Early education and summer projects! Life is a marathon and not a 100 m race.

There has been so much written about our school/college education in India that there may not be much to add now. However, a recent incident in a college, where I was invited for a discussion among some parents and teachers, has motivated me to share some views. It has been further fueled by two advertisements I saw in The Hindu recently!

One of the parents in the meeting was visibly worried as her daughter was not selected for any summer research programme. She was under the impression that without such summer experience, the student would not be able to progress in life and all was doomed already! I was a student applying for a summer fellowship in 1983. I have been in a committee to select summer fellows for more than 6 years, 3 years as the Chairman. I had the privilege of seeing both sides.

When I was completing my I year MSc in IIT Madras (as it was called those days), we had an accelerated II semester as there was water scarcity. A far cry from the recent floods in Chennai. IIT Madras decided to complete the semester in 3 months instead of typical 4 months and send students home for 3 months instead of the typical two month vacation. I had a break of 100 days, never before and never after, since I started going to school. It would have been a good time to do a summer project. TIFR was one place that had summer research fellowship those days and it was not common anywhere including IIT Madras.

I had to write a statement of purpose (SOP). I started with this sentence: “When I finished my pre-University, I had to join BSc in Chemistry”. I had my school education in Tamil and was not very fluent in English. I asked a friend of mine who was educated in Kendriya Vidyalaya in English medium to go through my SOP and let me know if it was reading well. He had one comment: ‘Do you want to say you loved Chemistry so much, you had to join BSc Chemistry? The way you have written, it could mean you had no other choice!”. I told him the second option was correct and I did mean what the sentence meant (See footnote 1)

Honesty doesn’t pay, does it! More importantly, I was somewhere in the middle in my class and TIFR had chosen the top 2 students for the summer project! I perhaps had the best 100 days in my life. I was roaming around freely, attended all the family functions, watched movies, traveled… It was fun. I didn’t get to do a summer project and it did not seem to have mattered in the end.

When I point this out, almost everyone would say ‘it is different today, there is more competition’. There is some truth in it. Often for summer fellowship, 10000 students may apply and 200 may be selected. What all the students should realize is that, the students who could not get selected are in no way inferior. They can still try to find some opportunities elsewhere or just read and discuss with resource persons available   I have always found time to discuss with any student who is interested to learn. I have sent many students to my colleagues and they have done the same too. If you don’t get a summer project, it is not the end. The students still have the best option of just exploring other activities and enjoying life.

Recently, I read about a school in Bangalore for 1 year old children along with the parents. I didn’t want to read what all the child would learn in this school! Then I found another advertisement which was worse. FIITJEE is introducing coaching classes for V standard students. Until recently, they used to start coaching when the students completed their VIII standard. The national entrance exam would happen four years later. Now they are starting at V standard. What is happening to us? Let the children play, observe and learn.

Parents and teachers should realize one thing. Life is not a 100 m race you run when you finish your high school. It is a marathon. While your performances in your high school and BSc do help, they are not enough to guarantee you a successful career. I see many successful scientists in India and the world who were not toppers in their high school. Sundar Pichai is a good example. His teachers could not recollect his days in school.

I did not write this to suggest that the students should not do well in high school or not attend coaching or not do summer projects. Try and do as well as you can. Learn to enjoy what you do so it doesn’t become a burden. Remember, you have to sustain for decades. Do not get burned out.

The first year I taught in IIT Kanpur, one student came to my office. He had very low marks. He asked me: “I was the topper in my school, you have given me low marks. Why?’ I told him that he should answer that question. You could be a state or all India topper in your +2 (higher secondary/pre-University) exams. That cannot give you marks when you write your exams in college or your admission to a graduate school or a job that you seek. You need to sustain for long. Even after 12 years in high school, you would have 10-12 years in College and it is important to sustain. There is not one formula for success. Your path to success could be different from the student who got to do a summer project this year. Never give up!

Footnotes

  1. As my father wanted me to become a real doctor (not a Ph.D.), I had chosen physics, chemistry, and biology in my PUC as only three subjects could be chosen those days. Students wanting to become engineers or scientists chose physics, chemistry and maths! I was really good in Maths during my high school but my father’s wish took me to the biology group. I was not very good in biology and to this day, I had not learned much in biology. Most every scientist has started working on biology irrespective of their back ground. I wanted to get into BSc Maths or physics but that was not allowed as I did not have Maths in my PUC. I had to choose BSc Chemistry and became a physical chemist/chemical physicist eventually.
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