How to make engineering education meaningful
It is the corrupt and broken teaching system rather than the students who are to blame for this. There are a few good teachers of engineering but by and large most of them are mediocre (even in our IITs) and the stress is more on passing examinations rather than a hands-on learning experience.
In my visits and lectures at leading engineering institutions, I have found bright students who want to do something meaningful with their lives.
All that they need is proper guidance, inspiration and a challenge from both teachers and parents. These small directional changes will go a long way in producing better engineers and citizens of India.
The teaching in most of the engineering colleges including the IITs has been deteriorating over the last two or three decades and is presently quite mediocre with most of the faculty not being up-to-date in engineering research. In fact, IITs are consistently ranked quite low in international university ratings.
Research and teaching go hand-in-hand because the excitement of new research is then passed on to the students. Most of the engineering colleges do not do any research and even in IITs, it is much below world standards; the teachers are hence not able to inspire students to do research. The students therefore look for other challenges and are driven to opt for non-engineering areas like business management, civil services and software oriented programmes.
Four years of engineering education is a sufficiently long time to inspire the students to make a career in engineering. The fact that only a handful of students who pass out every year opt for engineering or research careers shows that very little of good engineering is taught.
What needs to be done? One of the ways forward is to create conditions for great research and scholarship to thrive in our IITs and engineering colleges. This can happen when faculty and students work on the problems of India and especially problems related to rural areas. Providing basic necessities to 60% of our rural population is a huge technological challenge and R&D on this should come from good engineering colleges.
At the same time, emphasis should be laid on the faculty spending time in the industry. A linkage between faculty promotion and time spent in industry should be encouraged. This trend is prevalent in European and American universities and needs to be emulated in India.
We also need a curriculum that emphasises hands-on work. Thus, in four years of education, students should be made to do many functional projects. This will also help the students develop an interest in R&D. Engineering is a training of the mind and good engineers learn methodology to apply analytical skills in problem solving. They can then apply this methodology in any field they choose to pursue.
Another way is for excellent engineers both in India and abroad to be invited to give lectures in engineering colleges. In addition, there are a good number of Indians who work as engineering faculty abroad in good schools and come on a yearly visit to India.
The HRD Ministry should make provisions such that both groups are encouraged to teach in engineering colleges at their convenience.
A good way for students to be involved in R&D is for them to spend one or two years doing work or internship in industries and in rural science and technology NGOs. If they can understand real life problems, then they can provide solutions to them. Once the R&D bug bites students here, it will automatically manifest itself in innovative and creative products and solutions.
The R&D should be inculcated even in schools by following the US-based ‘Maker Movement’. The US had an old tradition of youngsters tinkering in their garages on amateur radios, making small household items, etc. Now with 3D printing technologies and hand-on training emphasis, US schools are making students interested in creating designs, toys and new inventions.
Together with an emphasis on R&D, there is also a need to have social entrepreneurship and technical management as course streams in the engineering curriculum. Social entrepreneurship should not only teach the students about the problems of rural India, but how to use solid engineering in solving them.
Similarly, technical management courses will help students learn about technology and innovation management. Both, the technology management and social entrepreneurship streams should be grounded in excellent engineering education. The rise of great entrepreneurship all over the world has been mostly guided by technology managers like Willis Whitney of GE (with Irving Langmuir), Steve Jobs of Apple, Bill Gates of Microsoft, among others.
Finally, engineering education or any other education in the country will flourish if the bureaucratic control of the HRD Ministry is reduced. Education is a creative process and it is dangerous to leave it in the hands of the babus. For us to become a great and economically powerful nation and to give teeth to the Government of India’s slogan “Make in India”, it is necessary that we create conditions to develop good engineers. In the absence of such engineers who can create and innovate, we may end up copying innovations from abroad but even to copy a design we need good engineers!
The future of India belongs to the younger generation. All of us have to do our bit to get them involved in improving the lives of Indians. Unless we can provide basic amenities so that the rural poor can live a meaningful life, we will never become a great nation. This is a major challenge for all the country’s young engineers.
(The writer, Director, Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute, Maharashtra, studied engineering at IIT Kanpur and worked for over 30 years on agriculture, renewable energy and sustainable development) (The Billion Press)