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Reimagining engineering education in the 5G Era – Times of India

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JK Laxmipat University, Jaipur
There is a long history of communication technologies emerging as an infrastructure for transformative innovations almost in every sector. The development of the printing press in the fifteenth century was the first big industrial innovation in communications that facilitated many scientific, technological, business, cultural, and religious changes. In the nineteenth century, postal, telegraph, and telephone services made long-distance communication accessible to common people and even helped in the expansion of railways. Wireless radio communication became mission critical component of many sectors in the early twentieth century. Radio broadcasting services paved the way for many technological, business, and cultural changes and became the first step towards today’s multimedia streaming on the web. Meanwhile, movies emerged as a new industry and created a huge public appetite for television broadcasting that started later in the mid-twentieth century. Pagers were developed in the 1950s and became widely used by the 1980s. Pre-cellular era mobile telephony (0G) started in the mid-twentieth century laying the foundations for cellular mobile communications. Developments in computer communications began in the 1960s. Gradually, these technologies transformed computing systems enabling many innovations across sectors. Parallelly, machine-to-machine (M2M) communication technologies started facilitating remote monitoring, motion control, industrial automation, etc., and industrial wireless communications too were introduced nearly four decades ago laying the foundations for the IoT revolution. Wired and wireless communication as well as broadcasting technologies enabled pervasive transformations of processes, systems, and services across a large variety of sectors.
The first generation (1G) of cellular mobile communication, introduced in the early 1980s, used analog radio signals. These technologies are being regularly upgraded to subsequent generations almost after every decade, offering higher speed, quality, network capacity, lower latency, and several services enabling the creation of new businesses and processes. 2G started with digital radio signals and supported SMS, security, and roaming. The era of cellular IoT began and 2G was also widely used for remote metering and control projects in various industries. Internationally, railways adapted it as modified communication technology, GSM-R, to manage their mission-critical operations leading to fasters and safer train services. 3G, offered broadband services, GPS, etc., to redefine the mobile internet experience. New forms of collaboration technologies became available. A new business era of mobile-first started. Mobile-based e-commerce, social media, gaming, financial and banking services, etc., that became mainstream with 3G saw exponential growth with 4G. 4G gave a much better mobile internet experience through a wide range of real-time streaming, including telepresence and enterprise videoconferencing further scaling up and expanding the ongoing transformations. Strategists and policymakers started including mobility much more enthusiastically in their overall planning.
mHealth emerged as a new area for remote care, enhanced in-ambulance care,  and wellness management. Construction companies used 4G for creating fully functional connected site offices, site security through video surveillance, and workflow management. It transformed many M2M applications. It also emerged as a great infrastructure for running the work and affairs of the world during the long Covid-19 period.
5G, started in 2019, with its key capabilities of eMBB (Enhanced Mobile Broadband), mMTC (massive Machine Type Communication) and uRLLC (Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communication) is impacting all sectors through ultra-fast broadband, mass deployment of low-powered IoT devices (1 million devices per square kilometer) and extremely reliable low-latency communication (99.99% reliable). 5G and IoT are together deepening the integration of the physical, biological and digital worlds and transforming IT from information technology to integration technology. According to Transforma Insights, the mMTC will account for 2.6 billion IoT connections by 2030. This integration and blurring of boundaries between the physical and digital worlds is increasing efficiency as well as opening new use cases in manufacturing, construction, mining, energy & utilities, healthcare, transportation, buildings & cities, agriculture through applications such as self-driving vehicles, autonomous systems in factories, smart grids, digital twins, remote surgery, mobile medical monitoring, safety, remote control, sensor-based building management, and precision agriculture among others. Each of these offers huge market growth opportunities in the near future, e.g., Statista estimated that the Industrial IoT market will exceed USD 1.1 trillion by 2028 and as per Verified Market Research, the digital twin market will reach 108.58 billion USD by 2028.
This transformation is opening varied job roles for graduates of different engineering disciplines.
The communication and computer engineers will conceive, design, implement, and operate 5G communication systems. The electronics engineers will design the required circuits for the 5G devices and infrastructures and also build 5G-enabled massive IoT networks. The IT infrastructure engineers will design and maintain 5G-enabled IT infrastructure.  The cybersecurity experts will have to deal with much higher levels of vulnerabilities in the 5G ecosystem.  The software engineers will also build 5G-based applications for various domains.
The data scientists will analyse ever-growing mountains of data and along with software engineers, they will also build automation tools for the task. Other engineers will work with the above-mentioned experts to enrich and transform their own products, systems, and processes to integrate them into the 5G ecosystem. But most importantly, the 5G and IoT will expand the boxes in which engineers usually think about their respective customers, systems, processes, activities, and even objectives. The transferable skills like identifying and solving new problems through observation, modeling, analysis, interpretation, innovative synthesis, lateral thinking, and systems thinking will be even more important. The new hyper-connected world will require even more interdisciplinarity to understand and influence it.
As Julius Caeser said in Latin, “Alea iacta est”, meaning that the die has been cast. All engineering students must now be trained in 5G and IoT, mainly focusing on integrating these with their own disciplines for developing innovative applications, standards, and technologies in the context of their own core disciplines. Most engineering courses should be enriched with relevant digital transformations and industry 4.0 developments. For example, the civil engineering course on surveying can include topics on digital surveying and drone surveying, the mechanical engineering course on production technology can include topics on 3D printing and computer-integrated manufacturing, and the electrical engineering course on power systems can include topics on the smart grid and smart meters. Simultaneously, now there is a stronger need for students specialising in computer science or communication engineering to also broadly understand the physical world of core engineering disciplines. This approach does not necessitate the design of new engineering degrees at the undergraduate level. Appropriately transforming the curriculum of the existing degrees in all engineering disciplines will be a wiser and more sustainable approach. This can be very effectively done by increasing the common interdisciplinary core courses in the engineering curriculum that focus on developing interdisciplinary engineering problems solving competencies by combining the knowledge of the physical as well as the digital worlds. It is also important that many of these courses are conceived and designed to be taught by interdisciplinary teams of faculty. The new common engineering core courses should include knowledge areas related to mechanical mechanisms, CAD, computer programming, contemporary production and construction techniques, digital electronics and embedded systems, engineering measurements, mechanical and electrical machines, digital signal processing & communications, automation & control systems, sensors, actuators, data analysis, IoT, etc. Depending upon their strengths and focus, Universities can integrate these topics differently to create different sets of interdisciplinary courses. Further, many conventional mathematics courses in the engineering curriculum can be reimagined as computational engineering modeling courses to be given to all engineering students such that the mathematics is contextualized and integrated with different engineering disciplines, especially civil, mechanical, and electrical on one hand and programming and simulation on the other. A large number of discipline-specific and interdisciplinary elective courses can help students to learn as per their specific interests.
However, as Bertrand Russel, British Nobel laureate, multidisciplinary scholar, and a great champion of India’s freedom, said, “more important than the curriculum is the question of the methods of teaching and the spirit in which the teaching is given.”  Nothing will be achieved merely by changing the curriculum if the methods of teaching continue to lack rigour or regular engagement in interdisciplinary and collaborative problem-solving through the integration of ideas and technologies. To stay relevant in this era of online education, engineering institutes really need to work a lot on this front, even more urgently. Or else, it may just be too late for most of them.
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Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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