Monday, 23 September 2013

Government schools set to make science simple for students

For several years, high school science teacher Saravanan from a government school in Vellore and a post graduate in zoology had taught his students about DNA and its sequencing, mitosis and meiosis of cell reproduction through bland diagrams and lectures. Even he knew that it put most of his students to sleep in class as he plodded through boring lectures.

After spending a week at the Karl Kuber Institute for Development Studies participating in a workshop for science teachers called ‘Simple tasks, Great Concepts’, Saravanan vouches that his teaching process has transformed for good.

“Despite being a post graduate in life sciences, I had never really seen the so called DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) even after having studied and taught it for years. Now, when I go back to my students, I will show my students this DNA using simple household materials,” Saravan says.

During the past week, Saravan and 29 other science teachers from nine districts in TN and one in Andhra Pradesh have learnt that putting mashed papaya in a bottle with a pinch of salt and detergent powder and later adding ethanol (rectified spirit or pure alcohol) generated a froth of the famed nucleic acid whose sequencing is behind almost all recent achievements in life sciences. “I was simply overjoyed at the sight of it and felt like a science student again. Now, I will show my students how DNA actually looks using household items,” he says.

Generating DNA in a simple classroom is just one of the 100 practical experiments that were taught to science teachers from across the state as part of making science education livelier. The teachers have learnt to create a magnifigying glass out of a fused electric bulb and water, observe behaviour of earthworms on topsoil and on the importance of green house gases using simple items such as waste plastic water bottles, vegetables, sand etc.

Following a directive from the department of science and technology, a total of 300-odd science teachers from 106 educational districts in TN and four other southern states including Puducherry are being trained in this practical approach to science in a phased manner.

The eighth workshop of ‘Simple tasks, Great Concepts was completed at the Karl Kuber Institute on Friday. “Three teachers from each district have been chosen to participate in this workshop. They will go ahead and train the other science teachers in their districts in these simple experiments. Around six months from now, we expect all government school students from class six onwards to see for themselves how fascinating learning science can be,” says Dr. P. Pramod from Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) who is the state co-ordinator for the program.

This vision does seem a reality as the final session of the workshop involves demonstrating the experiments to students of a local school. “Students of a tribal school in Anaikatti watched the experiments with such amazement and asked such brilliant questions that even some of our senior teachers were shocked,” says S. Sivagami, a  teacher from Thiruttani near Chennai who participated in the program.

Chennai-based biologist heads the campaign

Chennai-based soil biologist and renowed ecologist Dr. Sultan Ahmed Ismail whose pioneering work in vermi-technology has won him several accolades and has redefined the utility of earthworms, had been training CBSE board teachers on demystifying science through practical experiments for several years when he was offered a project by the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India to compile his teachings in the form of a book.

“The National Council for Science and Technology Communications gave me a team of people to work on the project and we came out with 100 practical experiments that can be used to teach scientific concepts to students at virtually no cost,” Dr. Ismail said.

The compilation was out in 2011 and Dr. Ismail toured the country conducting workshops and seminars to making science education simple in India. “Upon seeing the success of this initiative and the response we received from students and faculty, the government authorised me to train one teacher in every state who would be selected by the respective state council of science and technology,” he said.

Realising that training just one teacher would do no good to spread the project, the central government organisation decided to train three science teachers in each district of the five southern states in a phased manner and started the initiative ‘Simple tasks, Geat Concepts’ with Dr. Sultan as its national coordinator.

“We have so far trained over 250 teachers in TN, Andhra, Karnataka, Kerala and Puduchery who will go on and train the other teachers in their districts. Now, we will be proceeding with this training to the other states across the country,” says the sextagenarian who recently retired from the New College in Chennai after several decades of teaching and guiding young researchers.

When asked on his favourite experiment among the 100 that he trained teachers to demystify science, Dr. Sultan simply points out that science education is primarily about understanding the machinations of life around us. “For centuries, our women have been adding a little bit of curd to a bowl of milk and kept it overnight to make a bowl full of yoghurt. If performed in a lab, it is classic biotechnology,” he says.

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