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Are we teaching biology well?

Subhash Lakhotia, Banaras Hindu University


 

Ever since the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws in 1900 and the emergence of synthetic theory of evolution couple of decades later, the discipline of biology continues to experience the most remarkable expansion. Its exponential growth has been especially notable during the past several decades, thanks to the very rapid progresses in the technologies available for examining and analyzing complex biological systems. The canvas of biology today has enormous expanse, ranging from the traditional descriptive morphology, anatomy, systematics etc to highly experimental physiology, genetics, cell and molecular biology etc. The emergence of genetic engineering, biotechnology, the various ‘omics’ and the bioinformatics has made biology all pervasive in human affairs as well. Developments in nanotechnology are opening yet new vistas for biological studies. With such a wide canvas and the continuing un-paralleled growth in our understanding of the biological processes and the potential for application of this increasing information and understanding, a student of biology today has reasons to be highly excited as well as confused or even depressed about the present and the future. The learning process in class-rooms can deeply affect the excited or confused state of young minds. Unfortunately, the way biology is being taught in most places of learning seems to push the young minds more towards the confused or “lost” state.

 

Majority of the traditional biology departments in colleges and universities continue to teach what was being taught several decades ago as if biology has ceased to be a live discipline. On the other extreme are courses that teach only the so-called molecular biology or biotechnology without much reference to basic biology (including cell biology, genetics etc). This later class of teaching programs seems to believe that the so-called “classical biology” is dead and is best forgotten! Obviously both are misguided and, therefore, are “producing” graduates who fail to really appreciate the vast canvas of biology and rather than feel the excitement of being at the threshold of revelation of deeper secrets of life, they either get lost on the path or just carry on with trivial issues.

 

The other limitation that most of the teaching programs in our universities/colleges suffer from is the highly compartmentalized subject combinations. Generally, the “bio”- and the “math”-groups are not allowed to gel together. The consequences are obvious – a near complete lack of truly interdisciplinary approach to any topic of research. The inability to appreciate and understand languages of different disciplines does not allow even to wisely use the laboratory gadgets (small or big) that are becoming increasingly common and fashionable. While these gadgets are expected to make life of the investigator “simpler”, in the absence of proper understanding, they may in reality bring in more complications because of the indiscriminate use without the application of mind.

 

The other side of the vast canvas of biology is that if one were to really “teach” everything that continues to be added by researchers, burden of the enormous information would indeed flatten the recipients beyond recognition!

 

Obviously, we need a balanced learning process where concepts rather than the quantum of information have the priority. The big question for discussion is: how do we achieve this balance? I will share my views later.

 

Subhash C. Lakhotia

Cytogenetics Laboratory, Department of Zoology,

Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi 221 005

e-mail: lakhotia@bhu.ac.in

Initiating students to research questions at early stages,

Initiating students to research questions at early stages, is one way of introducing them to the excitement of science and to catch them young to pursue science!(This is exactly what is missing in the large university system in India, with its 'class room lectures' and the staid set of 'praticals'). In biology, this should have been easier done in a country like India, abounding with biodiversity. However, research questions are unnecessariy associated with "5 Star facility" as Prof Lakhotia had alluded to, elsewhere, in connection with the 'model systems'. The initiative by the Rajasthan state DST in awarding grants for undergraduate research using simple model systems, is a heartening development. The possibiity of this model of research, to be undertaken collaboratively by undergraduate students across the country, is being explored by the National Initiative for Udergraduate Science (NIUS) at the Homi Bhabha Center for Science Education. If the ongoing collaboration between Jaipur group and undergraduate students in Mumbai is any indication, this model is likely to be emulated by many, soon enough. Mentoring groups of students in far flung areas by establishing 'functional linkages' between scientists in research centers on the one hand and college teachers in hinterlands, on the other,according to some of us, is an idea whose time has come! Better Internet penetration schemes along with forums like Indibioscience can make it work faster. Needless to say, sincere effort of people like Prof Lakhotia in asking people to look differently, will help in bringing about this necessary change, the so-called market forces nothwithstanding!

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Sir, You have started a great

Sir, You have started a great discussion. I think there are lot of confusions in everyone's mind, be it students or the system itself !
1- Do our students choose the area of their interest or they select the area in which they can earn the best at the first place?
2- what our system exactly need a scientist or a salesman ? What are the criteria that funding bodies follow to issue money? How many grants they really issued to the projects that do not have "direct" implications !
I think we need to mix the basic and applied science together and follow a uniform syllabus till MSc in all the universities..

Richa, I agree that a lot of

Richa, I agree that a lot of confusion exists on every side. However, when opting for an academic career, one's own liking has to be as the top consideration while for commercial (earning) jobs, the market forces take the priority although even in this case the liking and capabilities of the individual have important roles.

India needs both scientists/teachers as well as enterpneurs (not only "salespersons") and the system should encourage and facilitate both.

As far as I know, the Indian funding agencies do not really discriminate between basic and "applied" sciences, although each funding agency would have its priority areas. I could continue to be funded for my work on non-coding RNA even in 1980s and 1990s when this field was not "fashionable", rather in those years such genes were typically branded as "junk". I think this is a great strength of the Indian fuding system.

I am not in favour of "uniform" syllabi at any level - for basic science disciplines, there should be comparale levels of courses (theory as well as lab) with local variations keeping in view the expertise and facilties available.

Ideally, joining a higher

Ideally, joining a higher education programme should be query/interest driven. But we do not live in "ideal world" and the market forces in recent decades have obviously taken over the choices. The rush by institutions for opening and by the students for joining the Biotechnology (and the various subcloned disciplines) that has swept the country is a startling example of the market forces. In most cases, there is neither query nor academic interest behind this rush. I believe that those who wish to be in academia out of interest, should really try to get a holistic understanding, even if it has to be done on one's own efforts because the class-rooms do not provide this! This situation, however unfortunate as it is, is the fact of the present situation. Therefore, the future "biologists" should be well aware of this so that not only they turn out to be better placed in their academic pursuits but can also be catalysts in bringing about the much desired changes in teaching and learning of biology.

What makes a student to

What makes a student to decide for a master’s program once he/she is done with a bachelor’s degree program? Is it a query driven phenomenon or market driven activity? For example joining biotechnology programs in mass rather than looking towards classical subjects like zoology. This situation further complicates when one is done with his master’s program and planning to join a Ph.D. program. The system in which I was trained (at bachelors or masters level) rarely one gets chance to hear about exploratory approaches particularly when moving from one level to other levels of education (i.e. understanding).

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