it was in the shop.
Come  placement beards, no dirty jeans. Bright young men with clean shaven faces, wearing nice shirts and well tailored would need to be re-introduced to figure out which of them was Vikram and which was Alok.

Monday, 1 July 2013


"But the image of women in science is that of someone whose hair is disheveled and who does not care about beauty".

Our college had Honours courses in Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics and English. We, who studied Chemistry had practicals four days a week. On these four days, we wore clothes that were just about passable-- decent in terms of modesty, but not too decent in terms of quality-usually, they had holes and burns in them. So that left us with two days in a week to wear the kind of clothes college girls love to wear. But I soon found that I rarely used the opportunity to wear nice clothes even on those two days. I have formed a lifelong mindset where for a workday, clothes get very low priority. We envied the English Hons girls who were always well dressed .....they were the fashion queens of the college!

Sunday, 16 June 2013


A quote from a link in nanopolitan
" students put in more effort, but the effort was not effective at producing test scores given their lack of knowledge of how to translate effort into output," Fryer said."
This was a study to see if motivational messages improved student performance.

This is what I have observed in my students too. I can make them see that they need to improve performance, but it is very difficult for them to find out actually how to do that. One can give advice   ad nauseam, but it doesn't work. How each person does something has to come from inside him, it cannot be taught.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

eTechno schools in Hyderabad

The Andhra Pradesh government had notified that  schools can no longer have fancy suffixes to their names. Schools in AP have names like XX Concept school, YY  e-Techno school (whatever that means). They  also carry names like Olympiad academies or IIT schools -many variations on similar lines. Parents pay the high fees such nomenclature attracts.
 But it seems the schools decided not to follow  the govt ruling.
 When I first came to Hyderabad, there were schools named St ABC Grammar High School.
The British had set up Grammar schools, which were supposed to focus on teaching classical languages and language skills in general-- well grammar I suppose. Hyderabad has one known as the St George's Grammar school which was started in the late 19th century. Hence tiny schools set up in small tenements started  calling themselves St ABC Grammar High School.
Then came the great IIT dream. So schools sprung up with the letters IIT tagged somewhere.
When everyone started using this tag, some of the enterprising people started looking for other tags. Then came a spate of "techno" schools and "e-techno" schools.
Then some people felt these schools do not focus on concepts in science, but only make the children mug up stuff. So next we got "concept" schools. These still do not teach fundamentals, but by adding the suffix, all problems are solved. So now we have Concept schools.
There was some talk that schools must nurture talent. Schools change their names from XX techno to  XX Talent schools.
I believe the next great thing is IAS coaching. We must start  preparing the children from the pre primary to get them to pass the IAS. The Constitution of India must be memorised by the 3rd std and then we can go to Economics and current events in the 4th std ......only we must make them memorise current events for 2024-25 which is when they will be writing the exam.

Monday, 10 June 2013


The BSNL tech support person has a very good answer to all my problems. If anything goes wrong with my connection, I must change my modem. "I just bought it two years ago"
"madam, nowadays all these gadgets are use and throw-- two years is a long time".
Somehow my problem got solved on its own or maybe by some magic.
Next time,  after a couple more years, we had a re run.
The new modem had to be from this particular shop he knows. Others don't work...again magic!
I defied the pronouncement of the guru and bought a D LINK from another shop.
Sometimes my modem stops working , I just have to switch it off and on again---lo behold! it works. Same ritual for the TV set top box.
I have this old laptop that has to be switched on- wait for a second, switch off- wait for a couple of minutes- switch on. THEN it comes on - never at the first go. The whole ritual has to be followed every single time.
I am beginning to believe gadgets are the new religon and their rituals need to be followed for the
well-being of human kind.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Driving in Hyderabad is very good for my self esteem. People who have never before set eyes on me think I am an excellent driver. They have great confidence in my abilities. Maybe my appearance  says "she's an excellent driver and has perfect control over her car".
How else do you explain the daily occurrence of incidents like this.............
today a young man overtook me from the right, swerved to his left about three feet from my car and turned into a side road...
or when a man suddenly decided to cross the road when I was a few feet away, confident that I would apply my brakes and not hit him......
or the numerous times when bikes decide to overtake me from the left
or the few times when they do overtake me from the right...... just when, with hand outstretched and signal blinking, I turn into a lane on the right.
I must have that look of an extremely capable driver!!

Monday, 3 June 2013


To continue from my previous post, I think people who advocate that college teachers must be involved in research, do not know what  an average college student looks like, nor are they familiar with an average college teacher.
An average college student is not greatly interested in the subjects being taught. He just needs a degree and is willing to learn enough to pass his exams with good marks. He is not sure what any of the theories he learns actually mean. His verbal skills are not developed enough for him to take part in or even just  follow complex arguments. He does not read anything except the prescribed textbook.

A successful student learns by reading lecture notes or textbooks many times so that the words "valence bond theory" automatically produce a set of  six "points" in his mind that he can write down in the exam.  If he recalls only four, he will go back to his books and see that he gets the missing two. THIS is the successful student who scores good marks in his BSc exams.
The not-so successful student reads the exam "guides" two days before the exam and manages a creditable 40% mark and completes his BSc.
The remaining students attend few classes and recognise the subject being taught only by the face of the lecturer-- Dr LS teaches General Chemistry and Inorganic Chemistry therefore this must be either the Gen Chemistry class or the Inorg Chem class.  A few are unable to make even these deductions and vaguely think "this must be Chemistry''.
A  few students who are skilled and interested and hard working, do come to our college.  For these few, we sometimes have discussions.....may be one-on-one or in small groups to encourage them.  Some of them do summer projects; some give talks on subjects of their choice. We organise external lectures where eminent scientists come and talk to them on a regular basis. We have a science club for discussions. (Years ago, I was totally impressed with a student talk on HIV, where I learnt a lot) 
But the whole system cannot be tailored for these few. The system has to cater to the be taught routinely, prepared for exams and given lecture notes.  The skilled students will hopefully get interested by the extra-curricular activities and progress to a career in science.
By the way, this has happened many times and we have alumni doing very well in science.

I think this model where some people focus on teaching and others focus on research, is a good mix. Every class can then have research-based talks once or twice a week, to get a glimpse of what research goes on in different departments.  The not-so-interested students can  go to the cafeteria thus making everyone happy.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

research and teaching undergrads

I heard from one of the professors connected with the MHRD that for institutions of higher education, the thought now is to have some faculty involved in research and others focusing on teaching.
I am told this is done in institutions like VIT and SRM.

I think the skill set required to teach undergrads and even some PG students is very different from those required for research. Very often, the two skill-sets are not present in one individual. 
People like Glasstone, Atkins and the duo Morrison & Boyd, have written textbooks that transcend generations. They must have been good teachers since they valued good teaching. But as Atkins has said  this is paid for by giving up research activities.

The argument that undergrad teaching must be backed by good research may be relevant in some (very few) educational institutions where extraordinary young people join the undergrad courses.
But most undergrads I have come across need to learn the basics of their subject first before serious research can become comprehensible. In their schools, they have  been trained in passing a Chemistry exam rather than taught chemistry. It is in colleges that they can learn the fundamentals of the subject, if at all. THIS should be the aim of undergrad teaching.

This emphasis on research in IHE has made college teachers start research projects. The experiments are done with no regard to  reproducibility, control, analysis of data etc.  The teachers pay for the chemicals,  spectra, tests etc, themselves. Hence they cannot afford to repeat experiments to check reproducibility. Even if they are funded, they are not very concerned about such things. They pay some amount (usually Rs 2000-5000) and get their 'research'  published in dubious journals.
This unfortunate fallout is enough argument to de-link research  from undergrad teaching in colleges.

Friday, 17 May 2013

the best laid plans of mice and men

When I was getting my house constructed, the builder, an 'ISO something' certified company, would get my every wish, every window, every plug point, documented and signed in duplicate.
But on the site, the masons/electricians did not get these papers. I would have to go and check every day to see things were where they were supposed to be.
Great planning, zero implementation.
There is the NAC with people  like Aruna Roy and Anu Agha, perceived as honest  people interested in the welfare of the country. We have a big exercise like the MNREGA. Then there was the RTE. There is the RTI.
There have been many good initiatives, but the ideas remained that. Implementation has been very unintelligent.
The massive corruption could not have gone unnoticed. So why wait to do what was inevitable till forced to, and earn a bad name? Why would they be so stupid?
Is the planning is done by a set of intelligent people, good at their jobs, but once a good blueprint is made, the people who implement the ideas are not smart enough to realise the value of long term goodwill?  Carpe Diem perhaps!

Thursday, 9 May 2013

science for kids

Some years, I go as a resource person for a week long lab sessions for IX class kids. This year there were two enthusiastic kids amongst the lot and I enjoyed doing the experiments with them.
This is a summer school for kids who have completed their IX class. The NGO holds a science talent exam. and the top 30 are chosen for this free summer school where they do some experiments and listen to lectures. They are divided into 4 groups, Chem, Bio, Phys and Math  for the lab sessions.
I started going as a resource person in 2002, when I joined the kids to listen to  a really interesting lecture on prime numbers by Prof Tandon of UoH. It impressed me that someone can make something like number theory sound like an exciting story.
I used to go every year, but of late, I had other commitments. Secondly, I used to find it rather dull since the children were unenthusiastic......the session would move only if I gave  specific and exact instructions...add 2 mL, now see if the blue colour appears...etc. They never wanted to do anything on their own, they only followed instructions.
This year was different. Two boys in the Chem group were vocal and interested, two others interested, but a little less vocal and one girl in the Bio group, keen on the Chem experiments. So I enjoyed myself much more than I usually do. They appreciated the nuances.....why a roughly measured 2 mL was OK for a qualitative check, but not for a quantitative experiment.....which is something I struggle to make BSc students understand.  Apart from more serious experiments on water quality, our fun experiment was the minimum concentration of Teepol required to get good stream of bubbles.
(BTW, one of my colleagues in the Physics lab asked her group,  which group was enjoying the summer school the most, and the answer she got from them was the Chemistry group!! )

The science talent exam used to have 3 sections A,B,C consisting of MCQ s in Chem, Bio, Phys and Math. Over the years, coaching centres had come up all over  AP for this exam. We wanted to change the pattern.  So this year, we had section A and B as usual, a section C with three 5 mark questions that required thoughtful answers written in about 5 or 6 lines. This section C of the question paper was to be corrected only for those students who scored in the top 100  in sections A and B.  The ranks were based on section C.
My hypothesis is that it is because of the new pattern that I got at least  a few junior scientists to do the experiments. Maybe the following years will prove me right!

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

I used to keep a diary of sorts when in college, and in it, I "discussed" various things that bothered me or various questions that I raised in my own mind. It was something like an argument with myself, with one side putting up only a very weak defense.
One of the things I wondered was whether the great value  that people place on intelligence and science and reason was justified  and whether there was an alternate world view where these qualities were of very little value. I am still not sure of the answer.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

What is more worrying than a person taking a 10 crore bribe for a job, is the the thought of what the person paying it must be making if he gets the job. 

Saturday, 4 May 2013

this and that

There seems to be a lot  of noise about  the new format for DU's degree courses. If the notification has come just now, it is rather late in the day.
In a college, every year, with new intake, we need to calculate the workload, see if new teachers are required. The HoD then distributes the syllabus among his/her staff.
The college also needs to check if the classes have the required rooms and that all the enrolled students can be fitted in the labs.
Even  in mediocre colleges, all this is finalised in April and new recruitments made for the next academic year during April.
Now that DU has notified this new pattern, the syllabus has to be finalised, the number of classes /week decided. The workload has to be determined and distributed.
If there is a new course - 'Basic Princ. of Math' with say, 3 periods a week,  for all new entrants-say 1000 students- which means 20 sections of 50 students -  60 periods of workload. In the previous regime, the Math dept would have had  2 sections of 50 students in the I yr and be teaching 4 or 5 periods- a workload of about 10 periods and may be another 10-15 tutorials/ labs or whatever they call it... 25 periods workload. This is only considering the first year .
The colleges need to plan for this. It takes time.

Friday, 19 April 2013

old post

I had posted long ago about how I like living in different places rather than visiting as a tourist.

Ketti in the Nilgiris 2009

Ketti station 2008

Durbin , Near Kalimpong - 1985

being misled

When things go wrong, it's OK for me to wring my hands and decry the bad state of affairs. But if the PM and all people in power do it, then why are they there? Who will then do something?
Is it OK for a leader to say 'my subordinate misled me and so I am not to be blamed'? For example,  in the Army, can an officer get away without consequence for an error by saying his JCO/jawan misled him? Or a CEO say his PRO made an error in the press release and so he is not to blame for the company sliding in the stock market? 


The inspectors found faulty valves in Kudankulam. Maybe there are more faults and maybe the inspectors can't find them all.
Every time they build a flyover, some part collapses. Mines cave in, inspite of regulations,  buildings collapse even though the builders have the necessary paper work............. one can go on endlessly.
So why does the PM think Kudankulam is different?  Why do they all say every precaution has been  taken? Does this mean that when a bridge or flyover collapses, they did not take precautions? They meant it to collapse?
Why are concerns of citizens never addressed properly ?

Are we witnessing a big change?

After a post graduate degree in economics, some young people I know have chosen jobs in development economics.  Some of their friends have chosen jobs in business analytics, banks etc. Those in the high paying business/bank jobs, find development work fascinating and envy  their friends. A couple of them are seriously considering changing to development sector jobs.
A few students I knew joined Teach for India giving up lucrative job offers. Another joined Pratham.
A few are keen on joining the IAS and are studying for it.
Is this a real trend, or am I making conclusions on the basis of an extremely small sample size?
Are the young highly educated Indians finally thinking of meaningful jobs that make a difference?
Are they finally realising that making pots of money and buying a BMW is not the sole reason we were born on this earth?

Friday, 5 April 2013


One usually sees that when a scam is unearthed, the IAS officer involved gets punished, but the politician (at whose behest this officer did whatever he did) gets away.
There must be some corrupt IAS officers, but many, not personally corrupt, do the deed at someone's behest. Some believe the politician will protect them if caught out. Now after the recent examples of politicians hanging the secretary out to dry, I hope the IAS associations will help keep this category of babus from giving in to pressure "upar se".

Through my daughter, I am now meeting or getting to know of some intelligent, well-educated and fairly idealistic young people who are trying to get into the IAS.
If this microcosm is an indication of the larger picture, there is hope for our country.


After almost 19 years, I have left my college.
It is going to be difficult to fill that vacuum. I will miss my colleagues and students and I will miss the teaching.
I was very touched by all the nice things my colleagues said to me and the gifts they gave me.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Do all readers of spoofs realise that they are reading a spoof?
Objectively speaking, I might have been fooled by these articles if I did not know some science. It is very amusing for a person who does know some science, but assuming I did not recognise dihydrogen monoxide, I might have been convinced that it is a dangerous substance (as it of course is, in the contexts the article mentions)

Many of us are easily fooled  by versions of history, by news, by advertisements. Many times we do not know what the truth is.
So how do we recognise truth? Do we, on many occasions, believe in untruths and not know it?
Many times, I hear people stating something confidently as the truth, and if I do not have any alternate source of information, will believe them.

One context in which this can happen is when doctors misdiagnose confidently.
"I said that we think it is a Bamboo Pit Viper to which he says that there are none in India, that he is on some UN panel on toxicology etc. He says that it must be a krait viper. This blows my mind. His arrogance and ignorance is mind-blowing in the extreme; but … Look at our position."
 This story had a happy outcome, but  often, that does not happen.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Self organised learning

The power of group learning and self driven learning has been illustrated by Sugata Mitra.   He has been awarded the  TED prize  to carry on his work. 

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

A warning to college professors
The situation in India is worse at least it is in Andhra Pradesh.

Friday, 8 February 2013

CII 's Project Pragnya

The initiative by the CII hyderabad - project Pragnya- is a start.
More such initiatives may help improve the employment prospects of students who opt to study biological sciences.
Of the students pursuing their MSc, who I have met or taught, most are not very professional in their approach. They have assignment deadlines, they don't even think of meeting it. They submit it (if at all) at  the end of the semester. They are not aware of what is expected of a person in a professional or official setup. This is the main reason why they are unemployable even in routine jobs. 

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

A sign of getting older is that I am now unable to pipette out 25 mL each into 15 standard flasks at a time,  for the lab exam.... Something I did every year for batches of students, twice a year. I now use a burette or a pipette pump making the process a lot slower and tedious.
With a lot of effort, we organise a pre-final practical examination for our students -- exactly like the final practical examination in order to familiarise our students with the exam pattern and point out their mistakes. The students however, do not study for it and simply cheat, copy each other's titre values and ask each other how to calculate the result. Why do they not understand the purpose of a pre final exam? what purpose does the copying achieve?
I had organised a short course in bioinformatics, taught by one of our guest faculty. We asked for a feedback. I got the papers back today and the students have copied the response from one another. Why?
If I ask them to write an answer to "which flavour ice cream do you like?", they may need to look at their neighbour's paper and copy the answer....

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Learning outcome

Every year, Pratham conducts a survey of the learning outcomes of children in schools in rural India.
Surprisngly, this year there has been a decline in the learning outcomes as compared to the years preceding 2010, where the learning outcomes had been showing a small, but regular improvement.
The test is to see if a V class child can read a II class textbook and subtract 2 digit numbers.
Only 47% children have achieved this level of reading ability.
However, the enrollment in schools is quite high-- about 96%.
Pratham feels this drop in learning outcomes is due to the continuous evaluation system introduced with the RTE.
I think it is the lack of training for teachers that is to blame. Exam or no exam, if a teacher is trained in pedagogy, most children can be taught to read. However, the empirical evidence points to Pratham's conclusion. Since the RTE was introduced, the learning outcome has dropped from around 53% to about 47%.

Our policies in education are all geared towards quantity not quality.
In primary education, it does make sense to say 'at least get them to school, we will talk about quality later', but this argument is very dangerous when it is applied to higher education.
The policy of most states is to produce more and more  graduates and post-graduates.
The large number of uninterested students enrolling for an MSc or MA,  protest if they are not passed. (they even assaulted a prof for not being admitted to a PhD program.)
To enable them to pass, the syllabi and examinations are 'dumbed down' considerably.
This may make short term political sense, but should they not stop to think what these hordes of unemployable people with big degree will do later on?