National Initiative on Undergraduate Science (NIUS) is a major proposal of HBCSE (TIFR) addressed to two key issues concerning tertiary science education in India. These two issues are:
- Declining number of meritorious students for B.Sc./M.Sc. courses
A great majority of meritorious science students of the senior secondary stage (the ‘plus two’ stage) opt for professional careers in engineering, medicine, computer science and allied fields. There are very few takers among them for the basic science streams leading to B.Sc and M.Sc degrees in different subjects. For example, of the 100 students who represented India in the International Science and Mathematics Olympiads in the last five years or so, something like 8 students may have opted for basic science.
- Lack of academic excitement and motivation in B.Sc. programmes
With some honourable exceptions (a few colleges in Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, etc.) undergraduate colleges in India offer little challenge and excitement in science to their students. The B.Sc stage is the most vital stage for stimulating genuine interest in science and triggering fascination for a research career. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of B.Sc students, even those with considerable talent, go through it without any serious motivation, and mainly orient themselves entirely to the examination. By the time they come out of their degree programmes, most of them (including good students) lose interest in pursuing research careers.
Two observations are important in this connection:
- Many of the meritorious students, especially from the Olympiad stream, have in fact genuine interest in pursuing studies in basic sciences or mathematics, even though they may have made the ‘pragmatic’ choice of going in for professional degrees. Experience over the last several years shows that several of such bright students look for opportunities to learn basic sciences through special enrichment programmes wherever they can find them. In fact, some of them (undoubtedly, very few) have returned or at least contemplate to return to their original subject of interest after they complete their professional degrees.
- There is a prevalent assumption that ‘all’ those who are any good go to IIT’, medical institutes and the like, and those that are ‘left out’ join science colleges. Experience shows that this picture is only approximately true. Actually, undergraduate science colleges in India do have a small (as a fraction) but significant (in terms of absolute numbers) population of good and motivated students who aspire to do well in basic science careers. A fraction of this small minority of students have actually opted for basic sciences out of genuine interest, even though they had an option to go for professional degrees.
These observations suggest that, broadly speaking, two groups of tertiary stage (i.e. post senior secondary stage) students in our country would greatly benefit from a sustained and intensive nurture programme; one, the post-olympiad (and equivalent) students pursuing professional degrees in IITs, premier medical colleges, etc; two, the highly motivated students pursuing science degrees in undergraduate colleges. The present proposal has been formulated basically with these two target groups in mind.
Need for a strong nurture programme at undergraduate stage
The need for nurture programmes for undergraduate students has been appreciated for quite some time now. The general feeling shared by most scientists is that unless something is done urgently to attract and nurture good undergraduate students, the scenario say in ten years from now in the leading research institutions of the country may be dismal. Indeed, several leading institutions in the country (IISc, RRI, SINP, TIFR, JNCASR to name a few) have already taken steps to avert the problem and are offering summer programmes, student visitorships, etc, to motivate bright young students to research careers in sciences. The nurture programme of JNCASR, Bangalore in chemistry is similar in its conceptualisation to the present proposal. In mathematics, NBHM has been successfully co-ordinating nurture programmes for post-olympiad students for many years. (* CMI, Chennai offers fulltime undergraduate degree programme in mathematics to which many bright students are attracted, but this is a degree programme, not a nurture programme.)
The underlying idea of the present proposal is thus not novel. Where it differs is in the scale, intensity and coverage of the programme. NIUS is conceived to be a large scale, comprehensive and sustained programme, encompassing all basic sciences (including mathematics which may be in collaboration with NBHM). As the proposal below indicates, it will have several components: selection through nationwide tests, summer and winter nurture programmes including both theory and experiment, opportunities for proto research by students, visitorships for teachers and scientists, and a strong distance education programme. In short, it will be a major new national initiative on undergraduate science that focuses on early nurture of potential Indian scientists of the future.
NIUS Outline of the scheme
NIUS is planned to be a comprehensive new interventional programme at the tertiary stage of science education, with all-India coverage. A brief outline of the scheme is as follows:
a) Selection of students for NIUS
(i) A selection procedure will be formulated to search and identify meritorious students in undergraduate science colleges in India. About 100 students will be so identified every year from the different disciplines of basic science, including mathematics. For the year 2004 the selection will be based on KVPY, NSE and allied criteria. Proactive efforts will be made to see that bright and motivated students in non-metropolitan areas do not miss out the opportunities made available by NIUS.
(ii) The National Olympiad Gold Medallists in different subjects will automatically qualify for selection under NIUS. This group (which will be mostly pursuing professional courses at IITs, etc) will also be about 100 in number.
All together, taking into account some drop-out, NIUS will have about 150 students (about 35-40 students each in say physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics) in the first year. The nurture programme for every student will run for about 2 years. This means that in a few years, we expect to have about 300 students under NIUS at any given time.
The infrastructure (NIUS labs and the new Student hostel) is likely to be functional only from April 2006. However, HBCSE is launching the programme immediately, from April 2004. The NIUS student strength is expected to progressively increase from 75 (2004-05) to 150 (05-06), 225 (06-07) and achieve its steady strength of 300 thereafter.
b) Nurture Camps at HBCSE (TIFR)
Every student under NIUS will go through 4 nurture camps in 2 years (2 one-month camps in the summer and 2 two-week camps in the winter). The nurture programmes will be carefully formulated by the respective cells of HBCSE in consultation with the scientists involved in the programme. The camps will include theoretical lectures, problem-solving sessions, laboratory sessions, student seminars, etc. The nurture programme will be calibrated to the extent possible in accordance with the interest and potential of the student – blanket uniformity will not be stressed. An important dimension of the programme is to promote proto research among students. Undergraduate students will be encouraged to take up investigative theoretical and experimental research projects. It is here that the help of scientists from TIFR, BARC and elsewhere would be particularly critical. Typically, students will go through training and background preparation for research in the first year of nurture and take up research under the guidance of their mentors in the second year.
c) Distance Education
A key element of NIUS that may set it apart from other similar programmes is its stress on continual contact with the selected students through postal correspondence and internet. This again will be calibrated as per the students’ needs and no uniform postal tuition programme is envisaged. For research, particularly the experimental research, the institutes in the neighbourhood of the student’s base station will also be liased with where appropriate.
d) Visits to premier scientific Institutions
Apart from nurture camps at HBCSE Mumbai, an integral part of NIUS will be to expose the undergraduate students to the premier research institutions in the country and to the work that is going on there. Every student of NIUS will be encouraged to visit at least half a dozen institutes in 2 or 3 years. Such visits have a deep impression on young students and inspire and motivate them to work. NIUS students from non-metropolitan areas who need such exposure more than others will be given special attention in this regard. Financial support for promoting these visits will be part of the annual NIUS budget.
e) Local Study Circles
HBCSE’s Olympiad Cells will initiate local Study Circles for the undergraduate college students of Mumbai. The students of these Study Circles will not necessarily be the selected NIUS students. The Study Circles will involve intensive weekly academic sessions for interested undergraduate students. Unlike NIUS, there will be no selection involved for attending the Study Circles, and there will be no financial incentives to the students. The selection will be built-in; those who do not like the proceedings will drop out. A Physics Study Circle of this kind ran at HBCSE for 13 years with much success. As a first step under NIUS, a physics study circle has been launched in December 2003.
Analogous to the local Study Circles, local Teacher Circles are also being initiated wherein college teachers meet regularly once every month for academic work such as designing questions and problems, developing new ideas for experiments, etc.
Though not directly a part of NIUS, local Study Circles and Teacher Circles are immensely important, in that they would help generate and sustain an intense academic activity at HBCSE throughout the year which would, in turn, be important for all the components of NIUS.
f) Incentives to NIUS students
No scholarship/student fellowship is envisaged for NIUS students at present. Some of the NIUS students are likely to be Kishore Vaigyanik Protsahan Yojna Fellows and will anyway get the benefits associated with KVPY. Each NIUS student may, however, get a contingency grant of Rs.5000/- per year, for purchase of books/educational CDs and visits to institutions.
g) Partnering with college teachers
NIUS is basically a talent nurture programme for undergraduate students. However, a complementary effort will be to encourage motivated and competent college teachers and provide them opportunity for academic work with scientists. Thus partnering with good college teachers is to be an important component of NIUS. In operational terms it would mean inviting selected teachers from different parts of the country to the nurture programmes of students and involving them in various pedagogical and student research activities.
h) Resource mobilization and co-ordination
Implementing the different components of NIUS indicated above will be a highly demanding task. As already mentioned, HBCSE, even with some additional staff strength, can handle this only with the assured help from the TIFR and BARC, augmented by support from scientists from other institutions. To nurture about 300 students, an NIUS forum of 30 scientists will need to be identified from these institutions, with each scientist committed to the programme for at least 2 years. Thus we will need to enlist help from something like 7-8 scientists in each of the four basic science disciplines (physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics). As explained earlier, for practical convenience, most of them are likely to come locally from TIFR, BARC and other institutions in the city, or from the neighbouring city of Pune. Some will be enlisted from elsewhere in the country. This resource mobilization will be carried out by expanding the present HBCSE provision of visitorships to scientists and teachers.
Each scientist of the forum will be associated with about 5 NIUS students for guiding research. But the scientists of the forum would be spared from all organizational and co-ordination work of NIUS, which would be the responsibility of HBCSE. The HBCSE Olympiad Cells would carry out the selection of students, develop problem materials and laboratories for nurture camps, mediate distance education programme and in general co-ordinate the entire academic work. The administrative staff of HBCSE would look after the organizational aspects of NIUS.
1. Student Research Reports
A tangible and specific expected outcome of NIUS would be a substantial number of research reports every year brought out by undergraduate students under the guidance of their research mentors. The quality of these research reports will be an important measure of the success of NIUS programme. Emphasis will be on producing research that is publishable as a paper or a review in a standard international journal. Design and development of innovative advanced experiments / theoretical problems / computer based learning materials, etc., that are publishable in reputed science education journals will also qualify as research reports. Students will be encouraged to develop indigenous characterisation / diagnostic tools and instruments.
NIUS Structure and Organization
- Experience with the OlympiadsNIUS is a natural sequel to the Olympiad programme spearheaded by HBCSE in the last 5-6 years. HBCSE is now the nodal centre of the country for Olympiad activity in 5 subjects : physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics and astronomy. Each subject has a small but dedicated cell where members are devoted full time to the programme and have developed considerable expertise in carrying it out efficiently. These Olympiad cells of HBCSE with some augmentation (that is expected in the near future) will play the co-ordinating role for the new initiative on undergraduate science. The Olympiad cells of HBCSE will be supported by the administrative staff of HBCSE who already have much organisational experience in conducting programmes of the kind envisaged.
- InfrastructureAn Olympiad block is expected to be ready at the HBCSE by June 2004. It will have much bigger laboratories (than at present) in chemistry and biology. The Olympiad block had to be accommodated within a rather narrow space adjacent to the HBCSE hostel. Consequently, the space for physics, astronomy and instrumentation laboratories and a workshop will continue to be inadequate even in the Olympiad block. Thus an extension of the Olympiad block is absolutely necessary to conduct satisfactorily the experimental programmes and classroom sessions of all the five Olympiads. The need for the extended Olympiad block is even more acute for NIUS for developing advanced facilities suitable for tertiary science programmes including research by undergraduate students. Another most important critical element of infrastructure missing at present is an adequate hostel accommodation for visiting students.
In view of these infrastructure needs, the budgetary proposal incorporates a plan for building a new student hostel and an extension of the Olympiad block on the land just behind and contiguous to HBCSE hostel. On the advice of DAE, HBCSE has obtained the budget estimates for constructing the new student hostel and extension of the Olympiad block from DCS&EM of DAE. (See the enclosed B.E.)
- Academic resources.The total academic resources needed for the scale of the programme envisaged far exceed the capacity of HBCSE at present and in the foreseeable feature. Some augmentation of HBCSE’s staff strength in different streams (particularly the academic stream) is necessary and is currently underway. However, even with the augmented strength, HBCSE cannot possibly meet the enormous academic demands of the programme. NIUS is thus feasible only with the academic help of scientists from across the country, especially from the TIFR and BARC, who have inclination for tertiary science education. Fortunately, several of our colleagues at the TIFR, BARC and elsewhere have strong interest in tertiary (B.Sc.) science education. Thus, if appropriate modalities are worked out, their help should be forthcoming. In short, NIUS is best viewed as a joint TIFR-BARC academic initiative, which will be co-ordinated through HBCSE (TIFR).
It should, however, be emphasised that NIUS is not a local programme. It is targeted for students for all over the country. For logistic convenience, a majority of scientists involved in the programme are likely to be from TIFR and BARC in view of the vicinity and institutional link to HBCSE of these leading national institutions. However, scientists and teachers from across the country will be sought and encouraged to participate in NIUS. In particular, help will be solicited from scientists from other institutions in Mumbai and the neighbouring city of Pune, such as IIT Bombay, UIT, University of Mumbai, University of Pune, NCL, etc.