Challenges in STEM education for 'Skill India'

Prasad Krishnan1 & Sivaram Hariharan2

doi:10.1038/nindia.2016.99 Published online 4 August 2016

The 'Skill India' programme is expected to put a lot of demand on the country’s academic institutions

© S. Priyadarshini

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative that aims to make India a prominent global manufacturing hub1 is going to put a lot of demand on the country’s academic institutions, especially in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (together called STEM) fields to churn out highly skilled graduates. This implies that educational institutions will have to focus greatly on the latest developments in science and technology so that graduates are well equipped to enter the STEM workforce.

The 'Skill India' campaign which aims to meet this demand of skilled graduates needs support from various corners of the country, like the United States of America model. The campaign also throws open a new set of questions for introspection on the STEM workforce of India.

Keeping pace with scientific advancement

India is a nation on the move, slowly making its place among the top nations of the world. One of the biggest challenges facing this nascent power is the science education of its sizeable young population2. A majority of India’s population still lives in economically challenging conditions. Under such circumstances, for educational institutions to keep pace with scientific and technological innovations is a challenge in itself. More importantly, including latest developments in STEM in their curricula in a holistic manner keeping in mind both students’ employability as well as social development is a key challenge. 

After India’s independence in 1947, the country’s founding fathers laid much emphasis on developing her science and technology3. And thus the elite Indian scientific, engineering, and technological institutions like IITs, IISc and AIIMS were born. These institutions, along with a host of others, catered to the growing need of India’s nascent industries for scientific and technical manpower. However, as the country’s population exploded, the competition among its youth to gain admission to these premier institutions grew relentlessly. And that was when the schools and their offshoots – coaching classes – became central in the students’ quest to crack these difficult entrance examinations. The very purpose – that these institutions should be centres of innovation – was defeated as they got filled by competitive-exam-cracking-achievers, who do not necessarily bring in ideas and innovations and out of the box thinking. Today, the country boasts of a highly qualified technical workforce that can do a good job but inconsistently excel in innovation.

As STEM-based education took root in the USA4 with a view to increase manpower in these areas, India too decided to adapt it. Future trends forecast that those having a career in STEM will have the best jobs globally and so the Indian Government decided to launch this initiative5.  For this to be successful, there’s need to identify scientific talent at the school level – it helps to hone future researchers, identify their research areas, strengths and weakness early on. It also helps in etching a plausible career trajectory based on the student’s interest and intellectual proclivities.

The full-time research workforce in India is about 200,000 out of a total population close to 1.3 billion. To build a skilled workforce taking advantage of the “demographic dividend”, India needs to reach out to young students in the middle school to high school level, and provide them research training opportunities. India can take a leaf or two out of the success stories of the United States, which leads the world in research output and R&D investment.

The NIH (National Institutes of Health) and NSF (National Science Foundation) in the U.S. have devised several training programmes that cater to students in middle school, high school, and undergraduate colleges. These programmes offer students an opportunity to work in a participating research lab or educational institution, thereby acquainting them to research life. NSF scholarship schemes also assist academically brilliant students from low income groups to pursue a career in this field.

Quality STEM education

One of the main challenges for STEM education is the infrastructure and, in turn, the funds needed to create quality infrastructure. That is the main reason why the corporate world needs to collaborate with the world of education. The cost of doing quality research has indeed exploded over the decades. And for cutting edge innovations to happen, the facilities need to be cutting edge.

In the U.S., there are several private foundations which contribute significantly to train students, right from their school days. The most prestigious one is the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), which runs the largest privately funded education program in the U.S. The programme supports students from elementary schools to graduate schools and beyond. Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) and Intel education STEM resources are other examples of private initiatives to support students in scientific pursuits.

The opportunity for training and participating in research should reach all corners of the society, including the minorities, the underprivileged and the economically backward classes, to make the India government’s slogan “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas” (Together with all, Development for all) a reality. The Higher Achievement program in the U.S. provides opportunity to underrepresented groups to learn about research and organizes regular visits to research labs in participating Universities.

These initiatives also target female students in order to increase their numbers in the research work force, to encourage innovation among them6 and to help them stay and grow in these careers.

STEM education also means quality teachers who are updated in the latest knowhow in their respective fields. India, which has traditionally put gurus on a high pedestal, will need a trained army of teachers to lead the next generation of students. The White House’s plan to create a master teacher corps of around 10, 000 STEM teachers might offer some guidelines for India’s policy makers.

STEM initiatives in BRICS

STEM initiatives of other countries in the BRICS conglomerate are also worth evaluating in this context.

STEM-BRASIL, which was launched in 2009, is a long term investment in human capital with the aim of producing quality STEM teachers as well as students. Trainers use a hands-on approach by visiting schools to help school teachers execute the STEM methodology. By this using this approach, STEM-BRASIL has been able to make a huge impact in a very short time.

STEM-RUSSIA places great emphasis on female students taking up STEM professions.  It is helping in a large way to break existing stereotypes of female occupation. STEM-CHINA is helping the country get to the next level in STEM training. As of now, the Asian giant has one of the largest pools of R&D personnel in the world. China is also placing an emphasis on increasing female participation in STEM occupations and at the same time addressing other loopholes in its higher education system.

STEM education in the Republic of South Africa has received a major boost from the multinational giant Dupont, which collaborates with the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, the country’s largest science centre of STEM education.  This is a long term goal for South Africa because it foresees an acute shortage of engineers in the coming years. It also places great emphasis on promoting STEM education among the underprivileged and the poor.

Being the second most populous nation in the world with unmatched cultural and social diversity, India needs a strong political will combined with wholehearted participation of every section of society to equip its future generation to benefit from the opportunities presented by the STEM fields.

The authors are from the 1Dept.of Chemistry, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA, and 2PSG College of Pharmacy, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India.


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