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The Shortcomings of STEM Education in India

STEM education refers to a method of learning focused on four disciplines – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. You may have heard about it if you have been keeping up with news in the education sector over the past decade. A great deal of importance has been given to STEM fields and STEM education in India ever since we won Independence but the recent focus on STEM education has been more about the skills it imparts onto students rather than the subjects themselves. These skills include, but are not limited to, critical and analytical thinking, and problem-solving. In short, the recent focus of STEM education encourages students to think in a scientific manner which is useful not only in the field of Science and Technology but in most aspects of life as well.

What’s the state of STEM education in India?

We have a comparatively good ratio of the workforce employed in STEM fields and are well represented in Big Tech. This provides the image of high-quality STEM education in India, but it can be deceiving as there remains immense room for improvement. For one, our approach to STEM, where we prioritise students learning the various methods of problem-solving (in say, trigonometry) rather than focusing on a strong conceptual understanding of the subject and teaching general guidelines that may help understand the solution, is outdated. One only needs to look at how 10th and 12th graders prepare for board examinations to see this problem. Question papers from previous years are taken up by teachers and students, and the solutions to even HOTS (High-Order Thinking Skills) questions contained in them are taught by rote memorisation rather than by creating a conceptual understanding of how to approach the questions and arrive at an answer. If that’s not indicative of what is being referred to, one can just look at the working of JEE coaching centres and understand the crux of the argument. Practising problems is undoubtedly important in learning Science and Math, but in not letting students engage with the problems, we take away their chance to hone their ingenuity and analytical skills – which are crucial aspects of STEM education.

Another major problem that exists concerning STEM education in India is the lack of infrastructure and resources required for apt methods of teaching. In schools, curiosity for technology can be fostered better when students can program and see the movement of robots through kits rather than read how they work in books. For undergraduate and graduate courses, this requirement is more urgent as research is of paramount importance in science education at higher levels. The research internships offered in a handful of premier tech institutes like the IITs are extremely hard to get and barely scratch the surface in terms of fulfilling the overall demand. Research integrated courses are a few, if not non-existent. Adding to this is the fact that the majority of STEM courses follow severely outdated curricula that are incapable of fulfilling industry expectations. STEM jobs require a lot of innovation and sound problem-solving skills to approach novel problems and the aforementioned issues hamper the development of these skills. This makes it extremely difficult for the increasing amount of STEM graduates to find a job in their respective fields.

The reason for subjects like Physics and Math being dreaded by students can be traced to the ill-suited pedagogical methods employed by science educators that strip science of its wonder. A method of teaching that focuses on an intuitive understanding of concepts, facilitated by good infrastructure and resources, can make the study of STEM subjects more enjoyable and add to the holistic education of the students. Equipped with the skills imparted by STEM education, students will be able to tackle the challenges of their jobs (be it in STEM or otherwise) and deal with other problems the world throws at them.
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Testimonials

Arjun Shukla is a final year economics student studying in Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi. He is an accomplished debater having won numerous accolades in the Delhi University parliamentary debating circuit and other circuits around the country. While at Mother’s International School, Arjun enrolled in the debating classes offered by Aawaaz. Below is his testimony detailing his experience with Aawaaz and what he took away from it.

Entering the DU debating circuit can be a daunting experience for a lot of freshers. The motions are obscure, the adjudication harsh, and the jargon unnecessary. It’s easy for anybody to be intimidated, but fortunately, I wasn’t – and Aawaaz is the singular reason why. Aawaaz had already equipped me with the skills required to approach the DU debating circuit. Back in high school, the highlight of my week was the weekly Aawaaz classes, where we would discuss and debate upon everything under the sun – from politics in India to the education system in Finland. In the midst of the heated discussions, unbeknownst to me, I was developing skills that proved to be of utmost value.  I was learning how to critically understand, analyse, and rebut arguments. I was developing the confidence to speak in a room full of people and drive my point home without any hesitation. Thus, unknowingly, I became a confident public speaker (arguably) and an above average debater (hopefully).

To restrict the impact of Aawaaz classes to my debating merit would be a disservice. For it has taught me life lessons transcending debate rooms. To think of it, there is no domain in my life which is not influenced by Aawaaz. I remember sitting in job interviews, and being given case studies to critically examine. Albeit nervous, I was at peace compared to the other candidate because I was exposed to critical thinking in high school itself. It has also helped me study huge chunks of syllabus a night prior to the exam, and come out of the exam hall with reasonable results. Most of all, Aawaaz has helped me develop into a more aware and responsible citizen of this country.

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What’s Next? Philosophy in Education

Why do we learn? What do we teach? How do we educate? 

These questions have dictated how education boards design curriculum, which pedagogical methods teachers use, and even how much emphasis society puts on different streams or bodies of knowledge and related professions. The definition of education has evolved- from being characterized as a means of attaining socio-economic mobility to being focused on the ‘all-round development’ of students. Perhaps this is why the Supreme Court of India mandated all CBSE schools in 2016 to incorporate ‘Moral Education’ in school curriculum. 

Subjects taught in schools seek to answer definitive questions and are defined as ‘ building blocks of knowledge’. To put it in simple words, Biology seeks to find out what life is made up of, history is oriented towards determining how we got to where we are and sociology seeks to answer questions surrounding social interactions, relationships, and hierarchies. 

But who asks these questions? And is there a value to that? 

Aristotle is considered to be the father of both Biology and Political Science- two subjects that are rarely associated with each other. However, neither of these concepts existed as ‘subjects’ during Aristotle’s time. Despite his significant contributions to different bodies of knowledge, Aristotle is primarily remembered and glorified as a philosopher.  

Philosophy is defined as “the study of knowledge ” or “the study of fundamental questions”. Whereas other subjects seek to answer questions about areas that are usually pre-defined, philosophy seeks to ask those questions, the answers to which have led to the creation of ‘subjects’, or bodies of knowledge. 

Where does this fit in? 

Our education system is flawed because we have devoted so much attention to what to learn and how to learn it, that there is not enough room left for students to ask, ‘Why?’. We need to question not only because it adds to our ability to develop new ideas but also because questioning assumptions and ‘facts’ is imperative to make healthy and rational decisions in life. This becomes even more important in the age of fake news and populist nationalistic politics. Learning to question narratives, policies and people right down to the most fundamental level (Socratic Questioning) enables us to make ‘rational and informed’ decisions in public life. 

It has become imperative that we keep asking ourselves, ‘Who we are?’ and  ‘What do we stand for?’ in this divisive world. Education exists to prepare people for healthy functioning in society. It is therefore important to teach children to question, to question continuously and repeatedly, to not just consume knowledge but also to study it. The study of philosophy is presently limited to very select circles of academia, and that needs to change.

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Levelling the Learning Field – Tech Can Do It Better

As 2020 takes a historically memorable turn, most students seem to have made necessary adjustments to carry on with their academic endeavours: buying bigger data packs, installing Google Classroom, and so forth. However, the disruption caused by COVID-19 cannot go unnoticed, and once again points at the weakness of the Indian education system. As a country that relies on public education for 71% of its learners, there’s a near-total split from schooling for a sizable section of school students in the wake of the pandemic. When they can resume their learning goes unanswered, simply because there’s no existing plan to facilitate eLearning.

The stark reality in current times is that India has a visible obsession with digitization in all spheres and the current government believes that the nation will soon play a role in defining the knowledge economy of this century. However, achieving the latter is increasingly unlikely, without the foundation of a more holistic education that introduces technology early on, and that is yet to occur. 

At the same time, the union budget allocation for education has dipped from 4.14% in 2014-15 to 3.45% of the GDP in 2019-20. Raising the budgetary allowance to at least 6% of GDP share is a necessity for a nation having a demanding responsibility of educating 133.92 crore Indians.

So why, despite the cash-strapped economy, is education technology still worth introducing on a larger scale? Access to technology can provide more equalised learning to a greater number of students. It has been long ignored that when students are marginalized from the current system owing to gender, caste, and other social disadvantages; it is challenging for them to be motivated to learn skills in the classroom set-up. Learning apps, audio-visual resources and even educational games can help embed interest in schooling. Technology can better serve the linguistic needs of students across the nation as well. eBooks allow students to better access their curriculum, as many schools in rural areas report understocking of textbooks. In further pursuit of accessible education, the eLearning industry can offer several resources to accommodate students with different learning pace and also customize audio, visual and textual materials for students with a diverse range of disabilities.

The harder task at hand is identifying the best way, to begin with this introduction. Inaugural efforts were made by the NITI Aayog that launched Atal Innovation Mission to familiarise students with STEM technology, robotics, and so forth: after realising the importance of creating innovators. Interestingly, only schools with 1000 square ft. of built-up free space are considered eligible to apply and get an Atal Tinkering Lab under this mission. This is reminiscent of Green Revolution-style hopes and results: selective picking of institutions that are already better off in an ambitious programme that is not sustainable in the long run, while hoping that it will launch India into a new Digital Age. The Mission running from 2015-16 has not churned out any noticeable achievements, while each ATL enabled school continues to get Rs. 20 lakh of tax money.

The power of humbler beginnings: Starting smaller might minimise the wastage of funding and make outreach of technology more divergent. Simply put; introducing one PC, or teaching usage of few educational apps (India has 200 million+ rural smartphone users as per Kantar IMRB) and involving parents with lesser technical know-how in the same can yield better integration of technology in Indian education with lesser cost than monumental missions right now.

The introduction of equitable education using technology depends on improving policy formulation along with more realistic budgeting. After all, it is the Prime Minister who himself said, ‘the world is at an inflection point where technological advancement is transformational.’

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Competition and the Myth of Success

If each of us got a penny each time we were asked ‘So, how much did you get in that exam?’ by a classmate, parent or relative, we would all be millionaires. This seemingly harmless question exemplifies the sad reality of our education system. The question is not ‘How happy are you with your performance?’ or ‘How have you improved from the last exam?’ Here, you are only as much as your marksheet says.

For too long, the characteristic competitiveness of our system has been brushed off as an inevitable consequence of a large population with limited opportunities to succeed. The social narratives of success and failure that we simultaneously produce and sustain ourselves on are rigid – high-paying, stable professions carrying social status are the only ones worth pursuing. These narratives are also widely flawed; most of us are familiar with the almost impossible odds of getting into an IIT or cracking the NEET, and the increasing unemployment rates of mainstream professions because of the incongruence between demand and supply. Yet we still continue to run the race, believing that if we struggle now, it’ll pay off in the end. The truth is harsh – there is no end to the race, there are no winners.

The intense competition hits those hardest who aren’t adept in subjects and skills that the system values. Being labelled as a failure for not ‘putting enough effort’ towards the predetermined goal and the anxiety of letting down their family takes an immense toll on the mental health of students. According to a 2015 Lancet Report, India’s student suicide rate is one of the highest in the world – one student kills themselves every hour. Even those students who seemingly thrive in this system are not better off. The constant pressure to perform exceedingly well ensures that even academically talented students define themselves solely in terms of their marks and ranks – the sole incentive to do any activity is how good you’ll be at it compared to the rest, and how it’ll boost your college application.

The most explicit manifestation of this competition-driven structure is the shadow education system comprising professional coaching classes, entrance exam driven pre-university colleges and centres like Kota. Competition, however, exists even in apparently liberal-minded circles – the college admissions scandal in the US which saw the conviction of several celebrities for bribing their children’s way into Ivy League universities is the best example of this. We would do quite literally everything it takes to get ahead.

It is ironic that what becomes worst affected by the rigidly competitive nature of the education system is personal satisfaction. The exercise of individual choice to discover and develop interests and aptitudes is at best, respected only in choosing hobbies, and at worst, simply not respected at all. The intense competition we were subjected to as children is something we carry with us into adulthood and subject our children to as well. We think of our salary in comparison to our colleagues’, our promotions in comparison to those of our college friends’, and our children’s mark sheets in comparison to the neighbour’s children’s. A 2013 report by Gallup shows that in East Asia, only 6% of workers reported being happy in their jobs. We simply don’t know how to build an identity and define any milestones in our lives in terms exclusive of others and their success. The satisfaction that ‘success’ promises us remains a myth; we instead suffer from stress-induced conditions of diabetes, hypertension, depression and other mental illnesses.

To create a healthier, happier workforce and student population, we must break down the monistic definition of success that colours our ambitions. Ideas are already trickling in – the overhaul of traditional career counselling methods, skill development conclaves for students across economic strata and opportunities to explore different avenues without the pressure to excel are necessities. Competition might still be valuable, but only when it pushes students to be the best they can be in comparison with what they were. The best college means the one that is best suited to our inclinations, not the highest ranked one. The best career is that which best allows us to explore our passions, not the one with the largest paycheck.

We probably cannot do away with competition altogether, but we can find healthier channels for it; at the very least, we must not allow it to remain the rigid spine of a broken system. It’s time we started viewing our children as individuals with aspirations in their own right, not merely racehorses bred to run infinite lengths.

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Hello, World!

While scribbling on the walls of his house an idea was born, the idea was- Aawaaz. 

Tarang Tripathi and Vibhor Mathur, our founders, recognized the underlying problems with the Indian Education System. The system believes that to succeed in life all you need to do is excel in academics.

This simple idea disregards the fact that students who come from weaker socio-economic backgrounds will always be at a disadvantage, even when given the same access to education. Coming from a more privileged educational experience, his experience as a teacher in a government school made him realize first hand the magnitude of inequality that exists in education in India. He wanted to look at the reasons and causes behind this educational inequality and perhaps try to enhance the access of underprivileged students to quality education. To expand the impact that he wanted to see, he founded Aawaaz in 2014. In its first year, Aawaaz was a small project within Teach For India where we designed a curriculum that was aimed at increasing public speaking skills in students while informing them of the multiple complexities (caste, religion, class, language) that exist in their class and around them. 

“I believed that dialogue and communication were key in striving towards a better form of education for the students. Working with the students of a government school I realized that to break free and move ahead of their obstacles, often all they require is just the right help like I did. They need the right platform, the right curriculum, and the right educational environment to support them,” – Tarang Tripathi.

As an organization, we realized that the problem of inequity did not just exist in government schools, but across private schools as well. We focus on training teachers and creating curricula that are aimed at achieving equity by including the different socioeconomic, cultural, religious and linguistic and economic differences that get left out of classroom teachings and discussions. Mobilizing 150 volunteers, today we have reached 100+ private and government schools across the country, helping them develop three particular strands: Extra Curricular, Co-Curricular and Academic Growth. Some of our work includes developing the Social Science curriculum for Grade 6-8th, facilitating debate and MUN training, organizing skill development workshops,  and working with teachers to develop a more inclusive classroom.

Our mission is to make education equitable and accessible to all, which has driven and motivated our small team to work tirelessly over the course of these five long years. Over the years we have evolved into an organization with a national presence and yet we realize that there is a long way to go. We hope to make education more accessible and more interesting by fostering conducive relationships with not just students but also with teachers, parents and fellow educators across India.