SXUK : 3rd Foundation Day Lecture

3rd Foundation Day Lecture - St. Xavier's University, Kolkata

by Prof. Partha P. Chakrabarti
Director, Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur

Science and Technology in Higher Education Today


Prof. Partha P. Chakrabart Prof. Partha P. Chakrabarti

Respected Honourable Governor of West Bengal and Chief Guest of the programme, Shri Keshari Nath Tripathi-ji, Honourable Vice-Chancellor, Rev. Fr. J Felix Raj, SJ, Dignitaries, Distinguished Guests, Faculty Members, Students, Media Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen.

At the outset, I would like to thank the University for inviting me for this august function not only because it is a great Institution but also because of the humbling feeling it gives me as an alumnus. I have very cherished memories of my student days in St Xavier's College and my walks through its hallowed portals. My daughter was equally fortunate to have studied here too. Now it has grown to a University with a much larger vision and gamut. I am so full of joy today.

The Foundation Day is an auspicious occasion, a day of remembrance of the great vision of the founding fathers and re-dedication to the cause. It is also a day of celebration, of stepping on to a new year of opportunities and challenges.

We all know that we are in the era where Science and Technology overwhelmingly affects our lives. Its depth and penetration in society confounds even experts. One simple example that still bewilders science teachers like me is the ubiquitous bicycle. Its physics and dynamics are still not fully fathomed, its structural engineering and material science at every level from the rim, spoke, tyre onwards will still flummox even very bright students of the subject, its energy efficiency is among the best per unit distance and the freedom and liberty it provides, especially to women and youngsters in our towns and villages, is unequalled. It is possibly one of Science and Technology's marvels - both as a scientific wonder, technological beauty and a social reformer. There are so many other stellar examples.

The spark of the Science and Technology driven Industrial Revolution that began a few centuries ago has now begun to open up with unimagined possibilities today. The opportunities of the future are enormous as technological advances grow day by day. Nano-Science and Technology, Internet of Everything, Block-Chain, Structural Genomics, Autonomous Everything, Neuromorphic Computing, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, Augmented Reality, 2D Materials are some of the 'hot' technologies of today that are rapidly transforming the future of living. Yet, it is just a little tip of the iceberg that we see. A bigger revolution is in the making where all disciplines are beginning to converge. Technology, which spread its bastion over various aspects considered epitomes of human intelligence covering ground from chess playing to natural language conversation, has now begun to touch unexpected domains like creativity with new music and paintings emerging from machines that are indistinguishable from a Beethoven or a Rembrandt. Who knows when we will begin to see an automation producing new 'Tagore songs' or a newly churned 'Felu-da story', with all the hallmarks of the great masters.

Human performance is being augmented with inbuilt chips, organs replaced by intelligent artificial units - all slowly blurring the distinction between natural and technological composition of the world including the human body itself. Every year, new steps are being taken by scientists to improve our understanding of our very existence and the phenomena we call Reality. Science has begun to explore the human mind and consciousness and is extending its vistas to touch the deep yet invisible imprint of consciousness on every element that we perceive. New signals are being observed from the tiniest elements to the largest galaxies that provide deeper insights to the working of the universe. I could talk more about some of these today. But something else haunts me, which I wish to share with you all now.

More new information has been generated in the last 50 years than in the past 5000. During this period of expansion of knowledge, education changed course many times and transformed from an integrated holistic programme to a set of compartmentalized disciplines, each with deep content of its own, often requiring a lifetime to study only a small portion of one super specialization. Due to this, the integrated idea of the overall 'system' was often not well communicated to most students. Local compartmentalized optimization and short term goals became criteria for success. Deep knowledge enabled one to arbitrarily tinker with nature. Knowledge of the nature cycle was lost to a generation. Ninety percent effort was given to make life easier for people who already have plenty, because of their purchasing power and insatiable need for more comfort. Somewhere the rhythm was lost. Exploration, creation and consumption breached the 'lakshman-rekha' and became exploitation. Today the developed world needs the produce of equivalent of two earths to meet its demands. The top one fifth consumes more than four-fifths of the world's total wealth. One sixth of the world is without safe drinking water and one third without basic sanitation. Much of the energy-water-food-health crisis and environmental disasters are man-made. Unfortunately, for us, even visionaries disagree on the path to progress. We have not done justice to the power of science and technology education for achieving some of the fundamental goals of humanity. This needs to change.

Under the circumstances, the role of holistic, democratized education cannot be over-emphasized today. There is a greater need to transform science and technology education and link the basic goals of quality of life for everyone living in the planet, including preserving the quality of the planet itself, by suitably harnessing the power of modern science and technology in a manner that is well rounded through the lens of a humanist, social scientist and liberal artist. This requires revisiting the first class criteria for all design from only cost and functionality to include other aspects like minimizing carbon footprint, ensuring safety and sustainability by having products and systems that are repairable rather than be of the 'use and throw' type.

Convergence among disciplines opens new vistas. Today we need people to work together in teams combining disciplines to solve problems of transportation, manufacturing, infrastructure, healthcare and food. This requires people not only from technology but also social sciences and humanities sharing and acquiring knowledge from each other to resolve complex issues that enable people to widen their minds and hearts and to improve the lives of people with the clarity and tenderness of a caring parent. Study of history of science and heritage is critical to the understanding of the evolution of humankind's progress and has a mutually enriching connection between the past and the present. Imagine how it feels to be taught the theory of mechanics or vibrations or material science using an instrument like a bicycle or even a tabla or sitar! This can easily be done in India and will help bridge the science-culture divide and enable the much needed re-convergence in our education system.

For a country of our size, democratization of education is a challenge that has to be taken up by us all with the highest priority. For reaching global standards in the conventional way, we need to build at the rate of six universities every month for the next twenty years - a practically impossible task. Thus we have to follow a different path - a path that uses science and technology to enable personalized learning at scale - to be able to properly harness our demographic dividend. We need to build scalable platforms for change that can reach people everywhere at the same time, a system that is proactive rather than reactive, and one that draws out curiosity. One such effort from our side in IIT Kharagpur is the National Digital Library of India containing more than 20 million indexed content today in many languages, largely free for all citizens of India. Many more are needed including access to real and virtual innovation and discovery laboratories.

Teaching is to be transformed from a set of pedagogical instructions to more curiosity driven studies like using a meteorite to determine its trajectory using latest scientific principles to get an idea of the history of the universe, the solar and galactic system. The learning has to be real and not jargon based. Today science and technology enables us to measure cognitive learning fairly accurately. Examinations should not end up as the ability of the examinee to reproduce what the teacher knows but a constant nudge to the students to use their learning to try and advance knowledge and understanding, howsoever little it may be. We must remember that the student entering our institutions today are born in another era compared to teachers like us and belong to the future generation, inherently capable of using technology much better than many teachers. All of us need to work together to build such platforms, content and delivery systems for our country's next generation.

For those who are engrossed in academics, we are not only secure in the power of our acquired knowledge, but more so in the knowledge that we still know very little but have acquired the ability to learn and discover. Vidya gives Drishti - Insight, which is why our knowledge systems are called Darshans. Vidya leads to Gyan or Knowledge and Knowledge leads to Vigyan or Vishisht-Gyan leading to a deeper understanding of intricate interplay of the laws of nature, life, mind, spirit and its connection with the macro and micro cosmos. The more we know and discover, the more quickly our ego of personal superiority melts. When knowledge is practiced as service, humility sprouts. These are some of the finest spiritual experiences of a human being. It comes as a culmination of the honest pursuance of excellence. A teacher's best gift is to see their students perform better than them in their pursuit of excellence and translate their work into solutions that improve the lives of fellow beings. In a few years from now, many students will all become achievers and doers. Some will tread the earth like a colossus. My request is to be a giant, but a gentle giant. Treat this earth with the grateful softness it deserves. Do not bleed the Mother, her beloved children and her bountiful treasures. We need her, not the other way round.

I congratulate the teachers, staff and administrators of this University and its Institutions for their efforts in taking forward the great goals of a profession that is considered among the noblest. Let us celebrate this day in the happiness of a job well done, and a solemn pledge that it will be done even better in the coming years. I thank all students, alumni and well-wishers of this great Institution for bringing glory and supporting it through many many years.

Friends, the knowledge that we impart and gain in academic institutions today is small, clear, transparent and easy to see. The world and times are complex, mysterious, enchanting and sometimes apparently impregnably impossible to fathom or cross. Let us use science and technology to enable the change in our education methods to help both the student and teacher move ahead like the adventurous explorer, learn to rise when we may fall to push ahead again, be grateful to all those who help us in our journey, tie ourselves in a fence of virtue, learn to reflect on ourselves more than criticizing others, be open to views but learn to hold on to our convictions, spread our hand out to our fellow citizens, seek help when we need, balance our rights with our duties, achieve so that we can become capable to serve.

God Bless You Always.