Krishna Ganesh and L. S. Shashidhara discuss India’s integrated research teaching model
As Indian society reinvents itself, a radical transformation is taking place in its academy. The country is ushering in a new educational pattern in science and technology to support India’s transition to the knowledge economy.
Among the country’s many educational initiatives, perhaps the foremost is the establishment of the Indian institutes of science education and research at Pune, Kolkata, Mohali, Bhopal and Thiruvananthapuram. These autonomous degree-awarding research institutes were set up by the Ministry of Human Resource Development in 2006 under an Act of Parliament, with the primary goal of enhancing the quality of the country’s academic and industrial researchers.
Our institution, the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Pune, is a research-driven teaching university that aims to integrate high-quality research with undergraduate education in a seamless, cross-disciplinary manner. Its motto: “Where tomorrow’s science begins today.”
Our model of science education is concept-based, enquiry-driven and student-centric, eschewing the traditional content-based, teacher-driven approach. There is a strong emphasis on imparting research experience at an early stage.
At the outset, IISER Pune recognised that excellent staff would be the key to success, so recruitment has been centred on academics’ research accomplishments, future promise and teaching proficiency. A prerequisite for attracting the best is the creation of a high-quality research infrastructure, and this was our approach from the start.
Although we have strengthened and maintained the purity of individual disciplines by teaching fundamental concepts through a departmental system, staff hiring and organisation is based on thematic areas.
This has already led to the seamless integration of physicists, chemists, biologists and mathematicians in research. IISER Pune’s interdisciplinary approach also unites the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities in knowledge production and pedagogy.
The academic ambience and the high levels of energy and enthusiasm among faculty are vital aspects in preparing students for research careers. Teachers lead the students on an exploration of “unknown” domains of knowledge rather than simply imparting “facts” that are known and available in textbooks and on the internet. This method complements more traditional syllabus-based, discipline-specific and content-based learning.
Students explore physics, chemistry, mathematics and biology not as separate islands, but as complementary kingdoms in the continent of science.
In addition to classroom learning, several initiatives at Pune further enhance research and teaching: the visiting faculty programme enables reputed scientists and teachers from all over the world to offer courses to students; the curriculum development group explores novel methods of integrating different branches of science into teaching and research, ensuring that the syllabus continuously and dynamically evolves; and the introduction of courses such as science and society, ethics and the history of science integrate the humanities and social sciences into our programmes, too.
Science communication and the development of lifelong skills such as leadership and teamwork are also an integral part of life at the institute.
The flagship IISER programme is the five-year integrated BS/MS dual degree course. All students joining it are backed by a scholarship, and there will soon be about 1,000 students a year following the course across the five institutes (200 at Pune).
During the first two years, students are introduced to scientific concepts: they feel the excitement of research and learn about the importance of science on a day-to-day basis from the experts who practise it. Irrespective of their ultimate specialism, they are trained in the basics of each scientific discipline.
In addition, they develop skills in scientific language communication, basic maths and computation, and mentors help them to make informed choices on their future specialisation.
During the third and fourth years, they explore their chosen field in depth, sit advanced courses and learn research methodology through their involvement in small-scale projects.
During the fifth year, all students carry out a year-long research project: this can be done at Pune, any other recognised institution in India (academic or industrial) or even abroad if they can secure financial assistance. The projects make them potential doctoral candidates, and even those who do not continue to PhDs benefit from such intensive, in-depth research.
The process of collaborative learning and continuous exposure to research, allied to the development of systematic logical thinking and problem-solving abilities, ensure that IISER students are well equipped to find their own solutions to problems in their professional (and personal) lives. And the presence of overseas staff and students offers further benefits to all.
The institutes are the first of their kind in India and have a great responsibility: many universities are looking to them as role models. We have a duty to ensure that the benefits of our educational initiatives spread beyond the boundaries of the five IISERs.
Krishna Ganesh is director and L.”ŠS. Shashidhara coordinator for biology at IISER Pune.