Learning to transform science into societal value means promoting this ability, allowing it to flourish
At the recently held ‘Virtual Consultation on Science for Resilience, Food, Nutrition and Livelihoods: Contemporary Challenges’, organised by the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, a particularly relevant talk on science education was delivered by Bruce Alberts of the University of California at San Francisco, U.S. The theme was science communication – particularly relevant now, with the new National Education Policy to be put in practice soon.
Small s, big S
Prof. Alberts is famous across the world for his involvement in science communication and has served as the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Science. His book ‘Molecular Biology of the Cell’, is a ‘bible’ of every biology graduate student. Let me give some key points from his lecture at the above meeting.
Before turning to science education, Prof. Alberts reminded us of what the physicist Pierre Hohenburg said: “The activity of a scientist is science with a lower case, or “s”, while the upper case (or capital) “S” emerges from “s” as a collective public knowledge – universal and free from contradiction, only after repeatedly tested by independent scientific investigators”. (Unless a claim by a scientist is verified to be reproducible by other scientists using the same procedure, it is but a claim and not true). For example, Norman Borlaug’s discovery that the Mexican dwarf variety of wheat plants offer higher yields was independently tested and proved to be true by M S Swaminathan; this led to the Green Revolution in India; or ‘s’ became “S”, and a publicly acknowledged and accepted practice for societal value. This is also referred to as translational research (Of course, “s” here refers to all areas of STEM, medicine, agriculture and social sciences as well).
Turning to science education, Prof. Alberts started with the statement that every child is a scientist. How true! Be she/he a baby or a school-going one, the child is aware of the immediate environment, the people, animals, plants and trees nearby, the soil and the dirt around. The child is keenly observant. Information gathering is natural to her/him. It is to promote this ability and allow it to flourish that the so-called ‘white sox’ experiment was introduced in several schools.
White sox experiment
This involved 5-year-old school going children in the US. Each of them is asked to take off the shoes, and walk with the white sox (part of the uniform) on their feet, and walk around the campus. They were then asked to collect the dark specks stuck on the white sox, and classify them: which are the seeds and which just dirt. The teacher then asked each student to analyse them using a low-cost microscope invented by Stanford University (Facebook Watch “The $1 microscope! By Jim and Manu”), and confirm whether their earlier conclusions on which were seeds and which dirt are correct or not. Many students confirmed by microscopic analysis that their earlier guess that the regularly shaped ones were indeed seeds. They could also check whether their friend’s guess was right by getting his/her sample and checking it out through microscopy. The white sox study is thus a simple set of experiments involving the use of technology, confirmation (or otherwise) of earlier gut-feeling, and peer review.
The Department of Biotechnology (DBT), India, has been collaborating with Prakash Lab of Prof. Manu Prakash, to procure low-cost paper-folding microscopes and centrifuges to many students. (Watch a ted.com talk by Manu Prakash, <ted.com/talks/manu_prakash_paper_instruments_that_bring_science_to_everyone?language=en> .)
Adapting in India
Happily, India has many NGOs across the country, working in several languages, that attempt to popularise science, and the State and national science academies and governmental agencies too support such efforts. These groups can easily adapt the white sox experiments suited to local conditions. The media too can play a role in highlighting local efforts by students and innovators. Now, under the NEP, such innovative experiments should be taken up right through the 5+3+3+4 level and through universities in their graduate and higher degree programmes. And, as Krishna Kumar points out (“Schools without freedom”, in The Hindu, August 4) these must be planned and executed by the teachers familiar with the local environment, and not by official dictat.
For universities, a very useful resource is the book “Reaching students: what research says about effective instruction in undergraduate science and engineering”, by Nancy Kober, and the pdf version is freely available at www.nap.edu. And a new project by the World Science Academies: “Science driven by local action” is available through the Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC) upon writing to Dr. Carol O’Donnell at <O’Donnell@si.edu>.
Special role for young academies of science
Prof. Alberts also emphasises the need for academies for younger scientists, which can play a key role in this endeavour. To date, such young academies of science are set up in 40 countries, of which India, with its Indian National Young Academy of Science (INYAS) is one. Generally, young scientists are more easily accessible and accepted than ‘old fogies’. So, INYAS – here is your role!