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Instead Of Obsessing Over Marks, India Should Focus On Making Students ‘Science-Literate’

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In India, science has a craze among students and parents alike. It needs to be learned and understood if one wishes to score marks. But its significance has a larger perspective which extends beyond this image of a subject where one can score marks.

In all probability, the Constitution of India is the only Constitution in the world which reminds its citizens to develop and practise their ‘scientific temper’. Article 51 A(h) states, “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper, humanism and spirit of inquiry and reform.

As an independent nation, India started out well by prioritising science. Jawaharlal Nehru coined the term ‘scientific temper’ which, in my opinion, will forever be a gift to the scientific community and the Indian masses. The Wikipedia entry on ‘scientific temper’ reads – “Scientific temper is a way of life – an individual and social process of thinking and acting which uses a scientific method which may include questioning, observing reality, testing, hypothesizing, analyzing and communicating (not necessarily in that order).”  Nehru himself states that: “[…] It is the scientific approach, the adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on pre-conceived theory, the hard discipline of the mind—all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems.” He went on to give this nation 32 educational and scientific institutions in a span of 15 years between 1948-1963.

This was a boost for science, India and its people. Furthermore, on March 4, 1958, the Scientific Policy Resolution (SPR) of Government of India came into force. It clearly stated, “The dominating feature of the contemporary world is the intense cultivation of science on a large scale, and its application to meet a country’s requirements.” The Technology Policy Statement (TPS) of 1983 emphasised the need to attain technological competence and self-reliance. The Science and Technology Policy (STP) of 2003 highlighted the significance of science and technology (S&T) together. It emphasized the need for investment into R&D to address national problems. The Science, Technology & Innovation Policy 2013 articulated the need for innovation and the creation of a national innovation ecosystem.

Scientific Literacy Is As Important As An Education In Science

Science is a part and parcel of our curriculum. It is integrated in our education system – and is omnipresent in schools, colleges and universities. The teachers strive hard to make it accessible and comprehensible for the students. But today, this has become more of a static process where marks and degrees take an upper hand along with theoretical knowledge. There’s extremely less focus on the teaching/learning methods involved. So, a system for providing an education in science exists, but what about science literacy?

Science literacy stands on four pillars, namely:

1. Knowledge of the basic facts of science.

2. Understanding the methods of science by questioning, experimenting, observing, and drawing inferences.

3. Appreciation of the positive results after scientific experiments.

4. To reject unconquered beliefs.

In the words of Jon Miller, Director of the Public Opinion Laboratory at Northern Illinois University, “Scientific Literacy is one of those terms that is often used but seldom defined. The scientifically literate should understand the scientific method and vocabulary well enough to follow public debates about issues involving science and technology.”

Against the backdrop of this concept of science communication and literacy, India has been witnessing many such efforts, as is exemplified by the people’s science movement (PSM). The first prominent movement took place in the 1960s in the Kannur district of Kerala. It was organised by the Kerala Shashtra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), which was a forum of science writers. It devised a new way of involving the masses with science by taking out ‘Science Jathas’. The Jathas consisted of small groups of scientists, teachers, students and youths, travelling from village to village in a kind of procession, staging theatrical shows at every stop, accompanied by songs and the distribution of leaflets. A decade later, KSSP undertook a theme called ‘Science for Social Revolution’. This was termed as the best initiative focused on science literacy much more than science education. Its result was seen in the literacy movement in Kerala which made Ernakulum the nation’s first fully-literate district.

Attaining science literacy is as important as getting a degree in science. (Representative image. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In 1981, the Nehru Centre in Bombay, released a document by P N Haksar,  Dr Raja Ramanna and Dr PM Bhargava titled “A Statement on Scientific Temper”. In the introduction to the document, Dr Raja Ramanna says- “The nation owes a deep debt of gratitude to Jawaharlal Nehru, more than to any other, for the sustained growth and many-sided development of modern science and technology in India, as viable instruments of social transformation. The need of the time is the diffusion of science and technology into the societal fabric at all levels. This can only be achieved by promotion of what Jawaharlal Nehru chose to call the Scientific Temper – a rational attitude, the importance of which he emphasized time and again. Indeed, the Scientific Temper has to be fostered with care at the individual, institutional, social and political levels.” Presently, this template of science communication and popularisation is being carried out by the All India People’s Science Network (AIPSN) which is a network of over forty Peoples Science organisations, and the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS), which has units in 23 states and 350 districts with more than 300,000 volunteers (in more than 10,000 villages) working with an aim to bridge the knowledge, economic and social divides.

Successive ‘science policies’ of the past governments have put sufficient emphasis on the communication issue, but the on-ground results are still disappointing. In fact, science communication and literacy have taken a backseat in recent years, compared to the growth of science education. According to a Huffington Post article, “The Delhi-based Centre for the Study in Developing Societies (CSDS) and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS), a German foundation associated with a political party, conducted a sample survey on 6122 respondents in the age group of 15-34 years in 19 Indian states.” The survey was meant to collect the views of Indian youth on various issues. According to the survey, a majority of the respondents believed that religion (47%) should take precedence over science (33%). In another incident, the Indian Science Congress (2015) witnessed discussions about 40-engine planes and ancient surgery overshadow all other agendas. In response to this Dr Ram Prasad Gandhiraman, a scientist with the Nasa’s Ames Research Centre in California, filed an online petition asking for the session be cancelled, because it fused science with mythology.

Instead of popularising science, the Indian government is polarising the masses on issues which go against the spirit of scientific enquiry.

Why Science Communication Is Needed

Today, we are in midst of a very fast era of media communication. Here, social media has created an important place for itself, in between electronic and print media. But, people are not seeing science as popular tool even today.

At present, there are a number of science magazines which are available to readers across the nation. Some of these are:

1. “Resonance” by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc)

2. “Science Reporter” by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)

3. “Sandarbh”

4. “Science Festival”

5. “Current Science”

6. “Dream 2047” by Vigyan Prasar

7. “Safari Magazine”

But, the state of science communication in all three formats of media (print, electronic and social) is very gloomy and pathetic. The popularisation of science is vital to addressing the ill effects of the enormous number of superstitions in this country. On the other hand, a strong science communication system can lead to meaningful public debates where scientific values are grasped by the masses easily. This trend has a potential to make science open and accessible to public.

As a nation, we should have-

1. An Indian science channel, which will watch and spread awareness on the ongoing developments in the field of science.

2. An annual science festival which should have the backing of the government and different science organisations.

3. Science parks, museums and planetariums. In my opinion, these should become mandatory for every state in India, since they will act as bridges between the scientific community, the masses, the media and the government.

4. Educational career programmes on science communication. These must also be prioritised by the government.

After independence, India has seen some bright ‘science communicators’ such as Satyendranath Bose, Meghnad Saha, CV Raman, Jagjit Singh and JBS Haldane. In recent years, eminent scientists like Jayant V Narlikar, Yash Pal, PM Bhargava have been popularising science through their articles, lectures, science fiction books, etc. All these individuals and their efforts highlight the message that scientific temper has more to do with the method of science and the process of scientific enterprise.

Science is more than just a subject. Parallel to science education, science literacy has a significant dual role to play. One, it needs to percolate into the minds of our citizens – as a way to lead life based on questioning, experimenting, observing and drawing inferences. Secondly, it needs to make people realise that science has a significant role in shaping our society by offering solutions to various existing crises.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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