An Open Letter to ISRO Chief K. Sivan on Promoting STEM Education in India

ISRO is a homegrown Indian success story often literally pushing against the edges of our universe, inspiring millions of people. But there's room for it to do more.

K. Sivan
Chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation

As the premier research establishment in the country, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has done a great job of creating technological capacity in an area as critical as space. ISRO’s rockets, missions to the Moon and Mars and applications tailored to cater to the problems of humans and society are all laudable.

Today, there is a growing inequality in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in India. In the 21st century, we need our children to learn certain skills and design-based learning to spur curiosity and innovation. There is also a conspicuous issue of lack of resources to invest in building teaching capacity and creating experiment-based hands-on learning environments at the grassroots level, and this affects the quality of graduates in India.

ISRO has been the most successful public-sector innovator in the country. It has a responsibility to foster the scientific temper in schools and colleges. While the organisation has been conducting several outreach-related initiatives, including competitions held at various ISRO centres, supporting student satellite missions, etc., there is no overarching roadmap towards nurturing STEM in India as such.

I take this opportunity to present to you a few areas where ISRO can provide a foundation to inspire millions of students across India.

Upgrading restricted access museums to open-access public laboratories

ISRO has museums in each of its major centres – such as the Satellite Assembly Centre (ISAC), the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC), etc. However, access to these museums – excluding the one at the SAC – are restricted because they are within ISRO campuses (which have security protocols). So moving these museums into a restriction-free zone will allow the general public to visit them more often.

Such a template already exists in the country, with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited having created a museum in Bengaluru with access to various aircraft, helicopter and engine models, flight simulators, a mock air traffic control tower and an exhibit focusing on of India’s aviation history.

Also read: India’s space and nuclear labs are visibly lacking in outreach efforts

Another template is the ‘School Labs’ initiative taken up by the German Space Agency. It offers young people an opportunity to learn about its operations, the work of its scientists and experiments being conducted under various projects.

Such an initiative by ISRO in its various centres in the country will help inspire the next generation of scientists by showcasing its state-of-the-art equipment, often of the kind schools generally don’t have. A visit to such a lab could supplement classroom lessons and help translate theoretical knowledge to its practical counterpart. If school students become fascinated, it will surely make STEM disciplines more desirable among young people in the country.

A physical storefront at these labs, together with an online store, will also help: they could manufacture and sell low-cost models of rockets, satellites and other merchandise to spread the word on ISRO’s role in our society.

Social media engagement

One of the highlights of the Mars Orbiter Mission (MoM) in 2014 that caught the people’s imagination was the live social media outreach. There was even a conversation between members of the team responsible for NASA’s Curiosity rover and those from MoM that went viral. But today, the outreach seems limited to general announcements issued by the organisation.

Given the growing influence of social media on young people, we need to create a social media strategy for STEM outreach, and there is no better institution in the country than ISRO that can carry this baton forward. ISRO’s peers, such as NASA and ESA, have also set up dedicated television channels and YouTube playlists, apart from being active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., to promote space applications. I hope that under your leadership, ISRO will finally create an institutional strategy for outreach via the social media.

Viewing launches at SHAR

I recently had a chance to view a launch from the ISRO launchpad at Sriharikota. It was a splendid experience. However, the process of securing a viewer’s pass was anything but. In the time of ‘Digital India’, ISRO needs to consider providing access to view launches at the Sriharikota Range through an online booking system functioning on a first-come-first-served basis. This way, the burden on employees within ISRO (whom people approach for the passes) will be reduced; more importantly, people could also undergo a hassle-free online identity verification process to gain access.

Internships and doctoral programmes at ISRO centres

There are no standardised tracks at the moment to invite interns to work at ISRO, and undergraduate students trying for such opportunities from the outside find it very difficult to break through. Some forms of nepotism are also not unheard of; consider this answer to a question on Quora by an ISRO scientist: “Generally relatives of ISRO employees and/or the local students (same state in which the centre is situated) are preferred.” Formally soliciting applications via an institutionalised process can help provide equal opportunities to students around the country.

Similarly, one of the other problems that Indian higher education has been grappling with is the value and volume of doctoral research. While the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) does provide some opportunities, joint initiatives with premier academic institutes (such as the IITs, NITs, IISERs, IIMs, etc.) for PhDs with a focus on space can help to, among other things, create spin-offs, technology transfers, etc.

In sum, ISRO is a homegrown Indian success story often literally pushing against the edges of our universe, inspiring millions of people. So I hope that, under your leadership, it can expand its contributions to kindling more interest in STEM research in the country.

Narayan Prasad is a NewSpace enthusiast.