Guest writer: The black box of science by Somdatta Karak

by | Aug 21, 2020 | Guest Writers | 1 comment

This post is written by Somdatta Karak. Somdatta trained as a neuroscientist and found her calling in finding out how humans learn. She is now an educator, and science communication is her style of engaging. She leads the science communication and outreach efforts at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research – Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CSIR-CCMB), Hyderabad, India. To find out more about Somdatta’s work, follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

In my job as a science communicator and Public Outreach Officer at CCMB, I walked into a class of undergraduates. They had only been on at the college for a month or so, and I was there to tell them  what research institutes like CCMB do. The teacher set my expectations with the note – “Many of the students are sad because they haven’t been able to secure an admission into engineering. Doing a bachelors in science is only their second option.” Fair enough, I guess, but I was disappointed when the students couldn’t actually spell out the difference between degrees in science and engineering. They seemed to be heart-broken over something that they didn’t know enough about.

This was the beginning of my path to engage with students on what pursuing science means. I prioritized scientific methodology over anything else; after all, training in science is to be able to think objectively and analyse rigorously. Methodology needs to be at the core of syllabi, teaching students to aspire to be objective and rigorous, and demonstrating that colleges are taking ownership of changing their teaching methodology.

The experiences of the students I work with is diverse, throwing up various challenges.

Lots of students in India study science in their regional languages until high school. Comprehension of scientific literature isn’t an easy task to begin with, and navigating it in a new language is even more daunting. Many colleges in the city of Hyderabad lack labs altogether, and where labs do exist they are often very basic. This means that the opportunity for students to learn by doing has often been limited. Colleges tend to focus on textbooks written by local authors. These textbooks have encouraged hundreds of students to explore science, but they have their limitations. In the process of making scientific concepts more understandable, the details take a backseat, and science becomes a set of facts. For an examination system that scores for factual memory, this does help students to get their undergraduate degrees. The problem becomes real when they want to pursue their PhDs or get jobs.

Then there is another big group of students who are fluent in English, and come from colleges with well-functioning labs, libraries and passionate teachers. Clearly their learning environment gives them an advantage over their peers, but they lack diverse mentorship, and are therefore unable to see the different careers that science can open up, limiting the amount of exploring they can do to find their niche.

At CISR-CCMB, we address these shortcomings through an active mentoring program – Project Abhilasha (Abhilasha means ‘aspiration’ in many Indian languages). Interested PhD students at CCMB mentor a group of 5-6 undergraduate students and a teacher from a local college over five months. Their task during this period is to learn how to access scientific literature, understand a research paper, and communicate it to an audience. The research paper is used as an instrument to discuss scientific methodology – guiding mentees to explore what a hypothesis is, what should be checked to (dis)prove the hypothesis, how can they be checked, and what can be inferred from the observations of researchers.

A mentor with mentees at CCMB on a winter afternoon.

The processing of choosing research papers for the exercise has been difficult.
We started with the mentors picking a paper of their choice, usually aligned with their own interests and expertise. Though the college students found the topics interesting, and often something that they had not thought about, they could not relate it with the content taught in their colleges.
We then chose to work with classic research papers that related to their undergraduate syllabi. Here we stumbled upon a much bigger challenge; our mentees could not appreciate how the experiments were done. For students and teachers who take the existence of DNA for granted, going back to a time when scientists didn’t know of its presence and form was taking away focus from the scientific methods we were trying to instil. 

A group discussion on scientific methodology.

Students also found it difficult to comprehend the language of scientific literature. Popular science material – prose, videos, and animations available on the internet came in handy for us, helping to excite and prime both students and teachers.

Making teachers a core part of the program has been pivotal for colleges to become self-reliant. We now run the program with only those colleges whose leadership is invested in our aims. This ensures that the teachers selected for this program are keen to learn, and are actively engaged with the program. These teachers are also able to use their involvement in our program to contribute to promotion exercises. With these engaged teachers, our mentees are able to conduct classes and talk through what they learnt at CCMB with their peers that have not been involved with the program.

Mentees carrying it forward.

We have also developed another program for students that can take part without the involvement of their colleges. This program, called ‘What Makes A Scientist’ is a condensed version of Project Abhilasha. Over two days, we train students on scientific methodology using various hands-on activities and art. A great deal of emphasis is on observing their surroundings, asking questions and discussing how to address these questions.

We organize these programs at CCMB because they help us to learn about our education sector. We cannot ignore the divisions and barriers which put only a small fraction of the population at an advantage. One day, hopefully our experiences will inspire many others in India and elsewhere to take up the challenge to fight inequity, and nurture local leaders in every walk of life.