Chandrayaan 3: A big leap for India's education system

ISRO's Chandrayaan-3 landed on the moon on 23 August 2023. (ANI Photo) (ISRO twitter)
ISRO's Chandrayaan-3 landed on the moon on 23 August 2023. (ANI Photo) (ISRO twitter)

Summary

  • While the commercial advantages are substantial, the broader impact on national self-confidence and educational aspiration may well prove to be the mission's enduring legacy.

In a display of engineering ingenuity, India's latest moon mission--Chandrayaan-3--has not only advanced the country's stake in the burgeoning space economy but also invigorated national pride. Orchestrated by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the mission successfully placed a landing craft on the moon and deployed a rover, designed to beam back crucial data on lunar soil composition. Impressively, this technical marvel was achieved on a budget that pales in comparison to the production costs of an average medium-sized U.S. science fiction film. The feat catapults India into an elite club of lunar explorers, previously comprising only three other nations.

Beyond the evident commercial prospects in space exploration, the mission serves as a testament to the potential of Indian engineering and innovation. This success sends a clear message to budding entrepreneurs in India: the nation is more than capable of world-class technological endeavours, and pre-established Western models are not the sole pathways to innovation.

The triumph is also poised to have a ripple effect on education, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The mission's success, and the wonder therein, could lure more of India's youth towards STEM careers. The excitement of traversing thousands of miles in space and uncovering the universe's enigmas could coax a whole new generation towards scientific inquiry.

However, to capitalize on this momentum, substantial investment in educational reform is imperative. While India's National Education Policy outlines the development of critical thinking skills, it operates within a political climate that often stifles questioning and perceives dissent as subversive. To truly harness the newfound enthusiasm for STEM, an overhaul of pedagogy and teaching methodologies is essential, especially at school level.

Currently, the emphasis in school education is primarily on scoring high marks or, at its most progressive, simple knowledge acquisition. However, the ultimate goal should shift towards teaching students the lifelong skill of learning how to learn. Schools should serve as incubators for open-minded exploration, fostering a curiosity-driven approach to the limitless potential of human progress through knowledge enhancement. This is in stark contrast to merely filling students' minds with a selective set of facts.

Achieving this paradigm shift would require a comprehensive re-education of educators themselves. Teachers must be retrained to nurture skills such as observation, analysis, and logical reasoning in their students. Such a transformative overhaul in pedagogy would also necessitate substantial revisions to textbooks, teaching aids, and laboratory facilities. The investment required for these reforms is considerable, not just in terms of financial resources but also in administrative willpower, to effectively usher in this transformative change.

A bane of the college and university system introduced by the British in India has been the separation of teaching and research. While colleges and universities mostly served as imparters of received wisdom, research was taken out of academic campuses and located, such as was encouraged, in specialized government or government-sponsored laboratories.  

A chief distinction between physics and metaphysics is experimentation. If students, divorced from research and thus from the world of pathbreaking experiments, end up learning by rote rather than assimilating the lessons of an experiment they get to dirty their hands on, the blame lies not with them.

To expand lab facilities in educational institutions ranging from high schools to universities, and bring them up to current standards, it will require additional funds. India spends 0.65% of GDP on research and development. Countries like South Korea and Israel spend upwards of 6% of GDP on R&D. Ever since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012 and started dreaming of the Chinese Dream, China’s spending on R&D has steadily climbed and is now over 2% of GDP.

India cannot hope to prosper merely on the strength of the fruits of research conducted elsewhere. Indian companies have to turn more ambitious, and sponsor research at universities. The government must vastly increase its own outlays on and for R&D. Even in the US, a sizeable chunk of research funding at university departments come from the government.

The Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act provides tax breaks and subsidies for research in climate technologies, apart from subsidies for adopting renewable energy and e-mobility. Tax breaks and subsidies work well in a system with integrity, and are a good way to incentivize the private sector to channel research funds into areas deemed of prime importance by the government.

Libraries, science museums, shared infrastructure of the kind the government has already initiated for students to tinker with actual lab equipment and state funding for making vital online resources accessible for all would have to supplement the additional outlays on school infrastructure, revamping teacher training, and R&D.

If all this is done double quick, the ferment set off by the moon mission would lead on to material gains in science, technology, sustained research and knowledge creation, and to business ideas that break the mould.

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