Reshaping the Educational Pyramid

Resetting the educational system to produce creative social entrepreneurs who are able to convert technology into new opportunities for society will require reshaping the whole educational process. This should include embedding scientific research into universities, teaching students how to learn, encouraging them to take risks, and introducing innovative components in education as soon as possible.

In the last 10 years, we, the global aca­demician community, keep debating if basic research in universities is necessary and important. Indeed, this debate is not devoid of reason. On one hand, of course, science is done in universities. But on the other, it also takes place in many other realms, such as R&D nets or corporations. In my mind, the answer to the core question is undoubtedly yes, science in the university setting is extremely important; if we do not support science in universities, the whole foundation will actually collapse. This boils down to the fact that education and science have two aspects. One is the formal education in which one learns by textbooks and in the classroom. This is obviously not the base for scientists, as many scientists with a formal education cannot solve problems. Therefore – and this is another aspect – we need scientific research in universities to learn about the discipline.

All of our education in Indian universities – and I daresay in other BRICS countries as well – is rather confined away from science. It is from chapter to chapter, from course to course, from one degree to another. Up-to-date education is in fact based on analytical capacity and skills. So now, with today’s scholastic educational system, we cannot solve the modern world’s grand challenges in science and technology. That said, we need to have a different system of education, and begin embedding analysis that leads to synthesis. Practically, this means that a four-year university course should devote at least one year to the synthesis of disciplines. This is crucial for science and technology, and it is also very important to other areas of education.

A lot of our education is looking at data and information, whereas knowledge is a pyramid with information and data right at the bottom. How do we synthesize this data and information to find meaning and to generate knowledge out of it? How can we combine them together?

A lot of our education is looking at data and information, whereas knowledge is a pyramid with information and data right at the bottom. In fact, it is very hard to tell the students that education itself is not the content of the educational process; it is about the capacity to learn

There is not an easy way to do it in education. But these are the questions that all of us – the teachers – really have to think about very seriously. There is no unique way we can do it; after all, how do we motivate an average student to think about knowledge, and about how to create learning and development out of this knowledge, data, and information? These are very tough issues, and I myself don’t have simple and instant solutions on hand. It requires hard work to get any of this across to students.

In fact, based on my 25 years of teaching experience, it is very hard to tell the students that education itself is not the content of the educational process; it is about the capacity to learn. For young students, it makes no sense at all. They assert, “I am learning to become an engineer; I must design heat exchangers.” Explaining that heat exchangers might be completely irrelevant by the time they graduate is not easy, but it highlights that the true value is the experience of the learning process and developing the capacity to learn. Education must pay attention to that.

There is another important issue when it comes to research and science at universities, and that is risk-aversion by people within them. It’s natural for a professor who submits a proposal for research funding to want to succeed. I myself am familiar with many professors who know what the conclusion of their research will be even before they’ve stared it. In practice, it means we need to worry about the quality of research, and foster processes that will create new knowledge in universities.

At the Department of Science and Technology, we are the largest supporters of research in India. Therefore, we introduce programs, and one of them is called ‘high risk high gain research.’ By virtue, we try to encourage people to take risks: to think of problems that are really important and try to find solutions. In fact, we have to tell our students that they should not be afraid to take risks and they should even appreciate when they fail. After all, the lessons they learn by failing will eventually help them succeed.

The Drive of Innovation

When reshaping the educational pyramid, it is important to address the question of how we introduce innovative components into education. What is innovation? Most people think about academic research as converting money into knowledge. We also want to tell our students that knowledge can be converted into money, opening new opportunities for society, and that this is the process of innovation.

But how do we tell them that creativity is the drive of innovation? To do so, we have a very large-scale program. There are 500,000 selecting schools in India from which we seed roughly one million students. We then tell them to look around to find problems that are not in their textbooks and to suggest a technological or scientific solution. This way, there will be an army of people looking at innovative ideas who can then select the creative talent, mentor them, and even to go on to make a technology start-up.

Importantly, the whole process has to begin, and the drive for innovation has to be introduced rather early in life or else we will lose these people. By the time these young people come to college or university, it is already too late. The damage is done. To fight this, we start discussing the drive of innovation when students are in class six, or about 11 years old.

There are many challenges in the innovation ecosystem: how do we catch people, how do we catch them young, and how do we nurture them? The results of this approach will be seen not today, or even tomorrow, but 10 years from now. However, if done well, many thousands of young people will actually go on to become entrepreneurs. They will become those who can convert technology into social opportunities.

A Crucial Question

What can the BRICS countries do together to accelerate the progress? One way to do so is by sharing infrastructure in universities, government-supported institutions, and research and science projects. For example, India’s Ministry of Science and Technology supports a hundred R&D institutes. Many of them are very unique (such as an institute devoted only to the Himalayan ecosystem), or have very specific focuses that cannot be found anywhere else. Can we actually take advantage of these special knowledge systems? The answer is definitely yes. We don’t need to duplicate our efforts.

In fact, there are many possibilities. We have to work very closely together in certain areas. Separately, each of the BRICS countries cannot make a cyclotron, for example. But we can do it together, for common use. We have to partner together in a much stronger way than we have been doing thus far.

To get the ball rolling, a crucial question to ask is what binds the BRICS countries together: What is common between us, where do our interests actually overlap, and what can all of these countries accomplish together? If we ponder it for even half an hour, many of the answers will become very clear as to the direction in which we need to move.

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