Yesterday, media had a wonderful news that five students who represented India in the International Physics Olympiad have all received Gold Medals. This is the first time that Indian team has come back with five Gold medals. The previous best performance was 4 Golds and 1 Silver.
And then the analysis started. It was pointed out by my friend, Prashant Bhattacharji, that India has been performing well in Physics Olympiad for a long time, and surprisingly to me, our performance in Maths Olympiad is not so stellar, Chemistry Olympiad even lesser. He then pointed out that Physics syllabus for Olympiad is very similar to JEE syllabus, while Maths syllabus for Olympiad has some differences with JEE syllabus, etc. The news papers also reported that while China too has 5 Gold Medals, their overall ranks are higher in most years because our team does not perform well in the experimental physics, something that is not tested in JEE. Almost every year, team members of Physics Olumpiad do extremely well in JEE (this year, two of them are in top 10 ranks, and other two have good ranks, while one student is now in 12th class), while the correlation between JEE performance and Maths Olympiad performance is lower. As an aside, three of the team members have joined IIT Bombay, while one is joining MIT in USA. The fifth one, I hope wants to join an IIT, though, I am sure would have an offer from MIT as well.
How do I interpret all this.
For most parents in the middle class, the biggest point of stress today is admission to a quality educational institution (both at school level and then at the college level). If a student is even marginally interested in science, s/he is under pressure to prepare for competitive exams like JEE or NEET. So one should study all science subjects equally, and study all those topics well which are part of the syllabus for these exams. You aren't allowed to spend more time on the subject that you really love and want to excel in. Also, you aren't expected to "waste" your time in labs. Is this the way to encourage excellence? Of course, not.
But things aren't going to change as long as there is serious shortage of good colleges. Parents will ask their wards to focus primarily on JEE/NEET type of goals. While the biggest problem, obviously, is the lack of sufficient quality educational institutions, the second biggest problem is that all these quality institutions have only a single admission process based on a single test. If we want that students should excel in whatever they are interested in, we will have to create an incentive scheme which is acceptable to parents.
One such scheme could be that students who represent India will be offered admission to top places related to the subjects that they have excelled in. Students who don't represent India but were part of the training camp (which is typically 20-30 students) could be given bonus marks (as IIIT Delhi does) and hence strong preference in admission. In fact, the national level Olympiads could come up with a list of top 100 in that subject who would get that preference in admissions. Of course, the exact mechanism is not important, and various institutions can come up with their own mechanisms.
Note that the goal of admission process is to select meritorious students who are likely to perform well in the program. There is no doubt that these students will do that. Also, this can be a vehicle for early admissions to students, something that is seriously lacking in India and causes much too unnecessary stress. So a student could be offered admission after 11th (because s/he got into Team India at that age) subject to reasonable performance in 12th class.
As an aside, it is being reported that all five of them studied with coaching classes. So may be we can give some credit to coaching classes, which are trying to help those who are suffering from poor schooling in India.
To end, specific suggestions in this article are not important. The point is that our top institutions should be open to the idea of admitting students who have excelled in different forums.
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