Can a bicycle enable science education?

Our consortium, enabled by the ERC, brought together students from nine countries to work on projects that were designed to be part of a shared goal. At the end of this work, we students will, hopefully, attain our PhDs. However, even so, I can say that none of us will arguably have the same story to tell at the end of this journey, even though we are broadly working in similar fields with noteworthy PIs.

This made me think. A PhD is a fairly advanced degree, and if even here such stark differences of a lived experience can arise, how varied might be the journeys of people to get here. And how things we don’t give a second glance to might affect a person’s ability to pursue science education, somewhere on earth. Since I was given the liberty to write this blog post on any topic I choose, I thought it only natural in keeping with our Marie Curie fellowship’s spirit to bring together people from various cultures, to elaborate a small facet of what it sometimes takes to gain a good scientific education of India.

I present to you, the case of the humble bicycle. And the role it played in bridging the educational gender gap by increasing the school enrollment of girls in a corner of India.

Bihar, a state in eastern India, had been dealing with a widening gender-gap in secondary education (analogous to high school) since the past few decades (Fig.1-left). While the reasons were many, a root cause is the deeply patriarchal culture as well as low median educational status of the previous generation, as a consequence of which, people were much more likely to divert resources to a boy’s education; as well as believing that primary education was enough for girls to live the life that was imagined for them by society.

An added importance of secondary school is that it offers the first intensive exposure to scientific concepts (beginning from senior secondary school in India, science stops being a single subject and is split up into Physics, Chemistry and Biology).

Fig. 1. The gender-gap in school enrollment

The commonly implemented policy measure of constructing more schools (and thus reducing the distance cost of attending school) is not as effective here, since secondary schools are defined by the need for qualified teachers and advanced infrastructures like laboratories and scientific equipment. These are cost-intensive and require a minimum scale of school attendance to be cost-effective. Thus in light of limited resources, it can be more prudent to improve existing schools. As mentioned before, this increased distance cost is more likely to (negatively) affect a girl’s educational prospects.

To bridge this gender gap, the state government in 2007 launched a scheme wherein 2000₹ (around €25) were provided to families of girls who entered high school, which was to be used exclusively to buy bicycles. The impact of the scheme was studied in 2013 (See the reference at the end of the post where we also provide a link to a summarized video).

The number story
While numbers and statistics fall prey to a tendency to downplay the human stories that accompany them, they are an extremely important metric so that is where we will start.

A preliminary study of the cycle program conducted by independent researchers found that in the girl cohort which was a beneficiary of the program, the school enrollment increased by 32%. The gender gap in the relevant schools reduced by 40 %.

Fig. 2. Distance-correlated improvement in school enrollment among girls

The most striking revelation was that this gender-biased increase was highest for households that were ≥ 3km away from schools, while there was no impact at all in schools up to 3km (or within walking distance) [1].  This is highlighted by the inverted ‘U’ shaped feature for the sample group (Fig.2-left), which is missing in the control group (Fig.2-right). This highlights the reduction in the distance cost as a major driver for this change. It made the journey shorter and safer, for you will find it a common sight today that a group of girls are going towards better education, one pedal at a time.

The human story

Through the preliminary findings of the above-mentioned study provide the numerical basis of the change, the bikes came to affect many facets of the girls’ lives, above and beyond school enrollment.  It gave them a way to fortify their presence in the public space- on the streets and roads of their towns and villages. This was not a sight you would see at the turn of the century.

This has also resulted (at least anecdotally) in a stronger willingness from girls to pursue STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). The reason, I believe, is that the bicycle serves as a tangible symbol of the importance of a girl’s aspirations, educational or otherwise. It would not be a stretch to say that like education is a medium to a better life, bicycles for these girls are a medium to better education. A similar effect is echoed from England and the USA of the 1890s when bicycles served as a symbol of freedom, mobility and the Suffragette movement.

We wouldn’t lift our heads to look at a bike parked at the corner. But this is what it took, to overturn a thousand years of tradition; to enable the educational potential of half of humanity. In a small corner of the world.

Apart from dictated paths, they have searched for and found unknown paths as well.

Written by Mihir Dass, PhD student in Tim Liedl’s group at LMU.

1.     Muralidharan, Karthik, and Nishith Prakash. 2017. “Cycling to School: Increasing Secondary School Enrollment for Girls in India.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 9 (3): 321-50.

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