Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

What people need

August 13, 2017

To understand statistics:

I’m beginning to think that mathematical training in many cases is actually damaging; simple and robust metrics, usually drawn from the early days of industrial quality control, are what people need to understand.

Daniel at Crooked Timber.

On four year Bachelor’s programme in Science

August 15, 2014

I have been thinking about the recent discussions about the four year Bachelor’s programme in sciences at the Indian Institute of Science.

According to a news report:

The ministry said that the four-year programme in general streams of arts, science and commerce had violated the National Policy on Education, 1986. The ministry says the NPE provides for 10+2+3 system for students pursuing general stream of education.

I was curious about the National Policy on Education, 1986 — primarily to see what the rationale behind such a prescription is. The document is available here; as far as I can see, this is all it says:

The National System of Education envisages a common educational structure. The 10+2+3 system has now been accepted in all parts of the country. 

So, in the document, there is really no justification except for common structure. The document, also notes that the Policy from 1968 wanted the 10+2+3 system to be made broadly acceptable; and, in 1986, it seems that the introduction of the 10+2+3 system was seen as the most notable development.  So, I can understand how UGC might see the introduction of the 4 year Science undergraduate programme as a retrograde move.

However, there seem to be some strong arguments as to why we should at least experiment with a four year degree programme in science:

A paper prepared jointly by three Indian science academies in 2008 identified various limitations of the present system that focuses on quantity of information rather than the quality of education. The report argued for a four-year program with an emphasis on flexibility in curriculum, choice of subjects and research experience. They also recommended allowing students to switch between science and engineering.

I also agree with the following point from Guttal’s post:

India’s requirement as a large and diverse country cannot and should not rely on a failed mode of higher education uniformly imposed across the entire country. Experiments to improve education must be encouraged, especially if the premier institutes of the country are taking the lead. We can only know what works best if we attempt a variety of approaches.

Hence, I feel UGC should allow the four year programmes on an experimental basis (at least in places like IISc where both the Institution and the stakeholders, namely, faculty, students and parents seem to be in favour of the experiment). 

Finally, personally, even as a matter of policy, I am not in favour of strict uniformity while I am all for broad uniformity; of course, where there are deviations from the uniformity, UGC and MHRD should spend more effort to make sure that the changes are in keeping with the spirit of things. I believe, in the long run, this is the only way to make our academic system more robust, flexible, innovative and modern.


HowTo: memorize poetry

April 28, 2014

A nice piece!

Ten rules for teachers and students

April 21, 2014

A must-see at MR

Instrumental community of Cyrus C M Mody

January 29, 2012

When I started my PhD in mid-nineties, nano was the in-thing. I remember a reputed electron microscopist whose made a presentation, in which, he pointed out to a particular feature in a transmission electron micrograph and said “Previously, I used to call this a particle; nowadays, we call it a nanoparticle”. That pretty much summed up our attitude towards nano too. Many of us felt that nano was all hype and that there was nothing exciting or intellectually challenging in nano (I do have a friend who calls his blog nono-science!).

A few years into my PhD, I did get exposed to two new viewpoints on nano. One point of view, given by a reputed researcher in nano area, is that nano is a good pedagogical tool which can be used in training a new researcher in materials science and engineering to understand some of the fundamental concepts of materials science; this is because, many a processes and properties of materials, which are generally not considered as important in the typical length scales become important in nano-scale making it an interesting and useful area of study. The other was that nano has some uses in military and medical sciences because these are two areas in which other considerations override cost considerations; otherwise, in actual engineering practice, one might never use nanomaterials at all. Both these points of view are still true to some extent.

Reading Cyrus C M Mody’s Instrumental community: probe microscopy and the path to nanotechnology has given another view point on nano. The first is that nano was a response to “perceived declines in the disciplines”:

Over time, many surface scientists came to believe that nanotechnology provided the best way for them to revive or transform their discipline while retaining much of their knowledge base. As Jun Nagomi puts it

strictly classical surface structure determination is dead as a field. Or extremely mature, and not very fundable. So what I do now I can honestly bill as being related to nanotechnology. But when you look at the actual kinds of materials I’m working with, I’m still working with metals and I’m still working with semiconductors.

The other is that the decline in industrial funding is the reason why nano became popular:

Usually, though, governments created new academic nanotechnology institutions to occupy the niche once held by the big corporate labs. As Jim Murdy puts is

Bell labs is just a shadow of what it once was, and IBM has had to scale back much of its operation as well. So they are not the dominant force they used to be globally across surface science or nano….If they go away, we still have very good people, they just tend to be more in the universities than in an industrial lab. Universities have different strengths. They generally have a harder time getting good equipment. An industrial lab had stuff universities drool over….  That in some sense what IBM and Bell labs did–they brought a bunch of very good people abd put them in a central location at the same lab and equipped them well. To an extent that’s what the [National Nanotechnology] centers are meant to do at the universities.

Finally, Mody also makes the most interesting point about the identification of probe microscopy with nanotechnology and the reasons for it: the short answer — interdisciplinarity.

What is nice about Mody’s book is that he makes these points convincingly and in an extremely readable book. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. If you like anthropology or history of science or science and technology or any combinations thereof, this is the book to read. I strongly recommend it.

One more bonus thing that I learnt from the book is the philosophy of Prof. Virgil Elings on the need for and teaching of instrumentation. As the following quotes indicate they are quite provocative and interesting:

One lesson from the master’s program that Elings carried into DI was that “the areas that students had done undergraduate work in made little difference in their ability to design instruments. Any deficiency, except of knowledge of math, could be repaired by some reading and talking with other students. All those esoteric courses made little difference.”

The MSI program was clearly quite different from a traditional academic degree program. It was, for some students, ” a rude awakening from the spoon-feeding of most undergraduate experiences.”

Elings became convinced that formal academic pedagogy was counterproductive: “[S]chools at all levels, practically down to kindergarten, do almost nothing to foster innovation and invention….[A]cademia can afford to spend some time on innovation since, in my opinion, a lot of what is done now is a waste of time.”

Have fun!

Producing citizens

October 21, 2011

Here is Rex at Savage Minds on education that produces citizens:

Of course, you don’t need to get a fancy degree to become a cultivated and intelligent person. After all, all of us know people who have got their degree from the school of hard knocks. In fact some of the smartest and most cultivated people I know are the men I’ve met in Papua New Guinea who have honed their skills of persuasion and politics through endless years of pig exchanges, marriages, and peace-making ceremonies — people so astute that they put our current crop of US politicians to shame, but who have never learned to read or even pick up a pen or pencil.

Nevertheless, a college education is uniquely valuable in today’s world because the type of learning it provides is especially suited to our form of democratic governance. But don’t take it from me, take it from one of the founders of our country: Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson believed in state-funded higher education because he thought an educated citizenry was central to democracy. “wherever the people are well informed,” he wrote Richard Price in 1789, “they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.” It is for this reason that he wanted students at UVA to study everything from botany to Greek literature to the fine arts — a liberal education which would “form them to habits of reflection and correct action, rendering them examples of virtue to others and of happiness within themselves.”

One last thing: the funny thing about producing people who are free to think for themselves is that they can do a lot of other things to: learn new job skills, start new businesses, or even invent new industries. Holding fast to your values and doing what is important, rather than what is urgent, often has unexpected and gratifying consequences. It is for this reason that Thomas Jefferson thought that “knowledge is power, that knowledge is safety, that knowledge is happiness.”

A nice piece; I liked the piece especially, because, once in a while, I also get these questions — what are we training our students for and how successful are we in achieving these goals.


An insider account of the destruction of a University

June 21, 2011

The post makes a very painful and poignant reading:

I spent most of my academic career doing what most of us do—teaching, writing, reading graduate applications and theses, having office hours, reading in my field, doing research. I didn’t pay much attention to the University and its administration. None of us have that luxury anymore. Budget cuts after budget cuts after budget cuts have left us all painfully aware of how the sausage is made, or not made.

Having served in administrative posts for most of the last five years, I have come to know the budget issues very well. We are now past the tipping point. We are on a rapid downhill slide that will have profound effects for our state, our families, our country, and our world.

In the space of less than a single lifetime, the University of California, Riverside went from being a small agricultural experiment station to being one of the top 100 universities in the world. An incredibly dense and elaborate web of specialists across all fields of scholarship, science, and the arts was developed, and it took enormous efforts by thousands of people over those years to make it happen. In less than the four years it used to take to graduate, it is being destroyed.

Read the entire post; it goes on to give the reasons behind the destruction and what can possibly be done about it:

Why is this happening? Political demagoguery and corruption. Thirty years ago UC received 9% of the state budget and prisons 3%. Now UC gets 3% and the prison-industrial complex gets 9%. The legislature is taking the money that should be used to educate the best of its citizens and using it enrich the people who make a profit from the imprisoning the poorest. The percentage of the cost of higher education provided by the state has been cut in half, cut in half again, and is on the verge of getting cut in half a third time. The people in the legislature understand the value of public higher education—the vast majority of them (in any given year over 80%) have degrees from our state system, and many of them have multiple degrees—all made possible by the legislators who preceded them, and who had more courage. They do not protect the University for a very simple reason: if they do, they will suffer a flow of conservative attacks and Tea Party racism, funded by the Koch brothers and their ilk, the standard price if one stands up for anything that is directly devoted to the commonweal.

In my darkest moments, I think the monied interests working against reasonable taxation are doing so because they consciously, actively seek to make sure we do not have an informed, educated citizenry, the better to extract our collective labor and wealth unimpeded. But such intentionality isn’t necessary. Simple, short-sighted, grab-it-now, bottom-line greed explains their destruction of our culture, without recourse to any dystopian conspiracies.

I hope you get angry. I hope you get active. Call and write your legislators, get out in the streets, take back your university, don’t let yourselves be the last people to have even this chance.

Do take a look!

Steve Wozniak on education

March 10, 2011

Quoted here (Thanks Hariharan, for the pointer):

As for creativity and innovation, what brings it about?

1.    Variety. Of learning and life experience.
2.    Necessity (the mother of invention).
3.    Imagination and inspiration.

And to bring it all to life: opportunity. An arena. A conducive environment.

Steve Wozniak, Apple co-founder spoke at the event, captivating the local audience with his story, raised questions among the audience about the things that hinder creativity and innovation in Singapore:

1.    Rigid education system: It’s not so much the science of an apple computer, or the creativity when it comes to what separates Singapore and the US in innovation. It’s the people. In Singapore, children are not encouraged to pursue their passions but adhere to a rigid schedule instead – that all the rest of hundreds of thousands are learning. You don’t get different cookies using the same cutter.

2.    Problem solving: In Singapore, teachers and employers are caught up with “the right answer”, instead of the journey to get there and the creative solutions to other problems – or inventions that are discovered along the way.

3.    Pressure and competitiveness for nothing but the best grades and schools. Does that leave room for life and experience, the corner stone of creative innovation? Can a grade-A engineering student design a new ski-lift if he’s never been on top of a snow capped mountain?

The Indian university system

April 22, 2010

Andre Beteille, in a piece in The Telegraph:

The universities cannot continue to be viable if they are set contradictory objectives. In the typical case, the Indian university is expected to produce hundreds of thousands of graduates every year, and these numbers keep rising. But it is also expected to maintain and even advance standards of teaching and research in all significant branches of learning. Those who advise the government know that these two objectives cannot be met simultaneously by the same institution or the same kind of institution, but their desire to be of service to the nation leads them to hope that they will somehow be able to square the circle.

Though Beteille is not stating it explicitly, his piece seems to argue for more and more of Indian Institutes of XXX type universities:

Perhaps the all-purpose university of the 19th and early 20th centuries has outlived its utility in the 21st century. If the university is to be viable as a centre of advanced study and research, it may have to limit the ambition that it earlier had of covering all branches of existing knowledge. At the same time, a university will scarcely deserve to be called one if it confines itself to a single subject. There is really no good reason to swing from the extremes of inclusion to the extremes of exclusion. A university can serve as an effective institution of teaching and research if it limits itself to a cluster of related subjects, and restrains its ambition for indefinite expansion.

It appears to me that we can still create universities that will be communities of learning, combining teaching and research, provided they are able to limit their scale and scope. Such universities will of course have to conduct examinations and award degrees, but the conduct of examinations and the awarding of degrees need not become their sole or even their main concern as inevitably happens in the mass universities.

Take a look!

The balancing act for Universities

March 17, 2010

Michael Atiyah, in an interview in Mathematical Intelligencer (published long ago, in 1984):

Universities are institutions that are educational and involved in research. I think that is very important–there should be unity in the university and unity in the whole social structure that attempts to keep a broad balance between mathematical research and mathematical education. And when universities give courses for educational purposes, they should be sure that they are performing the right task for the students, not just giving courses in (say) advanced topology because they are interested in turning out research students. That’s a disastrous mistake.

Universities must try to balance two activities. They ought to know what’s useful for students to learn, bearing in mind what they are going to be doing later on. At the same time, they ought to foster research. Some people will be doing all research and some people will be mostly teaching, and mainly people will be in between. Although I am only involved with the research end of it, I live in the university, I have colleagues in the university, I know what they are involved with, so I am concerned to see that a proper balance is struck between the different functions of the university.

A good one!