Engg education needs a reboot

Industry estimates suggests that 80% of current engineering graduates are not employable. It is not our engineers who have fallen short, it may be that our engineering education has not evolved with time. How have we reached a point where the smartest, most committed young students get into college after a rigorous selection process, spend four years studying and graduate ill-equipped and irrelevant to the industry outside?

India got off to a great start in the 1960s and 70s when the government created world-class institutions like the IITs, but then we took our eyes off the ball. Private engineering colleges sprung up in the 1990s and 2000s and fed the software services boom. However, many engineering colleges have failed to keep pace with the evolving needs of students and industry.

One could argue that we just need to change the curriculum and add courses -- in Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Internet of Things and Robotics among others -- and our graduates will be ready to take on the emerging new world. This may be a short-sighted approach to addressing a problem which is begging for a fundamental reset.

The key to creating a new paradigm for careers in engineering for the next generation of talented minds lies in reimagining high-quality, higher education in engineering and the sciences along the following lines.

Changing the playbook

The approach to engineering and scientific education needs to be increasingly interdisciplinary with computer science at the core. The curriculum should dismantle the walls between engineering and scientific disciplines and enable students to connect the dots. This is a huge shift from the current format which focuses on producing engineers who specialise in a specific area, such as mechanical engineering, computer science engineering or civil engineering.

Nurturing innovators

Unlike traditional engineering education, where the pedagogy is focussed on credits and grades, the new way has to motivate the spirit of constant experimentation. The new pedagogy should encourage students to undertake actual experiments or projects where outcomes are not known or are not merely validation of what they have learnt in theory.

Students will build the innovation muscle if they can become comfortable with trying, failing and trying again to uncover new insights. This can be facilitated through experiential learning. Students should be given real-world, complex problems to solve so that they learn to deal with uncertainty.

The engineers of tomorrow need an entrepreneurial mindset even if they go on to choose to work for large firms. In order to thrive and build a high-impact career in engineering, they need to be prepared to take risks, come up with and execute new ideas. The learning environment has to create intellectually safe spaces for students to nurture this mindset.

Problem-solving

Engineers have to be able to solve big problems that afflict the real world. Water, environment, poverty, agriculture, health, traffic, urban mobility are just some examples of real-world problems to solve. To do so, they need to go beyond technology and understand and appreciate people, society and policy issues. This can happen with a curriculum which also exposes engineers to the liberal arts, design thinking and also emphasises on self-development and personal leadership with focus on 21st century skills like critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication.

Leadership

At the end of the day, a high-quality engineering institute should be able to go beyond engineering. While they produce engineers, who have a clear understanding of their technology area, they also need to create thoughtful leaders who fully appreciate that technology is merely a tool and not the end, who have an understanding of how appropriate technology has to chosen for a task, and how that technology can be appropriately used to create an imaginative solution in the context of the problem being solved.

As the problems they solve will have far more technical and human complexity than has been the case in the past, gone are the days when students just had to learn concepts in their college and apply it in their job. Today, they have to work with interdisciplinary teams on interdisciplinary problems and balance conflicting priorities. They need to have a vast portfolio of inter-personal and leadership skills.

Collaboration with industry

Lastly, collaboration with industry and government is something that is missing today. There is a need for academia to engage with government and industry. This flow of knowledge from industry and government to academia and vice versa is important if we want Indian universities to become more real-world research-oriented than they have been till now.

The engineering education system should create not narrow technical personnel but technology change-makers and entrepreneurs who can not only transform existing companies but also create new ventures and solve the grand challenges facing the country today.

(The writer is co-promoter, MD and CEO, Info Edge (Naukri.com),and Founder-Trustee, Plaksha University)

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