Why students should opt for liberal arts multidisciplinary programmes at IITs that look beyond coveted branches

Why Students Should Opt for Liberal Arts, Multidisciplinary Programmes at IITs that Look Beyond Coveted Branches

The admission system for entry into engineering institutions in India invariably uses an entrance examination to sort students into a “merit” list. A higher rank in this list enables more choices relating to institutions (which NIT, IIT, for example) and the branch of study (Computer Science or Mechanical Engineering). Students make their choices at the time of joining and get “locked” into the chosen branch.

Most students make these decisions based on the ones that “seniors” made in the preceding year, along with the “wisdom” emanating from coaching classes. Student preferences for institutions and branches are based on past placement statistics — like what was the magnitude of the salary packages for a specific engineering branch, how many people got placed — and the folklore about what choice will make multi crore packages more accessible.

Sadly, student interest and aptitude are usually sidelined when finalising the branch of study.

It is also true that there are not enough manufacturing or core jobs available (especially in relation to the number of students who graduate from such branches) because of insufficient expansion of these sectors, and the onslaught of automation as well as artificial intelligence in displacing human labour.

A terrible consequence of these factors is the emergence of an academic wasteland full of disinterested students. Some hope to escape to the more coveted branches, such as Computer Science, by a possible branch change within the institution. However, this opportunity becomes available to very few.

Students, therefore, just meander through their years in the institution engaging very little with their discipline, chasing extracurricular activities or learning things like coding, software development, accounting, etc – skills that are likely to get them a good non-core job.

Therefore, it is not surprising that barring a few departments like Computer Science and, to an extent, Electrical engineering, a majority of students are taking up non-core jobs or those not related to their engineering branch. Our recent paper shows this to be true for IIT Bombay – and by extension for other IITs and other engineering institutions.

In such a situation, the government and institutions have to do a lot in terms of restructuring engineering education by creating highly flexible curricula. This will enable students to optimize their course choices across interests, desired skills and core domain knowledge. In any case, an increasing number of job profiles now also demand multidisciplinary exposure.

IIT Bombay recently revised its undergraduate curriculum to enable greater flexibility for students to choose courses they like. The new program provides for a greater number of courses related to humanities, arts, social science, management, entrepreneurship and design (HASMED). It also makes exposure to Data Science/Artificial Intelligence/ Machine Learning mandatory and has increased the number of elective courses that students can access from outside their allotted discipline. This allows for a certain amount of flexibility in whether to focus on depth or explore breadth in terms of topics. However, the program still stays within limits that acknowledge the distinct identity of conventional engineering disciplines.

Beyond this, IIT Bombay has also launched a Center for Liberal Education (CLE) that has been tasked to run the “Liberal Arts Sciences and Engineering” (LASE) program, for undergraduates. This program provides even more freedom to students to pursue different “mixes” of courses called “concentrations”; it attempts to break through the boundaries of conventional social (Sociology, Political Science, Economics) and natural (Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics) sciences, engineering branches (Civil, Mechanical, Chemical) and art and design. There is even the possibility of pursuing a completely customised mix of courses tailored to specific passions that students have. This program pushes the envelope like no other on how to recast traditional curriculum in radical ways.

Students should participate in these programs and make the most of the opportunities on offer. The flexibility to choose more, and from larger pools of courses, enables personally tailored trajectories. This is likely to have two important effects. Students can take up more courses that are of interest to them even while ensuring that they follow some minimum requirements of their core disciplines and do not have to do the extra studying of what they want to learn “privately”. Some such courses can now be a part of their official transcript.

Such “liberal” programs will reduce the perception of a hierarchy between students of coveted and the not so coveted branches, ease the feeling of being “locked” in branches and reduce the angst of “forcibly” studying topics of little or no interest. Reduced anxiety will hopefully also encourage students to be more experimental, take up projects with greater commitment and allow more creativity to come to the fore.

This curricular restructuring makes way for students to step out of their traditional comfort zones of “doing what their seniors did”. Conformism of this sort brings out the worst in students and causes actual pain. Take the case of the “Day – 1 Syndrome”. Many students, driven by feelings of anxiety and desperation to get hold of a job quickly, commit to jobs they have no interest in, simply because these are available at the start of the placement season.

It also gives students temporary bragging rights vis-a-vis their peers who are still not placed. But such transient relief puts them in long-term situations which they have no connection with. A more exploratory approach to learning, higher levels of interest, commitment and satisfaction with academic activity will hopefully also eliminate this kind of “peer-enforced”, self-destructive behavior.

These initiatives by institutions in crafting flexible and multidisciplinary programs is a welcome trend and these will make the student experience less stressful and more satisfying.

Courtesy : The Indian Express

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