Engg not just about computer science and IT. Can we stop this mad rush?


Engineering education in the country faces enormous challenges, with colleges struggling to fill even a third of the available spots in fields other than computer science and IT. Students do not want to join any of the traditional disciplines such as civil engineering, mechanical engineering, materials science, metallurgy, electrical engineering, etc. Many colleges are at a crossroads, wondering what to do with the faculty and infrastructure created in these core disciplines.

This leaves many questions unanswered. If everyone studies IT/CSE and all companies and products they build are related to e-commerce and IT, where are the other disciplines? It’s easy to move from mechanical, construction, electronics, etc. to IT, but it won’t be easy the other way around.

And what about India’s unresolved grassroots problems? Someone needs to develop technologies in healthcare, agriculture, energy, defense, space, civil infrastructure, transportation, waste processing, semiconductors, manufacturing, drones and many more. Engineering is not about construction, mechanical engineering, CSE, etc. Engineering is about providing optimal and sustainable solutions to the needs of society. Most of the problems we face in society do not involve a disciplinary tag. They often require multidisciplinary teams to develop a solution. When all disciplines in CSE and IT merge, our innovation potential in tackling societal challenges can be severely hampered.

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How can we face this situation and renew students’ interest in these traditional disciplines? I believe this requires a multi-pronged approach at national level, as outlined below.

First, we need to change perceptions about traditional disciplines. For example, mechanical engineering is no longer just about handling large machines that require physical strength, nor is construction just about building bridges and dams. Industry 4.0 has completely transformed mechanical engineering, with many departments doing advanced work on microelectromechanical systems, microfluidics, and other such technologies. Many civil engineers today are concerned with environmental issues and work on a variety of pollution-related problems. Metallurgy has turned into materials science. Electronics is no longer about communication, there are VLSI and nanoelectronics. Electrics are not about electrical machines, but about intelligent grids and renewable energies. There is a need for AICTE and the University Grants Commission (UGC) to host awareness workshops and provide school-level guidance to students. Institutions must also offer minors in areas that have a high demand for jobs so that every student can acquire the necessary background from an employment perspective.

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Second, we need to launch technology missions at the national level that not only fund research but also serve as vehicles for innovation and wealth creation. For example, following the IT revolution that swept the country from the late 1990s, several other technologies have emerged and have had a major impact on the research front. Some countries have also benefited from it. These are namely biotechnology, nanotechnology, cognitive technology (AI/ML etc.) and quantum technologies. Drones and other applications have become possible thanks to advances in batteries etc. due to nanotechnology and other materials research. With each decade, a new technology has captured the attention of scientists and policymakers. Launching a mission mode initiative in these advanced technologies requires planning on three fronts – education, research, and innovation. Then jobs will be created and educational programs will be attractive for students. Here are the rough steps.

lEvery mission must start with creating research facilities and building a research base in the country. All of these missions must involve industry experts and allied ministries from the start.

lResearch initiatives need to be supported by significant innovation and seed funding schemes. Programs must be in place to encourage industry participation. Findings from basic research must be constantly channeled into application-oriented areas.

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lEducational programs need to be planned from the beginning to find out how many graduates the country needs in these technology areas at undergraduate, graduate and PhD level and over what timeframes. Model curricula and study materials must be developed with the help of top academic educators and industry professionals. Teacher training and special staff development initiatives need to be implemented. Such alignment of research, innovation and education activities is important for these technology missions to eventually create jobs and value for society.

As a nation, the country is missing out on great opportunities these new technologies offer, despite the vast pool of knowledge and talent that is available locally. Without proper planning and execution, it will be a continued saga of India missing many such buses. We can do better. Careful planning is key.



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Disclaimer

The views expressed above are the author’s own.



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