A new approach

Print edition : December 16, 2011

Publications of Vigyan Prasar are designed to kindle an interest in science. -

Vigyan Prasar's efforts to popularise mathematics and science have been hugely successful.

MATHEMATICS is the most important subject in the school curriculum in India, at least for many middle-class families. But the way the subject is taught merits close scrutiny. It is presented as a labyrinth of numbers that can intimidate even the best of students. Analytical mathematics is hardly taught at the elementary level. Vigyan Prasar, as an organisation that promotes scientific temper, seeks to address the fear of mathematics and turn it into an interesting venture for children.

It is in the process of designing innovative experiments around numbers, which it plans to disseminate to teachers across the country through workshops at various centres. They would then be expected to use these techniques to teach children mathematical skills. Scientists at Vigyan Prasar believe that getting over the fear of mathematics and science will help students look at things rationally.

As part of its International Year of Chemistry celebrations this year, Vigyan Prasar is trying to take simple chemical experiments to the grass roots. The idea is to increase children's understanding of chemistry and denounce the theory that it is a specialised study done in laboratories. Vigyan Prasar's programmes to promote scientific temper will help rid society of many a superstition. It has helped ward off fear about astronomical phenomena such as solar and lunar eclipses considered ill omens in India. Vigyan Prasar's main focus, since its birth, has been astronomy, of the kind school syllabi do not cover. In 2010, Vigyan Prasar gave full attention to biodiversity and its conservation as part of the celebrations of the International Year of Biodiversity. It distributed simple yet interesting literature to students about their surroundings.

One of the stories went thus: Earth is the only spaceship with life on it. Animals, plants and microorganisms maintain a delicate balance with a variety of life forms we call biodiversity. Individual species and ecosystems have evolved over millions of years into a complex of interdependence. It is like a jigsaw puzzle of interlocking of species. Among all life forms, only we, Homo sapiens, have the ability to change our immediate surroundings and adjust with it quickly due to our ability to use tools. This is one of the reasons why man, on the top of the evolutionary ladder, considers himself to be on top of all species rather than one amongst many species. Each species which has evolved on this earth plays a specific role in the ecosystem and also depends on other species for its existence. We know that life has continued to evolve on this earth over millions of years adapting to changing environment. And only those species have survived that have adapted to the changing environment. This change could be due to natural causes like earthquakes, eruption of volcanoes, cyclones, and so on. It could even be due to climate change. The major mass extinction of species in the past was the result of some natural causes. These natural causes of extinction have proved to be blessings in disguise and at the same time opened up the gates for the evolution of new species like the extinction of dinosaurs gave way to the evolution of higher forms of mammalians.

Scientific temper with humanism is Vigyan Prasar's agenda as it tries to promote sciences both for national integration and economic development. Of late, it has tried to help implement development programmes such as the National Rural Health Mission, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. While Vigyan Prasar has entered many districts successfully and its science clubs function with considerable regularity, in the hinterlands the going has been tough because of low literacy and poor development levels. And because of this it is working closely with the various Ministries of the government which give full support to Vigyan Prasar's agenda.

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) helps Vigyan Prasar in its efforts at promoting scientific temper. Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research (INSPIRE) is sponsored and managed by DST to attract talent to science. The basic objective of INSPIRE is to communicate to the youth of the country the excitements of creative pursuit of science, attract talent to the study of science at an early age, and thereby build the required critical human resource pool for strengthening and expanding the science and technology system and the research and development base.

A striking feature of the programme is that it does not believe in conducting competitive examinations for identification of talent at any level. It believes in and relies on the efficacy of the existing educational structure for identification of talent.

Vigyan Prasar is not concentrating on educational ventures alone. It runs camps to sensitise people about acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) and address their fears about it. Though Vigyan Prasar started as a small initiative, it has now expanded its scope and function. With support from the government, it has charted a path that will lead to the popularisation of rational thinking in India.

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