Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Memory Lane Revisited – Summer of 65 at RIE Mysore

Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.

- Saul Bellow

[I am returning from my self-imposed exile and resuming my blogging to ward off the wolf of insignificance]


One of my blog posts in late 2011 [See: 38) Down Memory Lane – Summer (Institutes) of 65 at RIEM (Nov 11) ] had taken me down my memory lane to the year 1965, which marked a significant milestone in my early professional career and that of the Regional Institute (then College) of Education, Mysore (RIEM) where I had started it barely a year earlier.  I had reflected on events and personalities connected with the summer science institutes of that year held at both the University of Mysore and RIEM.  My recollections had been triggered by the ‘discovery’ of a joint group photo showing the staff and organizers of these two programmes posted by RIEM’s alumni association RIEMAA in Facebook.

Another ‘discovery’
I was not entirely unprepared to discover another group photo connected with these events, this one showing both the participants and staff of the two (separate) summer institutes in physics and chemistry for teacher educators held at RIEM, concurrently with similar ones in the university. This revealed itself just last week in my own attic when I was reorganizing my considerable but little used collection of books and magazines spread over half a century.  As with the other photo, I had no recollection that such a precious picture had indeed been captured for posterity.   Unlike the first one which was presumably taken at the beginning of the summer institutes, this one must have been taken at the end, in June 1965.

Though framed, the photo had suffered the ravages of time considerably. Here is the cleaned and scanned copy of it:

(Click to enlarge)

First Row:               M S Rukminiamma, V S Bhooma Devi, A P Suneethi, R Vathsala
Second Row:           K Balasubramoniam, K Rama Rao, M L Deshpande, S N Prasad (Physics staff), Vincent Brown (American Peace Corps volunteer), Prof M D Devadason (director), Dr S Winston Cram (Consultant in Physics, USA), Dr Charles L Koelsche (Consultant in Chemistry, USA), Dr G Chaurasia (Principal),  Dr V Rajamadhav Rao (Physics staff), Raghavendra Rao (Chemistry staff), B N Singh (Chemistry staff), G Meenakshisundaram, H Venkataramiah, S Srinivasa Iyengar
Third Row:              Rajkumar Chibber, V R Bhaskara Sastry, D R Narayana Murthy, K Srinivasa Iyengar, A R Vamana Rao, S K Mittra, R N Sarin, Jitendra Kumar Chand, Parmanand Sharma, J L Ahooja, H K Khanapurkar, D D Chaudhari, P Sukumaran Nair, C N Venkatasubba Reddy, C A Chacko, C Papanna, B V Soman
Fourth Row:            Puttuswamy, Dasappa, K S Govinda Raj, K V Kundangar, S J Maniar, B U Parekh, J J Patel, G N Gnanapragasam, T S Ramaswamy, A Panneer Selvam, M Padmanabhaiah, A Nagaraj, W N Dandekar,, D Muthu

The photo carried all the names of the personae at the bottom, but my scanner couldn’t reproduce them legibly.  So, I have listed them here separately.  As before, the RIEM main building provided the backdrop to the picture.

Despite the passage of nearly half a century after this photo was taken, I remember most of the events and even some of the participants associated with the programme.  For me 1965 was a special year for several reasons that will unfold here.

Some dramatis personae in the photo

Perhaps the most glaring feature of the photo is the front row of four ladies squatting on the floor.  In keeping with the tradition of the times, they ended up taking this posture without feeling neglected in any way.  On the contrary, I remember they did so on their own though our American visitors had felt quite uneasy about their doing so.

Ms Rukminiamma and Ms Vathsala were part of the RIEM set-up, both working as teachers in the Demonstration School attached to RIEM.  Ms Rukminiamma later left for a teaching position in the BARC School at Bombay (now, Mumbai) and met me more than once on her visits to Mysore. The rather traditional looking Ms Vathsala, who was a wonderfully sweet personality with prowess in classical music, surprised everyone by marrying a foreign clergyman and migrating to a South American country.  I have not seen her again.

Of the four ladies, the ebullient Ms Bhooma Devi, buoyed by encouragement from one of the American experts, pursued higher studies in USA and returned to India for a fruitful and productive career in teacher education, including a stint with the NCERT.  I had the pleasure of running into her on several occasions at different places, always followed by long conversations.

Mr A Nagaraj (last row) was a teacher of chemistry on the staff of the Demonstration School.  He was a very creative and popular teacher, and acquired outstanding stature in later years.  I also rather vaguely recall Mr Balasubramoniam (seated first in the second row) having worked in RIEM/DMS for a few years and then moving on to greener pastures abroad.  I have no further information about him.

Among the other male participants, I had numerous occasions to meet Mr Rama Rao (second row) and Mr Vamana Rao (third row), the former as the principal of the government college of education in Mysore and the latter as the principal of a well-known private college of education in Shimoga.

Among the RIEM academic staff, it is sad to note that three of them passed away years ago, including my esteemed senior colleague Dr Rajamadhav Rao.

I have already written about the two American subject experts Dr Cram and Dr Koelsche whose services had been provided by USAID for the summer programme.  The third American seen in the picture, Vincent Brown, was a very friendly and unassuming American Peace Corps volunteer, teaching physics back home.   I remember him telling me that he came from a humble background and the son of a barber.  Lest the readers jump into any inferences I must point out that distinction based on profession is not a hallmark of American society.

Not seen in the picture is another American physics educator, Lane Branson, who had helped us set up many of the teaching aids and equipment that had come to the institution as part of the USAID aid.  He had left after spending one or two weeks initially.  He was to return to RIEM later and work with us for over two years on a major developmental project funded by the USAID.

Having been in RIEM for less than a year at that time and yet to go on a training programme to the USA, my role in the summer institute was of a dual nature, both as a resource person and a participant.

Physics Education Activities

These two summer institutes for in-service teacher educators in core subject areas were the first to be conducted by RIEM which had been founded only two years earlier as a regional arm of the NCERT.  They were also the first of their kind to be conducted in the country, with generous inputs from the USAID. Because of the pre-service four-year B Sc Ed programme started about the same time, these programmes were especially significant for the fledgling institution and set the stage for future activities of the science department.

The physics institute was centered around the PSSC physics curriculum that had made a pioneering debut in USA two years earlier and had a major impact on physics education at the 11-12 grade level there.  Departing from the general practice of teaching the subject from a prescribed/recommended textbook alone, it had supplemented an excellently produced textbook with a wide array of supportive resources for both teachers and students.  These included a very comprehensive guide book for teachers focusing on both content and methodology, workbooks for students, a set of specially developed innovative and inexpensive laboratory equipment, a laboratory manual, supplementary reading material for the students to expand their horizons and, most usefully, a set of about 40 specially produced videos (in the form of projectable 16 mm movie films) that not only provided rich hard-to-replicate learning experiences but also brought the viewers face to face with some of the famous American physicists and physics educators of the day.  Donald Ivy, Patterson Hume, Nobel Laureate Edwin Purcell and Eric Rogers are particularly unforgettable.  The first two had teamed up and featured in a number of PSSC films of outstanding quality, combining entertainment with education in some places, amounting to ‘edutainment’ in modern parlance.  Frames of Reference is one of their videos that has become a classic in physics education [It can be viewed online at:].

The PSSC physics curriculum was the major focus in the summer institutes conducted at RIEM for almost a decade after this inaugural one.  Many of the PSSC and related teaching aids and laboratory equipment and practically all of the PSSC films found excellent use in RIEM’s four-year B Sc Ed programme which became the institution’s mainstay.  The textbook content was adapted into the foundation physics courses extensively.

As part of the instructional programme which called for an intensive exposure to the PSSC physics resource materials, Dr Cram used to encourage the participants to submit themselves to the periodical standardized tests that formed part of the PSSC physics curriculum.  They were cooperative since they were not required to identify themselves on the answer sheets.  Among those who did, I remember Mr Panneerselvam’s (in the last row) performance was easily the best and I had to contend with playing second fiddle to him.  But the performance of the group as a whole was very poor, exposing the participants’ lack of understanding of the basics of school level physics, something that has remained static all these decades with most teachers and students of physics.

During the six weeks of the programme we found it neither possible nor desirable to cover the whole of the PSSC curriculum.  But we were certainly able to uncover a great deal of the popular perception of difficulty and disinterest associated with the subject.

Other highlights of 1965

As already said, 1965 was a very significant year in my own life for several reasons, the more prominent of which are recounted here.

The four-year integrated science education (B Sc Ed) course shaping up at RIEM required huge preparatory work on the part of the academic staff and administration, and the holding of these two summer institutes was an additional responsibility.  The physics department had only two of us (astonishingly, I believe this was two more than the strength of the permanent physics staff in RIEM today!), Dr Rajamadhav Rao and me, on the academic staff and we had to share a huge workload.  The responsibility for setting up the physics labs and deploying the equipment and materials received from various sources fell largely on my shoulders and I found myself spending most of my time in the labs, keeping very late hours.  I could do this because I was single at that time and, more importantly, staying in one of the RIEM hostels for some time and in the nearby university quarters later.
Initially, we had no place even to store a huge consignment of equipment received from Unesco.  There were in fact sixty five crates of them delivered by a large truck one fine day.  Vying with them for priority attention were those received from USAID as part of the summer institutes.  We had also made large purchases from within the country.

1965 also marked some positive developments in my personal life and a clear indication that I was next in line for deputation to the Ohio State University in USA for higher training in Science Education the following year.

The great comet of 1965

My most enduring hobby has been Observational Astronomy, something that has continued to this day despite my recent ophthalmic ordeals.  At the time of these summer institutes my only knowledge of the night sky was the Moon and planet Venus despite having studied (trigonometrical) astronomy as a subject under mathematics during my B Sc (Hons) course during 1956-59.  But this was to change dramatically by the rather sudden and unexpected appearance of comet Ikeya-Seki, in late October that year.  This was a spectacular object visible in the morning sky and truly the comet of the last century (How disappointing that ISON, expected to become the comet of this century last November, fizzled out completely and didn’t even become visible to the naked eye!).  Despite having read about it in news media, my sighting of it came wholly unintentionally, when I was walking towards the city to catch a train to Bangalore well before sunrise one fine morning. I stood dumb-struck for many minutes at this incredible sight, near the horizon to the left of Chamundi hill as I was walking north ward from the hostel.  The bright tail of this great comet appeared to my naked eye to spread 30-40 degrees across the sky and, barring two total solar eclipses in later decades, I have never seen anything so mesmerizingly magnificent.  Not only did I not have a pair of binoculars to explore it further, but I didn’t even know that binoculars could be useful for such a purpose.  This realization came much later.  But before that came a more important realization that I had not even assembled either of the two telescopes that had come to RIEM as part of the Unesco consignment mentioned above.
On my return from the Bangalore weekend visit almost the first thing I did was to assemble the two telescopes (one, a 6” Newtonian reflector of British origin and the other, a 90 mm refractor of Russian origin, both manually operated with equatorial mounts).  Then I started looking at the more prominent night sky objects through them, in conditions tailor-made for such viewing because the college campus was located far away from any disturbing lights and the concept of light-pollution was mercifully unknown in those days.

That morning, nearly half a century ago, marked the birth my most enduring hobby. 1965 ended on a very high note for me.  Intellectually I found myself transformed quickly from boyhood to manhood.

Looking back, on the academic front, I can honestly affirm that 1965 was the year when I learnt the fundamentals of physics, mainly through exposure to the PSSC physics curriculum resources.  The summer institute provided for me a teaching-learning platform in the truest sense of the phrase.

An Invitation

I would very much like to hear from anyone who can provide information about the whereabouts of any of the people in the photograph displayed here, especially from the participants themselves.  In this information age, fuelled by online portals like Facebook, there is a good chance that some of them will recognize themselves in the photograph and get in touch with me and each other as well as become part of RIEMAA if they are alumni of RIEM and have not already done so.

To sum up the events of the summer of 1965, I can do little better than to reproduce the following from my own previous blog post:

Enough planning and organizational effort had gone in to make the Summer Institutes of 1965 a success and a landmark in the history of the institution.  The traditional lectures made way for interactive discussion sessions with liberal use of teaching aids, supported strongly by laboratory exercises built around the PSSC equipment and materials...….  I was as much a participant in the programme as a resource person and, in purely academic terms, ended up receiving much more than I could give; such was the impact of the new PSSC curriculum materials at our disposal. The participant enthusiasm and feedback were both encouraging.  The institute laid the foundation for more such efforts in the future, on a regular annual basis, for well over a decade from then on.  They added significantly to RIEM's reputation and status as a premier institution for teacher education in the country, something that is sadly on the decline in the recent past.  RIEMAA should contemplate how it can contribute to arresting this trend and even reversing it if possible.

A Footnote

A few months back I was delighted to hear from one of my former students, Mr S Chandra Sekaran, now residing in Bangalore, recalling his student days at RIEM and acknowledging some positive influence I had on his professional activities.  He was also thoughtful enough to send me a group photo of his batch of students and staff (1973).  Although I don’t appear in the photo for whatever reason, it took me back once again down my memory lane, to a later period.  I hope to write more about this in a future blog post.  I also hope I will receive more feedback of this type from others in future and help me continue to ward off the wolf of insignificance.