Challenges of engineering

The call of the hour is a restructuring of engineering education that aims to meet the challenges of a greater knowledge base, writes Kamalapur G D

The origin and growth of engineering education in India had taken different routes - the colonial, nationalistic, IIT, research, and university models. Initially it was a colonial model that started with five colleges. At the dawn of independence, there were only 38 degree-level and 52 diploma-level engineering/technical institutions with a total intake of 2,500 and 3,670 students, respectively. Regional engineering colleges were started between 1956 and 1960.

During the 1980s, there was unparalleled demand for skilled manpower and quality higher education relevant to the needs of business and industry. Introduction of economic reform had tremendous impact on higher education including drastic cut in public expenditures in education. The demand for engineering education had grown far more rapidly than what public institutions could accommodate and the Government finances were inadequate to meet the growing demand. There emerged a large number of private institutions and deemed universities. Self financing private engineering colleges are churning out about 87% of the engineering graduates in the country.

During the last two decades Indian engineering education has undergone exponential growth in terms of admissions. There were 3393 engineering colleges in India with a capacity of 14.85 lakh seats across 36 courses approved by the All India Council of Technical Education in 2012. This quantitative growth has occurred primarily due to inland and global requirements for technical manpower. By 2015, India is expected to have about 16 lakh engineering students. Though this number seems to be large in absolute terms, the production of engineers and technologists per million persons still remains behind that of world average. At present the production of technologists per million per year in USA, China and India are 700, 500 and 200 respectively.

In an era of choices, engineering still dominates as a favoured discipline. The world today needs good engineering talent to find solutions to global challenges facing humanity such as energy, environment, health and socio-economic well being. India‘s role in this context becomes more vulnerable due to its young large population of graduate engineers.

Challenges for engineers        
                                                                            
The world around is changing, so is engineering and engineering education. Any restructure in engineering education must aim to meet the challenges of a greater knowledge base and emerging technologies, develop in-depth management and creativity in problem-solving, as well as understanding the risks and uncertainties of the time.

Engineering encompasses a range of more specialised sub disciplines, each with emphasis on certain fields of application and particular areas of technology.

Next generation of engineering students has the most exciting period in human history. Exponential advances in knowledge, instrumentation, communication, and computational capabilities have created mind-boggling possibilities, and students are cutting across traditional disciplinary boundaries in unprecedented ways. Indeed, the distinction between science and engineering in some domains has been blurred to extinction.
n Cutting across the frontiers: There are two frontiers of engineering, each of which has to do with scale and associated with increasing complexity.

n One frontier has to do with smaller spatial scales and faster time scales, the world of so-called bio/nano/info. This frontier, which has to do with the melding of physical, life, and information sciences, offers stunning, unexplored possibilities, and natural forces of this frontier compel students to work across traditional disciplinary boundaries. This frontier meets the criterion of inspiring and exciting students. And out of this world will come products and processes that will drive a new round of entrepreneurship based on things you can drop on your toe and feel the real products that meet the needs of people.

n The other frontier has to do with larger systems of great complexity and, generally, of great importance to society. This is the world of energy, environment, food, manufacturing, product development, logistics, and communications. This frontier addresses some of the most daunting challenges to the future of the world.
n Creating a sustainable world: Providing a safe, secure, healthy, productive, and sustainable life for all people should be a priority for the engineering profession.

Engineers have an obligation to meet the basic needs of all humans for water, sanitation, food, health, and energy, as well as to protect cultural and natural diversity. Improving the lives of the people is no longer an option - it is a social obligation. Educating engineers to become facilitators of sustainable development, appropriate technology, and social and economic changes represents one of the greatest challenges faced by the engineering profession today.

n Innovation for inclusive growth: Innovation can mean new and unique applications of old technologies, using design to develop new products and services, new processes and structures to improve performance in diverse areas, organisational creativity, and public sector initiatives to enhance delivery of services. It is a means of creating sustainable and cost effective solutions for people and an important strategy for inclusive growth in developing economies.

n Need-specific curriculum: Present engineering curriculum educate and train students who drive technological change, but forget that they must work in a developing social, economic, and political context. Engineers need a sound basis in science, engineering principles, and analytical capabilities. The core of technical education is the curriculum, which is not only need-specific but also country/region specific. Initially the practical training for engineering education was imparted in factories-which later were transferred to laboratories and workshops.

n Sector-specific courses: Academia has to focus and offer sector specific courses that would boost employability. Regular institute-industry interaction is critical to restructure the curriculum with the changing needs of the industry. Students benefit from practical experience gained during in plant training or project work. Industry also provides support to engineering institutions through research projects, equipment grants, etc. Industrial feedback helps in making dynamic curriculum.

Meeting these challenges will require an accelerated commitment to engineering research and education. Technical/research universities and their engineering colleges will have to do many things simultaneously: advance the frontiers of fundamental science and technology; advance interdisciplinary work and learning; develop a new, broad approach to engineering systems; focus on technologies that address the most important problems facing the world; and recognise the global nature of all things technological. Indian research universities, with their integration of learning, discovery, and doing, can still provide the best environment for educating engineers. They must retain their fundamental rigor and discipline but also provide opportunities for as many undergraduates as possible to participate in research teams, perform challenging work in industry, and gain substantive professional experience in other countries.

Need of the hour is to build quality into the technical education systems so as to produce the technical manpower which will handle the task of nation building. In the next decade, the ability of individuals and organisations to learn, innovate, adopt and adapt faster will drive advanced economies.

Perhaps, the Corporate world can play a proactive role in changing the present scenario of Indian engineering education characterized by unemployable product in the market, to that of technologically updated, soft skilled and goal oriented engineering graduates to assume the leading role in emancipating the global economy.

(The writer is a professor of an engineering college in Dharwad.)

Comments (+)