Revitalize basic engineering training in IITs
The covid pandemic has been a nightmare for academics. Online courses and labs were a poor substitute for on-campus learning. Undeterred by covid, on-campus internships in the current academic year have broken all records at IIT (ISM) Dhanbad. For most students, core sector jobs were not the first choice. Software, IT, consulting and banking still rule the roost. Many students who join core sectors leave after two to four years to pursue an MBA or non-core opportunities. Given that technological prowess is an essential prerequisite for India’s superpower aspirations, how do you persuade undergraduate (UG) students to refocus on core engineering subjects?
Some elements of UG learning have stood the test of time. A desire for computer science and engineering, reputedly theoretical lectures, a disdain for laboratories, and cramming a week before exams to get good grades. However, there is one notable change that provides a window of opportunity. From the first year, students plan their courses and their free time to perfect their job search skills, most often on the advice of their elders. Today’s students are transactional and rightly expect a good return on their investment of money and time. The Institute can intervene by leveraging lectures, labs, exams and internships to influence the mindset of students. But first, the fundamental issues of math and grades will be covered.
Mathematics has been key to engineering education as it gravitated from empiricism to science. The central issue here is flexibility in the processing of mathematics. With the advent of software such as MATLAB, should basic math courses be taught as rigorously, with detailed proofs, as before? Since the type of math required in different departments varies, should students in all departments be required to take two or three common math courses? For example, electrical engineers need a thorough knowledge of linear algebra and complex numbers, while metallurgical engineers do not! Many students fear mathematical proofs. They simply memorize them without appreciating their elegance. Therefore, required math courses should meet the needs of most departments. Plus, it should be utilitarian, liberally sprinkled with engineering examples. Electives can be designed to meet the specific needs of different departments and mathematically gifted students.
For math in engineering courses, my view is simple. Equations tell a story, they are dying to be told! Students should understand the physical meaning of each term in an equation, understand their applicability, and solve them with software such as MATLAB and ANSYS. It also helps engineers find quick approximate solutions to complex problems, such as the extra force a ship experiences from sudden gusts.
Grades may not equal learning. Good grades often require strategies to pass exams. With some exceptions, it is also memorization, mechanical problem solving, researching questions from previous years and advice from seniors. A student can solve a difficult problem on Newton’s first law, but still struggles to correlate it with their real-life experiences. Grades are important because they not only improve a student’s standing among their peers, but also impact placement. Consistently good grades are also a reflection of a student’s diligence. In contrast, fundamental understanding of a subject is essential to making disruptive innovations. A good understanding of quantum mechanics is a prerequisite for quantum computing and a fundamental understanding of materials science is essential for developing the next generation of solar cells. This duality of academics must be effectively communicated to students. Grades are important, but so is learning!
Conferences are important influencers. In many courses, teachers religiously follow the prescribed text; there is nothing more to offer. The courses are mathematically rigorous, and rightly so, but the connection to real applications is often lacking. If the exam questions are based on lectures and texts, students forget the lectures or just switch off. The net result is a sense of disconnect with the department, especially lower ranked departments. Ironically, the corona pandemic and OTT have shown the way. Professors can invite talks from industry stalwarts via the web; it is planned to involve them in the IITs as adjunct professors or practice professors.
Discovery+ has a nice series of “Impossible Engineering” videos. Here, students can get a first-hand understanding of the challenges and resulting innovations in some of the trickiest engineering projects such as the Seattle Pontoon Bridge or the Qinghai-Tibet High-Altitude Railway. Absolutely fascinating engineering! Individual courses should also have a library of case studies, much like management institutes. A case study on the design and manufacture of the various components of a Tesla and its integration would be extremely motivating.
Using software to educate students about the design and dynamics of engineering systems can be truly insightful and inspiring. Cars have evolved from a boxy shape to more streamlined shapes to reduce air resistance (drag) for increased fuel efficiency (and a sleek look). We may have mathematical equations for drag depending on shape, but, as they say, “seeing is believing”. Using fluid dynamics software, a student can see how the airflow pattern changes with body shape and results in a change in drag. In addition, software allows students to “see through” complex opaque reactors such as a cast iron blast furnace 110 m high and 15 m in diameter that operates at a maximum temperature of approximately 1550 o C. he use of technical software, which requires fundamental engineering knowledge, is widespread in all spheres of engineering ranging from electronics to mining. Traditional IT (Infosys) and consulting (Accenture) companies have also started to provide “technical” services in the mining sector. So, a career in technical software could be just as rewarding as a career in a typical software company.
Design and manufacturing require students to have a working idea of engineering systems. After all, compact and energy-efficient motors for electric vehicles cannot be designed entirely on a computer. Experiments are needed to validate and test different engine designs. Unfortunately, labs are the neglected holy grail of Indian education. How to make laboratories poles of practical learning? One was through projects. At IIT Kanpur (IITK), there is a manufacturing course, where 40% of the lab sessions are used to manufacture a product. The lab component was popular among the students because it involved operations they had never been exposed to and gave them an engineering feel: machining, casting, welding, forging, and 3D printing. They used their imagination to create fascinating models. Over the years, however, the innovative ideas component of the projects has gradually diminished. Many students started copying displayed models from previous batches. To revive the initial objective of the project, some elements were added when I was an instructor: prohibition to copy from google or the old project models, a small business plan, finances including tax for the establishment of a small manufacturing unit and designing an advertisement to sell the product. The result was superb!
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
END OF ARTICLE