Engineering Teaching and Research in Iits

Topics: Engineering, Indian Institutes of Technology, Professional Engineer Pages: 17 (6033 words) Published: December 26, 2012

Engineering teaching and research in IITs and its impact on India* Milind Sohoni This note analyses the nature of research and development (R&D) as it is practised in our premier engineering institutes and its effect on India’s development. I argue that the dominant paradigm of R&D is too abstract for it to be accessible to a wider set of students and teachers, and for it to yield developmental dividends. Furthermore, our metrics for R&D are too ‘international’ to incentivize work on our own development problems. I contend that good engineering must train students to model societal problems and solve them, and that problems coming from our development needs are good vehicles to promote it. Finally, I make some recommendations to make engineering more inclusive and outline the role of the engineering college as a regional solution provider. This note is an analysis of the structure and nature of research and development (R&D) in engineering, as I see it. Much of my professional life has been at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay and that will serve as a running example for this analysis. I must add that in the case of IIT Bombay, its best years are still to come. I report here about R&D in engineering, as opposed to ‘pure’ or ‘blue-sky’ research. In what follows, I argue for four basic contentions: (i) there is a lack of diversity in the prevalent engineering education paradigms in the country; (ii) the dominant paradigm is too abstract to inculcate a suitable and broad-based R&D ethos; (iii) this paradigm is perpetuated by the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) and Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE), and these adversely impact our R&D efforts and finally (iv) our pursuit of international research is misplaced. At the end, I suggest a possible change of course, based on notions of engagement, delivery and accountability in engineering. for a good education/research institute, one cannot really separate R&D and its practice from curricular teaching. This is because good R&D practice demands domain knowledge and skills which will form the basis for curricular training, and curricula define the first perspective by which students will approach new problems. Besides this, specific research examples serve as important case studies whose relevance in the classroom is well-documented. In this sense, the selection and development of curricular material should go hand-in-hand with the agenda for research. One piece of notation: there are two types of outcomes of a good education, viz. ‘conveyance’, which enables one to migrate from one society to a better or more attractive one, and ‘elevation’, which leads to a betterment in situ. We may extend this to educational institutes, and call them as ‘conveyor belts’ (e.g. coaching classes, English-speaking lessons) or ‘elevators’ (e.g. electrician course, engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)). It is clear that ‘conveyor-belt’ education will be more about the target society, whereas ‘elevator’ education will be more about the current one. My next observation is that the engineering profession is actually fairly social. It began, as with potters or carpenters, by interpreting societal needs in the application domain and its translation into the solution domain. For engineers, this solution domain is the applied physical sciences, i.e. the world of gadgets, computer programs, pipelines, reactors and such. Of course, there are many other such social professions, e.g. the doctor, the architect, and so on, while many are much less so, e.g. the astronomer, the mathematician and the botanist. Clearly, if you were an engineer, your research would be more solution-driven, and if you were an astronomer, you would enjoy more of ‘blue-sky’ research. Thus, just as for the fields of medicine or architecture, good engineering is about societal problem solving and is best taught in the elevator-mode, as a partnership between ambient society and...
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