22 Jan 2014

Emphasis on Experimental Science Helps India Reap Medals in International Maths and Science Olympiads

It all started exactly 25 years ago. In last quarter of 1988, the National Board of Higher Mathematics (NBHM) initiated process to identify the first ever Indian team to participate in an International Olympiad. Although the Olympiad movement at the international level was much older, India had not ventured in that direction till then. From 1998 onwards, Indian participation in other Olympiads began in a phased manner. Physics (1998), Astronomy (1999), Chemistry (1999), Biology (2000), and Junior Science (2007) followed.
The International Olympiads (IOs) present academic challenges of high difficulty level to young minds and thus represent celebration of the best in senior secondary and higher secondary levels.
For every Olympiad, each country sends a contingent of fixed number of students as its representatives. These students individually participate in various tests set by the host country and they are awarded medals based on their performance. Different Olympiads have slightly different formats for rounds and criteria for medals. 
However, basic tenets of the competition are same in all. Maximum number of students by each country also varies from four in Chemistry and Biolgy to six in Mathematics and Junior Science.

The Olympiad Movement

The Olympiad movement started in the year 1958 in Romania by a group of mathematicians in the form of International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO). A total of seven countries participated in the first IMO. Chemistry and Physics Olympiads began in late 60s while Biology Olympiad started in 1990. Rest of the Olympiads are much younger. Today, the Mathematics Olympiad is the biggest Olympiad with more than 100 countries participating in it every year. In other Olympiads the number of participating countries ranges from 40 to 80.

India in the Olympiads

In the Indian context, the focus of Olympiad activities has been on promoting excellence at the higher secondary stage. Emphasis on nurturing motivated sections of students is consistent with the basic tenet of the National Education Policy, that is, promotion of excellence in higher education for ensuring professional human resources for the country. Good performance of the Indian teams right from the beginning has acted as a catalyst and led to the consolidation of the national Olympiad programme

Availability of country-wide network of Indian Association of Physics Teachers (IAPT) helped in smooth launching of the Science Olympiad programme in the country. Involvement of teacher associations and various decisive funding departments such as the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), Department of Science and Technology (DST), Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) and Department of Space (DoS) on a consensual basis is the key factor that triggered the inception and growth of theprogramme.

The current national Olympiad programme involves three stages. The procedure is identical for all the science subjects and is slightly different for mathematics. The academic responsibility of the first stage in the science subjects lies with respective teacher organizations (namely, Indian Association of Physics Teachers (IAPT), Association of Chemistry Teachers (ACT) and Association of Teachers in Biological Sciences (ATBS)). The first level examination -called the National Standard Examinations - NSEs), conducted at around 900 centres across India in November is taken by students of both Class XI and XII level. The Junior Science Olympiad and the junior level of the Astronomy Olympiad are taken by students between classes VIII and X.
The second stage -called Indian National Examinations: INOs is conducted by the HomiBhabha           Centre for Science Education (HBCSE) at around 16 different centres in late January or early February. It consists of problems of high difficulty level designed on the lines of those appearing at the International Olympiads. While the participation in the first test runs into tens of thousands ,for example, the enrollment in the year 2012-13 was about 41000 in Physics, 35000 in Chemistry, 14000 in Biology, 12000 in Astronomy and 25000 in Junior science, the second level is limited to the top 300 students in each subject.
For the mathematics Olympiad programme, the first stage consists of the Regional Mathematical Olympiad (RMO) and is taken by a large number of students, around 30000 in 2012-13. This test is organised in a decentralised manner in 36 different regions in the country. The second stage, called the Indian National Mathematical Olympiad (INMO), is organized by HBCSE and is limited to the top 750 students from RMO.
In the final selection, about 35 students in each subject are selected from the Indian National Olympiad examinations and are invited for Orientation-cum-Selection Camps (OCSCs) held at HBCSE. During these camps, which last between two weeks and a month, students appear for several theoretical and experimental tests, leading to the selection of Indian teams for the final International Olympiads. Over 200 of the best students from across the nation are exposed to a high level experimental and theoretical training every year at the OCSCs. The teams, consisting of 4 to 6 students, depending on the stream are selected at the end of the OCSCs and are trained for about two weeks just prior to their participation at the international events at the Pre-Departure Training camps at HBCSE .
The special Olympiad laboratories in Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Junior Science and Physics at HBCSE design, develop and standardize new experiments on continual basis and these experiments are valuable inputs for the higher secondary and undergraduate science laboratories in the country.
Every year, the Olympiad programme sends 30 students to represent India in the International Olympiads in Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics, Astronomy and Junior Science. It is worth mentioning that till date almost all participants have won medals including numerous gold medals.
For the year 2012, 29 out of 30 won medals and this included 11 coveted gold medals. Based on aggregate scores, India is generally among the top ten nations in the Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Junior Science, and Physics Olympiads. In Astronomy as well as in Junior science it has managed to top medal tally in several years.
Emphasis on Experimental Science

One of the unique aspects of the Olympiad programme is its significant emphasis on experimental science. Most talent nurture programmes or competitive examinations in the country focus purely on theoretical aspects of a subject, thereby creating a learningenvironment in which the student is hardly encouraged to hone his/her experimental skills. By exposing students to innovative and novel experiments and training them in the methods of experimental science, the Olympiad programme strives to address the problem of acute need of motivated bright students in research laboratories across thecountry. The Olympiad laboratories at HBCSE are equipped to the level of internationalstandards, much beyond the typical facilities found in Indian schools and colleges. Severalexperimental kits developed at HBCSE have been distributed to a number of schools across India and also through the IAPT network.

The success of the Olympiad programme can in some measure be estimated by the long-term effect it has on students participating in it. It has been observed that a large fraction of the students who go through the Olympiad experience continue their academic pursuits in the future. Many of these students take up professional courses immediately beyond the higher secondary stage, but more often than not they continue their careers through doctoral research in respective domains. Some of them even return to the pursuit of basic sciences and mathematics. 
Many of these students credit their career choice to the exposure of research they got in the Olympiad programme. For example, Prof. AmolDighe of TIFR who was awarded Shantiswarup Bhatnagar award in Physics this year, was member of first ever Indian team to International Mathematics Olympiad (1989).
Apart from the above mentioned Olympiads, Government of India also recognizes and sends teams to few more IOs, namely International Earth Science Olympiad, International Astronomy Olympiad, International Olympiad in Informatics and Asian Physics Olympiad. These Olympiads are organized by separate government recognized agencies but most of them are also monitored by the National Steering Committee chaired by Centre Director of HBCSE.
Each participating country is obliged to host IOs sometime or the other. India has hosted several IOs in the past e.g. Mathematics (1996), Chemistry (2001), Astronomy (2006) and Biology (2008). All these Olympiads were organized in the city of Mumbai. Now, India will hosting the 10th International Junior Science Olympiad (IJSO) in Pune in December 2013. 
Around 45 countries are expected to participate in the IJSO 2013. Each country will be represented by 6 students and about 3 team leaders. Thus we expect close to 250 students and 150 leaders participating in IJSO 2013. Olympiads are a good opportunity for the students of this age group, to interact with their international counterparts to understand the cultural and scientific environment of the different nations.

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