Physics Training in India and Its Challenges: From Schools to the University

By S. Minhaz Hossain and Surajit Sen, FIP Executive Committee Member-at-Large

India through the ages — Civilization in the Indian sub-continent is an ancient one [1]. Revisiting the time line reveals that the civilization faced many internal and external political and religious upheavals. Regardless, Indian civilization grew on a strongly thought centric developmental path leading to rich philosophical and religious ideology [2], organized economics and political science [3], well documented mathematics and astronomy [4] incredible developments in chemistry and metallurgy and even in medicine and surgery [5]. The idea of having world class learning institutes like Nalanda [6] was conceived by the ancient Indian society, which bears testimony to the knowledge based nature of the development. Many invaders from different parts of the world came to conquer India. Some went back, some fell in love with the place and stayed on, leading to an intermixing of culture, knowledge and heritage and to give rise to the current diversity in the Indian society.

In spite of the role of religion in society, Indian science has produced world-class physicists. The names of S.N. Bose who introduced us to Bose-Einstein condensation, C.V. Raman who won the Nobel Prize for the Raman effect, S. Chandrasekhar who won the Nobel Prize (from the US) for his work on the physical processes of importance in the structure and evolution of the stars, H.J. Bhabha, the father of Indian nuclear physics and well known for his work on cosmic rays and for introducing the term “meson”, J.C. Bose for his work on wireless signalling and his early use of semiconductor junctions, M.N. Saha for his pioneering work on the thermal ionization of elements which opened up the exploration of stellar astrophysics, A.K. Raychaudhuri for showing that singularity is a generic and essential feature of general relativity, a result which set the stage for the celebrated Penrose-Hawking singularity theorems, and many distinguished others reflect India’s deep and time tested commitment to physics.

Today, India is the world’s largest democracy with 1.3 billion people and some 30% of its population live in urban areas and the rest in rural. It is also notable that more than 50% of the Indian population are currently below 25 [7]. This may be utilised as a tremendous manpower resource but that journey is not easy. There are many universities and institutes but relatively few that can compete with the top institutions of the world. It would be years before India can reach a level where science and technology would strongly influence the lives of the majority. Yet, the country has made a renewed commitment to science and technology and has been making remarkable strides to ensure India’s long-term sustenance in a technology driven and highly networked, global society. In the last fifteen or so years the Government has given special attention to science education. They have opened several autonomous institutes of national importance such as the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs) along with strengthening the science departments in the already existing IITs (Indian Institute of Technology), universities and other research institutes during the world year of science (2005).

The Schools — In spite of the diversity in language and culture, India maintains uniformity in its science education program starting from the elementary level to the higher educational institutes distributed over 29 states and 7 union territories speaking different languages and dialects. At the elementary and middle school levels Physics is introduced in form of natural observation. Several demonstrations on physical/natural phenomena are presented to the students to nurture their inquisitive minds. However, the degree and effort for experimental demonstrations conducted in the classes are largely restricted by the lack of infrastructural support in the government sponsored schools. Higher level of infrastructural support is available only to the schools located in the cities and urban areas.

The language of communication in the elementary schools in the rural areas is the provincial language. In the cities it is primarily English. Gradually English is adopted as the mode of communication in science for higher levels of study. During 1950s and 60s in India mathematics was not usually taught as a compulsory subject in the middle schools. But gradually, physical science and mathematics have become compulsory subjects in the secondary school syllabus resulting in improvements in the mathematical and scientific aptitudes of Indian students. From the ninth and tenth standards in the secondary schools, physics is formally introduced in its usual mathematical form via definitions, examples and simple equations. After this secondary level students are given the option to choose their specialization in humanities, sciences, business, or industrial vocational training programs. The specialization sets in at the last two years of the twelve year schooling. As education is tied to the future profession, most of the students go for a path that brings better job opportunities. The current job scenario takes a large number of students towards science subjects at this level because physics, chemistry and mathematics or biology are the required subjects for choosing engineering or medicine. Calculus is introduced in the eleventh and twelfth standards. Consequently calculus based physics is introduced at this point and this allows a formal exposure to physics. Some 20 to 30% weightage is normally given to the laboratory component aimed at providing the students with some flavour of the basics of scientific observations, recording data in an organized way, exposure to simple measuring instruments like the Vernier scale, galvanometer, stop watch, weighing machine etc. and finally to the exposure to verifying physical formulas through determination of some physical quantities. Students are evaluated both continuously as well as half yearly. The final grade is awarded on the basis of a centralized examination. The whole country does not have a single board of education. There are independent provincial education boards as well as central boards. However, the structure and the evaluation process for the science courses are about the same for all the boards.

The College and the University — Beyond the school level, country wide joint entrance exams are conducted for admission to engineering, technology and medicine courses. A large fraction of the students opt for technological and engineering studies. A small fraction of bright students choose physics and other science subjects as future career paths. The physics students get admitted to the three year undergraduate physics program at different colleges affiliated to different universities guided by the central body, University Grants Commission (UGC). This level plays the most crucial role in the upbringing of a future physicist. In the first two years of the 3 year undergraduate course the students take physics as the major subject along with two/three subsidiary subjects. This is the basic structure of undergraduate physics courses in most universities. The fundamentals of heat and thermodynamics, general properties of matter, electronics, mathematical methods, optics, electromagnetic theory, classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics and nuclear physics are offered at this level. About 30% weightage is given to laboratory components containing relatively longer experiments that take about 5 hours to perform. The students are evaluated on the basis of annual examinations and a final grade and a B.Sc degree is offered at the end of the 3rd year. However, exceptions are there. IITs, newly established IISERs and a considerable number of university without affiliated colleges have adopted the semester system in undergraduate physics teaching. Some of these institutes and universities also offer B.Sc and M.Sc degrees at the end of 4th and 5th year respectively.

After completing the three year undergraduate program the students get admitted to the two year Masters’ program in the universities. At this stage they are allowed to choose their specialization from amongst different subjects of theoretical and experimental physics. For admission to the graduate program (Ph.D) all India entrance exams like the National Eligibility Test (NET) are conducted. The qualified students after interviewing get admitted to the Ph.D program of different universities and institutes. So, a Ph.D student at an Indian Institute/University has a background formal training of (10+2+3+2=) 17 years in physics. These students are typically supported by Government funded fellowships.

A Work in Progress — To benchmark the standard of physics teaching up to 10 + 2 level, five students are selected to participate in the International Physics Olympiad every year. This program has been in place since 1996. Typically the students qualify for gold, silver or bronze medals. According to the leaders of the Indian team the students, who miss a medal, do so primarily due to weaknesses in the experimental component of the examination. This suggests a possible lack of experimental aptitude among bright physics students at this level. This shortcoming is probably an outcome of the fact that the students at this level concentrate on the preparation for different entrance examinations which do not have any experimental components. They ignore/give less importance to this part of learning physics. It is also worth mentioning that most of these bright students may have the potential to become good physicists but end up not choosing physics. Due to socio-economic forces they end up in more stable and well-paying techno-managerial professions. In 2005 the Government of India took initiative to motivate good students towards basic science courses through the INSPIRE (Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research) program offering scholarship and starting research at an early stage through performing small project works during undergraduate and masters’ program in physics.

Due to limited job opportunities, a large number of physics students after completing their masters, apply for the entrance test for the Ph.D programs. As a result, conducting such entrance tests for 10s of thousands of students per year needs a tremendous infrastructural and logistical support system. Currently, the selection process does not check the students’ ability to derive or prove a relation as it is fully judged by the multiple choice type answers. There is an apprehension among the teaching community that this selection process is an outcome of working convenience than quality control.

Given the geographical size, the population of the country and the tight job market worldwide, the system of physics education in India is being forced to compromise the pedagogical approach to physics education. The students are often being judged by their performance in competitive examinations which are designed to eliminate a certain number of students. As a result, students prefer to go to the coaching classes rather than the classrooms. This is a major challenge to the physics teaching community in the high schools and colleges in the country.

In this situation, a constant effort is needed to motivate the students to come to class. There is also a need for the teachers at all levels to continuously make the courses more attractive. A constant effort in Physics Education Research (PER) is needed. But PER has not yet become a major field of research for post graduate physics students in India. The reason is two-fold. There are few Institutes like the Homi Bhabha Center for Science Education under Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) that offer a Ph.D in this field. Secondly, there are limited employment opportunities for PER graduates. After doing a Ph.D in PER, one becomes over-qualified for a job in high schools and often uncompetitive for a job in a college or a university. That said, all the major Indian institutes like the IITs are developing and uploading good quality course materials on the internet as a part of their outreach programs. These materials are often used by motivated teachers to develop their own courses. Besides the institutional efforts, Indian Association of Physics Teachers (IAPT) is working to develop the quality of teaching and learning of physics through its academic programs that are organized throughout the year. IAPT organizes workshops for the physics students at all levels as well as for the teachers all over the country. They also run talent search program at the undergraduate level to identify the top five students who are then awarded direct admission to the Ph.D program in the premier research Institutes. This talent search program has a unique feature. It selects the gold medallist not only on the basis of a theoretical examination. The top 25 students are invited to appear for an experimental examination at the final stage and hence their experimental abilities are also evaluated.

In conclusion, it is important to remember that India has a rich history, a diverse population, a great many languages and formidable poverty. Seventy years after independence from Britain, India is hard at work to educate its students in physics and has to deal with its own unique problems and opportunities. Perhaps the unsaid problem in India has to do with how many deserving students do not get the opportunity they deserve because they are not the best exam takers. We would like to hope that this article provides a sense of physics education in modern India.

Surajit received his Ph.D from the University of Georgia with specialization in non-equilibrium statistical physics and has been on the physics faculty at the State University of New York at Buffalo since 1993. He is the past president of the American Chapter of the Indian Physics Association, a Fellow of the APS and AAAS and a current member of FIP and CIFS.

Syed Minhaz Hossain is an Assistant Professor at the department of physics, IIEST, Shibpur. He received Ph.D, M.Sc and B.Sc degrees from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Minhaz was awarded a BOYSCAST fellowship by the Department of Ssience and Technology (Govt. of India) to work on nano-crystalline Silicon based 3rd generation photovoltaics at University of Trento, Italy, during 2007-08. He also received an APS Kilambi Ramavataram Fellowship from American Physical Society during 2012-13 to work on Physics Education at SUNY Buffalo. His current research interests cover the area of low dimensional silicon, carbon and their nano-composites for photonic and photovoltaic applications. Beyond mainstream research he is actively involved in developing experiments for post graduate, under graduate and school level physics teaching

S. Minhaz Hossain, Department of Physics, Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology, Shibpur, India,

Surajit Sen, Department of Physics, State University of New York at Buffalo, Buffalo, New York 14260-1500, USA,

For more details, see references

1. “Archeologists confirm Indian civilization is 2000 years older than previously believed, Jason Overdorf, Globalpost, 28 November 2012”.

2. S. Ghose (2011). “Religious Developments in Ancient India” in Ancient History Encyclopedia.

3. L. K. Jha, K. N. Jha (1998). “Chanakya: the pioneer economist of the world”, International Journal of Social Economics, 25 (2–4), p. 267–282.

4. B. S. Yadav (28 October 2010). Ancient Indian Leaps Into Mathematics. Springer. pp. 88–. ISBN 978-0-8176-4694-3. Retrieved 24 June 2012.

5. Bhishagratna, Kunjalal (1907). An English Translation of the Sushruta Samhita, based on Original Sanskrit Text. Calcutta. p. 1., Valiathan, M. S. (2003) The Legacy of Caraka Orient Longman ISBN 81-250-2505-7 reviewed in Current Science, Vol.85 No.7 Oct 2003, Indian Academy of Sciences seen at June 1, 2006

6. H. Scharfe (2002). Education in Ancient India. Handbook of Oriental Studies. 16. Brill. ISBN 9789004125568.


S. Minhaz Hossain

Syed Minhaz Hossain

Surajit Sen image

Surajit Sen