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

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Prof V Ramgopal Rao is Pillay Chair Professor in the Dept of Electrical Engineering and former director of IIT Delhi.
Engineering education in the country is facing enormous challenges with colleges hardly able to fill even one-third of the available seats in branches other than computer science and IT. Students don’t want to join any of the traditional disciplines such as civil, mechanical, materials science, metallurgy, electrical etc. Many colleges are at a crossroads, wondering what to do with the faculty and infrastructure created in these core disciplines.
This leaves many unanswered questions. If everyone studies IT/CSE and if all the companies and products they build are e-commerce and IT related, where does that leave the other disciplines? It’s easy to move from mechanical, civil, electronics etc to IT but the vice versa isn’t going to be easy.
And what about India’s unsolved problems at the grassroots level. Someone needs to build technologies in healthcare, agriculture, energy, defence, space, civil infrastructure, transportation, waste processing, semiconductors, manufacturing, drones and many more. Engineering isn’t about civil, mechanical, CSE etc. Engineering is all about providing optimal and sustainable solutions to society’s needs. Most of the problems we face in society don’t come with a disciplinary tag. They often need multi-disciplinary teams to develop a solution. If all disciplines merge into CSE and IT, our innovation potential in addressing societal challenges may get grossly affected.
How can we address this situation and renew the interest of students in these traditional disciplines? In my opinion, this requires a multi-pronged approach at the national level as outlined below.
Firstly, we need to change the perception about traditional disciplines. For example, mechanical is no longer about dealing with large machines that require physical strength to operate and neither is civil engineering only about building bridges and dams. Industry 4.0 has completely transformed mechanical engineering with many departments doing advanced work on micro-electro-mechanical systems, microfluidics and other such technologies. A lot of civil engineers now study environmental issues and work on a multiplicity of pollution-related problems. Metallurgy has got morphed into materials science. Electronics is no longer about communications, there is VLSI and nanoelectronics. Electrical is not about electrical machines, it’s all about smart grids and renewables. There is a need for AICTE and University Grants Commission (UGC) to create awareness workshops and provide counselling to students at the school level. Institutions must also offer minor degree programmes in areas that have a great job demand so every student can gain the required background from employment point of view.
Secondly, 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, after the IT revolution that swept the country from the late ’90s onwards, multiple other technologies have come and made a big impact on the research front. Some countries have also capitalised on them. These are namely biotechnology, nanotechnology, cognitive technology (AI/ML etc) and quantum technologies. Drones and other applications have become possible, thanks to the advancements made on batteries etc. owing to nanotechnology and other materials research. Every decade has seen a new technology getting the attention of scientists and policy makers. Launching a mission mode initiative in these advanced technologies requires planning on three fronts — education, research and innovation. That’s when jobs get created and educational programmes become attractive for students. Here are the broad steps.
lEvery mission needs to start with creation of research facilities and building a research base in the country. All such missions must involve industry experts and allied ministries from the beginning.
lResearch initiatives need to be backed by significant innovation and start-up funding schemes. There must be schemes to encourage industry participation. Knowledge generated through basic research needs to be steadily channelled into application-oriented areas.
lEducational programmes need to be planned from the beginning to find out how many graduates the country needs in these technology areas at the diploma level, graduate level and PhD level and over what timelines. Model curricula and study materials need to be devised with the help of top educationists in academia and professionals in industries. Teacher training and special manpower development initiatives need to be undertaken. Such alignment of research, innovation and educational activities is important for these technology missions to eventually generate jobs and value for the society.
As a nation, the country is missing out on great opportunities these new technologies have on offer despite the vast knowledge pool and talent available locally. Without proper planning and execution, it will be a continued saga of India missing out on many such buses. We can do better. Careful planning holds the key.
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Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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