Injecting Beauty of Science in Teaching
Dear teachers and friends, my greetings to all of you. I am delighted to talk to you on this happy occasion of Teachers' Day. This is the day of remembrance of Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Let us recall his advice to the teachers: "The sense of human need is there and the teacher can satisfy it by giving to the youth an idea of the fundamental power and worth of man, his spiritual dignity as man, a supra-national culture and an all embracing humanity." Being a teacher myself, I always look forward to this important day to share some of my thoughts with my fellow teachers and citizens. So far, we had exchanged the ideas, through my talks on the subjects:
(a) Three of my teachers
(b) Education for Dignity of Human life
(c) Children Friendly Education
(d) Aim always high.
I have been continuously interacting with the teachers in person and through e-mails. When my interaction with all of you is so intense, I was wondering what new topic that I can discuss with you, today. My visits to many schools and what the children whom I met taught me, has become the motivation for the choice of the topic. I thought I must share with you what I learnt from your own disciples. I would like to talk to you on "Injecting Beauty of Science in Teaching".
My meeting with school students
During the last five years, I have met about six hundred thousands students from all parts of the country, particularly in the age group 10 to 17 years. I make it a point to answer at least 10 to 15 questions whenever I meet them, in addition, through my website, I have answered thousands of questions of the students in India and abroad. I would like to illustrate the typical curious young minds, particularly to the teachers so that you will know the expectations, aspirations, intellectual alertness and the dreams of our students.
The first question that comes to my mind, pertains to Gravity. On 20th August 2005, I went to Bangalore and participated in the inauguration of Silver Jubilee of Karnataka Rajya Vij-nana Parishat. The function was attended by children from 12 different schools in Bangalore. After my address, some of the children asked very interesting scientific questions which I would like to share with you. Master Prajwal P. Acharya of 9th Standard, Prar-thana School, asked me "What is the relationship between Time & Universal Gravitation?" I appreciated this beautiful question. I told him, that the concept of time, space and universal gravitation is very exciting and has engaged great minds. "Gravity is the force of attraction between massive particles due to their mass. Weight is determined by the mass of an object and its location in a gravitational field. While a great deal is known about the properties of gravity, the ultimate cause of the gravitational force remains an open question. General relativity is the most successful theory of gravitation, to date. It postulates that mass and energy curve, space-time, resulting in the phenomena known as gravity." There are books on the subject and websites that explain these concepts extremely well. I asked the students to study further.
The next question came from Master Bharath Choudhari - 10th Standard student from Athena Public School on Ocean exploration. He asked me "Why we are not exploring the Ocean more than the Space?" I told him that Ocean is restricted to the size of the earth whereas the space is unlimited. Reaching the depth of the ocean is tougher than reaching large heights in the space. In spite of the difficulty in reaching the depth of the ocean, we still explore the ocean and many benefits accrue to the mankind. There are many treasures of knowledge, several interesting forms of marine life and a variety of natural resources are explored from the depth of the ocean. Our off shore oil fields in the Mumbai High, is a good example.
Another student from the audience asked "What is the difference between a Scientist and a Philosopher". I answered - the thinking process is common to both the philosopher and the scientist. Scientist deals with theory which has to be validated. Philosopher postulates theological, philosophical and spiritual thoughts, the validation seems to be the societal dynamics. The science ultimately results in to technology and benefits the society. Philosophy, will lead the way to the dynamics of society.
What are the messages emanating out these three questions? I am giving you the details of these questions so that as teachers, you should also welcome such questions during your classes and interaction with the students. Particularly between the age 14 and 17 of students, it is very important to infuse in young minds the beauty, challenge and bliss of science. This is the period when students make up their mind, whether to go for science, engineering, medical, bio, law or humanities.
Propagate the probing of scientific minds
Let me share with you two great probing minds of twentieth century, periodically that I share with the students and teachers. One mind that created the Raman Effect and the other mind that was responsible for the evolution of the famous energy equation.
A. Towards Raman Effect:
Why the sea is blue? The view has been expressed that the dark blue of the deep sea has nothing to do with the color of water. But is simply the blue of the sky seen by reflection. Sir C.V. Raman then questions this view describing his own experiment on board the ship: Observations made in this way in the deeper waters of Mediterranean and Red sea showed that the colour so far, from being impoverished by suppression of sky reflection was wonderfully improved here by. It was abundantly clear from the observation that the blue color of the deep sea is a distinct phenomenon itself and not merely an effect due to reflected sky light. Later Raman draws attention to the connection between the colour of deep waters and the Einstein - Smo-lu-chow-ski formula. Naturally he starts by saying that the sky is blue because of scattering of light by the molecules in the upper atmosphere. But the colour of the sea is a different matter. Raman gives an entirely different view that in this phenomenon as in the parallel case of the colour of sky molecular diffraction determines the observed luminosity and in great measures also its colour.
Now let me take up the example of Albert Einstein who evolved the E=MC2.
B. Teachers influence:
In Albert Einstein life, we find that his interest in science started early, beginning with his encounter with magnetism, which he called "the first miracle". He was given a compass by his father and Einstein was endlessly fascinated by the fact that invisible forces could make object move. This experience made a lasting impression on him. At the age of 12, he experienced second wonder in a little book given by his mentor Max Tal-mud "Holy Geometry Book". Einstein called this his "second miracle". Here Einstein made contact with the realm of pure thought. Without expensive laboratories or equipment, he could explore universal truth, limited only by the power of human mind. Mathematics became an endless source of pleasure to Einstein, especially if intriguing puzzles and mysteries were involved.
Visualizing pictures: Einstein's father was in an electro chemical business. Being in the midst of electro magnetic contraptions awakened an intuitive understanding of electricity and magnetism in Albert Einstein. It sharpened his ability to develop graphic, physical pictures that would describe the laws of nature with uncanny accuracy. This trait, the ability to see everything in terms of physical pictures, would mark one of Einstein's great characteristics as a physicist.
Freedom to Learn: Though born in Germany, Einstein moved to Zurich Polytechnic Institute in Switzerland. The entry into the polytechnic did not require a high school diploma, just a passing grade on its tough entrance examination was sufficient. Einstein failed in the entrance examination but he did exceptionally well in the Maths and Physics section. That impressed the Principal and he promised to take him during the following year without an entrance test. The message we get from this experience is about having a flexible system of admission. Also an ability to spot the aptitude of the student in a particular subject and nourishing the talents. In addition, Einstein enjoyed the liberal atmosphere of the Swiss school.
Simplicity in description: Unlike some who often got lost in Mathematics, Einstein got in terms of simple physical picture - speeding trains, falling elevators, rockets and moving clocks. These pictures would unerringly guide him through the greatest ideas of the twentieth century. He wrote "All physical theories, their mathematical expression not withstanding, ought to lend themselves to so simple, a description that even the young could understand". This is a very important message for all researchers and teachers. Here the birth of famous simple, elegant and very powerful energy equation E=MC2, which decided war and peace system of the world.
Now I would like to discuss about my teacher Prof Thothatri Iyengar.
My Mathematics teacher
As a young science student, I had an opportunity at St. Joseph's College to witness a unique scene of divine looking personality walking through the college campus every morning, and teaching Mathematics to various degree courses. Students looked at the personality who was a symbol of our own culture, with awe and respect. When he walked, knowledge radiated all around. The great personality was, Prof Thothatri Iyengar, our teacher. At that time, 'Calculus' Srinivasan who was my mathematics teacher, used to talk about Prof Thothatri Iyengar with deep respect. They had an understanding to have an integrated class by Thothatri Iyengar for first year B.Sc. (Hons) and first year B.Sc. (Physics). Thus, I also had the opportunity to attend his classes, particularly on modern algebra, statistics and complex variables. When we were in the B.Sc first year, Calculus Srinivasan used to select top ten students to the Mathematics Club of St. Joseph's, which was addressed by Prof Thothatri Iyengar. I still remember, in 1952, he gave a lecture on ancient mathematicians and astronomers of India. In that lecture he introduced four great mathematician and astronomers, which is still ringing in my ears.
He explained, based on his analysis, that Aryabhata was both an astronomer and mathematician, born in 476 AD in Kusuma-pura (now called Patna). He was known to represent a summary of all Maths at that point of time. Just when he was only 23 years old, he wrote his book ARYA-BHATI-YAM in two parts. He covered important areas like arithmetic, algebra (first ever contributor), trigonometry and of course, astronomy. He gave formulae for the areas of a triangle and a circle and attempted to give the volumes of a sphere and a pyramid. He was the first to give value of 22/7.
My teacher added: next comes to our mind the greatest of all geniuses ever known and acknowledged, and who lived within our present memory, Srinivasa Ramanujan. He lived just for about 33 years (1887-1920), had no practical formal education or means of living. Yet, his inexhaustible spirit and love for his subject made him contribute to treasure house of mathematical research - some of which are still under serious study and engaging all-available world mathematicians' efforts to establish formal proofs. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that it was Hardy who discovered Ramanujan for the world. One of the tributes to Ramanujan says that, "every Integer is a personal friend of Ramanujan."
His works cover vast areas including Prime Numbers, Hyper-geometric Series, Modular Functions, Elliptic Functions, Mock Theta Functions, even magic squares, apart from serious side works on geometry of ellipses, squaring the circle etc. During the lecture my teacher inspired us with two other great Indian astronomy mathematicians Brahma-gupta who wrote BRAHMA SPHU-TA SIDDHANTA and Bhaskar-acharya and his SIDDHANTHA- SIROMANI.
Now I would like to talk about Autonomous learners, learning by doing and the needs of the present day students.
In today's world of communication and information, a student has an ample load of information coming to him from multitude of sources. Some of them are authenticated and some are not. It is today possible for a student to move with almost a very reasonably sized library in his laptop and an access to the entire world of information through the Internet. He need not tax his brain's storage and recall capacities. The education system should give the training to the students to cull the relevant knowledge out of this vast information. The teachers should guide the students in this regard and build a capacity in them to become autonomous learners.
Learning by doing
Many students find large disconnects between what they learn in schools and what they do when they find a job. A very successful attempt world over had been to introduce the concepts of "learning by doing" at least in measured quanta in schools. Further, the growth of communication and connectivity had made it possible to "replicate" a good teacher breaking the barriers of distance. I am sure that the learned teachers would take note of these changes that are made possible by great scientific inventions maturing into technology, and use them to their best advantage to make sure that scalable and global high quality education becomes a reality very soon.
What the Students of Today want
Today the young students want the school system to feed and challenge their innovative and creative minds. They are the creators of tomorrow's science and they want to think about it today. A good system of education should be able to satisfy this insatiable hunger for knowledge. In my discussion with scientists in EPFL, Switzerland, we realized that students get attracted to science if it has all the ingredients- scientific problems should sufficiently trigger their curiosity, should be practically relevant and should be beautiful to pursue. The teachers must be role models in the world of knowledge and in day-to-day life, worthy of emulation. Creating an education system that has all the above ingredients is solely in the hands of the teachers and educationists. The solution is universal and does not depend on which country you live in. Science and science pursuits are borderless.
Science is a fascinating subject. And for a scientist it is a life time mission. Mastery in sciences needs understanding of mathematics. Mathematics in combination with science; shines. What is needed is confronting theory with experimentation. For enabling the student to capture the thought, the student should be motivated to visualize and imagine the phenomenon as done by Einstein who reasoned that if you could run along side a light beam, then the light beam should be perfectly at rest. This means that the light beam, as seen by the runner, would look like a frozen wave, a still photographer away. Learning science needs freedom to think and freedom to imagine. Both have to be facilitated by our teachers and the education system. They have to ask questions which are challenging and allow the student to think and come up with an answer. Teachers must also find answers to the questions asked by the students or at least guide the students towards an approach through which the student can find an answer. Eventually the teacher has to create a life long autonomous learner who will blossom into an enlightened citizen.
May God bless you