As a member of the IIT family for four decades, I have noticed one thing — students who seek admission in IITs have many things in common. Let me point out two of them.
Firstly, many of these students are fascinated by the technological innovations they have seen or heard about or experienced. This propels them towards seeking engineering education in one of the IITs. Secondly, either before or during their preparation for JEE, they get deeply interested in one or more of the three subjects — physics, chemistry and maths. Given their interest, they also become good at the subjects they like.
However, once they are inside an IIT, by the third or fourth semester or later, a good number of these students are unable to sustain their interest in pursuing engineering. This group is different from the group of students who make a conscious decision in their fifth or sixth semesters, or later, to move away from engineering keeping in view the less job opportunities in core engineering.
While job opportunities will always have some impact on what fraction of students take up engineering as a career, the question is whether our society, schools and IITs can do something to reduce the number of students who lose interest in engineering or science education.
We need to understand the root cause of this problem. There are myths in our society about what constitutes science and what constitutes engineering.
We need to spread the word that engineering education is not divorced from but actually built on the foundations of physics, chemistry and maths. No wonder these subjects are used for testing the ability of students who seek a career in engineering. In fact, the word science should not be thought of as only physics, chemistry, maths and biology.
Loosely speaking, any discipline whose principles have been experimentally tested over a period of time and have been found to hold true qualifies as a science. Therefore, it is not a surprise that a good part of engineering education is devoted to teaching what can be called the “Science of Engineering”.
Engineering students find that in the first and second year of their undergraduate program, several basic subjects of engineering do not directly relate to the technology they see around them. This tests their patience.
Further, these subjects tend to have the same flavour as what they perceive as science and their level of hardness is often on the higher side. This leads them to develop a disconnect and become disenchanted. One reason for this disappointment is that our society has conditioned them to think of engineering as something very different from what they have studied as science.
There are two reasons why a good part of the engineering curriculum is about the “Science of Engineering”. Firstly, an engineer is someone who can design or analyse a practical system before it is actually made or realised practically.
This means an engineer is supposed to have theoretical skills that can predict the properties of a real engineering system even before it is built. Once it is realised, the physical attributes of the resulting system should match with what was desired.
There is another equally important reason. An engineering student can be seen as a product of the engineering curriculum. Usually, any product that we see in the market has a shelf life of a few days or weeks or months or, at best, two to three years. It is rare to see a product which will continue to be relevant in the market beyond two to three years after it was introduced for the first time.
Do we want our engineering graduates to lose relevance in the market within a few years after earning an engineering degree? This is the challenge that the engineering curriculum faces. In response, it gravitates towards the “Science of Engineering” because that science will hopefully remain useful for a longer period, thereby increasing the shelf life of engineering graduates.
While our schools, society and IITs can help prepare prospective engineering students with a better understanding of what they can expect from engineering education and how they can relate it to the technical world we see and experience, it will help if the IITs can collectively take the lead to address this issue externally.
Internally, to retain the interest of the students that they admit, IITs explore and revise their curriculum every few years, with minor changes happening on a continuous basis. Still, the right balance between teaching the “Science of Engineering” and nurturing the excitement of engineering is probably yet to be achieved.
Courtesy : The Indaian Express