India needs leader engineers not followers, Semiconductor expert turned faculty at IISc shares his views

Date: 25/12/2017
Engineering education is a strategic foundation for the future of nation and so is also the electronics engineering education. The emerging market trends such as smart villages/cities, smart factory, e-farming and smart-everything need lot more technology innovation in electronics engineering. Not only market-wise, electronics is becoming important strategically too, both for the security of the nation and its digital infrastructure. Cybersecurity in our AADHAR powered digital-India systems including voting machines can be more trust-worthier using domestically designed and produced hardware and software components, more specifically semiconductor chips and operating system. For that to happen we need to build the complete electronics design and manufacturing eco and requires authentic innovative brains in this domain, not the copycats of what's already taken shape in other parts of the world. Electronics also has potential to create jobs in the skilled labour area. Irrespective of the automation happening in the smart factories you need smart people to operate them. That requires human resources of not only higher-educated but also skilled people who need to be innovative and smarter than the robot machines. India has a huge growing population in the age group of 10 to 20, who need to be taught leadership qualities to innovate smart solutions. This requires significant effort to improve quality of education all the way from school level to higher studies.

This writer sat with Dr. Mayank Shrivastava, a nanoelectronics/semiconductor expert turned faculty in the premier Indian Institute of Science(IISc), Bengaluru to learn his views on Indian education systems, with a focus on engineering education. Dr. Mayank Shrivastava is a researcher and faculty in the Department of Electronic Systems Engineering at IISc. His areas of interest cover nano-scale power-semiconductor devices for future electronics technologies. He is the first Indian to win IEEE EDS Early Career Award, one of the highest honours given by IEEE Electron Device Society (EDS). He is also among the first recipient to receive Indian edition of American TR35 award. The latest award received by Prof. Shrivastava is INAE Young Engineer awards for the year 2017. His research covers most of the semiconductor material landscape including graphene. He has published over 85 articles in peer reviewed international journals and conferences, besides having over 40 patents on his name. He has worked in world's leading semiconductor companies before moving to academia.

On what should be the syllabus and curriculum:

Dr. Mayank: This question has two parts, definition of syllabus and curriculum. Let's me start with syllabus, by taking examples of some of the best places in world (including IITs and IISc), to give you a feel for how syllabus is defined or should be defined. In principle, there is no fixed syllabus, which must be taught precisely for years and years. Whatever is taught is often state-of-the-art, current in time and that is what becomes the syllabus. In such a case whatever is taught often comes from the past teaching and research experiences of the faculty or course instructor. Typically, the faculty who is teaching would be well experienced in that area. So, it is not that a person going to teach something only from the textbook or is going to dictate the textbook in the classroom. The course content keep on changing (upgrading) depending on the time and need. Most importantly, we always try to link our teaching with the research (or state-of-the-art technologies), so that students can a feel for the application of what is being taught in the classroom. The same however is different when you teach a fundamental course, like basic sciences. In this case the content may be fixed, but you need to keep on working on the teaching style such that students understand where all this fundamental knowledge is going to be used. I teach subjects having both the natures, applied as well as fundamental and the syllabus as well as teaching style varies accordingly.

The 2nd aspect of the question is related to the curriculum of a program. The best institutes in the world keep the curriculum flexible and allow students to decide the path they want to choose. The focus is often on building fundamentals in form of core courses, which students must credit. The fundamentals are reinforced to make strong foundation. In laymen terms, if the foundation is strong, one can build all kind of structures around it, be it a tall building or a wide one or what not! The foundation need to be deep and strong. That's exactly what India’s education stakeholders, who define the curriculum or syllabus for a given university or board, should focus on.

In autonomous institutions curriculum is not a challenge, however in university system, both curriculum and syllabus are a tricky problem to solve, often difficult to regulate when flexibility is offered at the same time. The stakeholders need to think in this direction. However, the bottom-line is that the focus must shift from syllabus based teaching and grade based evaluation to developing strong foundation and love for fundamentals. What I'm observing since last 10-15 years is that there is some kind of rush/hurry towards professional subjects which can potentially offer professional training and hence quick jobs. The interest towards learning, developing foundations and getting into basic sciences is missing. What students often miss is any applied knowledge comes from basic science If basic science or the foundation is not strong, you can’t become a good engineer or professional. The fundamentals has to be very strong, be it science, engineering, medical or even humanity.

I will give you a layman example, by considering humanity as a field of expertise. In humanity (what is also called Arts in India) one may “read” all kind of big authors, but if you don't understand the very basic nature of human science, environment and the environment around us, then you can’t “study” them. Note that reading someone and studying their views are entirely different. For example you cannot understand Tagore (Ravindra Nath Tagore) or Sadhguru (Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev), if you not developed a very deep sense for the system around us and within us. Same approach is needed for technical or scientific education, if you want to become a good engineer, you first need to have a deeper feel for the subject, and to feel the subject you need to have strong foundation. Whether you study basic science like graduation level physics, chemistry, mathematics, or take-up applied or advanced topics like materials science, advanced chemistry, quantum physics, etc, if you don't develop a feel for the subject you wont be able to use the knowledge acquired. You may get well trained as you will learn the miniscule, but you won't be able to innovate.

If you want to innovate you need to have deeper sense and deeper understanding of what you're dealing with. I'll give you another example: Anyone can learn how to cook (at least simple food), but not everyone can invent their own recipe. To invent your own recipe you need to have deeper understanding of how a combination of certain ingredients will change the taste or add to the taste. So, you can become a cook, not a chef! What is happening these days is, there is lot more focus on training for skills so that people get jobs. What people are missing is that if you understand the very fundamentals, skills will follow on its own. If you innovate, you can generate jobs.

How to ensure good quality faculty:

Dr. Mayank: You need a sound understanding of the subject, the sound understanding can come from industry experience or your own researching of the subject. At least you (faculty) should know 5 to10 times more than what you are asked to teach. If you only know what is there in the textbook, and you're going to just teach the same thing, for a number of engineering subjects engineering students can learn textbooks on their own. If the faculty know more than what is there in the textbook, the teaching becomes efficient.

This was one aspect, the other aspect is how do you teach. What I'm doing in my class is, I teach students more from my own research experiences. Every small or big concepts that I teach, I try to connect it with the real world. I try to give a layman pictures or example even while teaching subjects like quantum mechanics. This to ensure that the students can visualise the concepts and secondly, I connect it with application of the subject. Without such an approach that, you end up teaching just what is there in the textbook, which becomes boring and useless for students. Unfortunately, this is a problem I see in 80-90% of the Tier II and Tier III engineering colleges. We are producing tons of engineers, but majority of them are not true engineers.

How to streamline teaching in Tier III engineering colleges, which are mushrooming these days:

Dr. Mayank: To streamline teaching I would have done the following (though it is just a quick thought, a detailed brainstorming would be needed to have a robust plan): I feel there should be a regulatory body, which enforces certain level of quality in teaching and the level of subject matter expertise. This should however be not in terms of grades students get in certain university examination. The quality should be judged in terms of what is being taught. This can be enforced by testing teachers who are teaching a given course, through a national level test after every 2nd or 3rd year. The test must judge the scientific aptitude and depth of theoretical as well as practical knowledge of the teacher in the subjects which she/he is teaching. The teacher should be disqualified from teaching services if she/he is not able to outperform in such a test. Naturally, if the teacher himself is not up to date and on par, she/he must not be allowed to teach. It would not be very difficult to setup this kind of of test. Help of faculties or subject expert’s in IITs/IISc can be taken. They are already doing it for several national level entrance tests, why not one for teachers in private institutions. Moreover, government is helping such teachers and their students to learn as much as possible by offering online courses through IITs/IISc (eg. NPTEL) and TV channels. However, I don’t see any regulation which enforces efficient use of such great national resources by Tier 3 colleges. If it is missing, the loop is not completed.

Moreover, the way teachers are evaluated these days must change. What is happening is government bodies earlier came-up with evaluation mechanism which has parameters like number of publications, conference attendance, etc. Though government intention was to enforce quality, however unfortunately, people have found a way out to fool the government evaluation mechanism by indulging into publishing in predatory journals and organizing useless conferences. Now a days majority of well-funded private engineering colleges have their own “International Conferences” and “Journals”! Recently there was an article which highlights that India is top in the predatory open access journals. This must stop. If a teacher is found indulging into predatory activities, he must be disqualified from teaching services.

There is another way of solving this problem, which is by breaking demand and supply chain. There are predatory journal and similar academically unethical activities because – specially in teaching institutes – a bit of impractical promotion norms are enforced. In teaching institutes, I simply don't believe in any of these matrices where you asked teachers to write papers and ask them to attend conferences. This is simply not going to help. Even in top Institutes, there are great textbook authors and teachers (like H. C. Verma from IIT Kanpur) who have focused majorly on teaching. Government and the administration has to give credit for teaching.

On the question of isn't the publication of papers required:

Dr. Mayank: Publishing papers should not be the motivation to peruse a research path. If you're interested in science and engineering, you will end up building something new and novel, and if you have done something new, you will any way communicate it in form of research articles. It should not be imposed on you that you have to publish some number of paper. It should not be told in that sense. It should be as, you focus on teaching and at grassroots level you nurture the talent to emerge. Beyond that if you have interest in research - you do whatever you want to do and if you have done something interesting research- you will anyway publish. If you consider the biography of great scientists and engineers/inventors, you will realize that whatever they invented/discovered what just because of their love for science/technology, publications were merely a biproduct of what they did. It should not be the other way around.

If you remove this criteria (compulsion of some number of publications), naturally all the open access journals, predatory publications will go away. The interest in science and research must come from within, it must not be enforced. Research is exploration of new knowledge. The exploration of new knowledge should not be imposed, it has to come from within, publication of research papers is a consequence of research, it's a natural process. You give freedom to teachers, whatever research they wanted to do, but regulate teaching.

On practical training in teaching:

Dr. Mayank: For every subject taught there is need to have practical training so that students can connect. I understand that for Tier 2 and Tier 3 colleges, it is very difficult to offer everything practically such as semiconductor fabrication, as even in the premier institutes like IITs only few places have such facilities. However, the kind of lab infrastructure required for undergraduate level experimental training is not that significant. Most of the institutes due to the norms must have certain level of labs. The question is whether the labs are operated in a way that it can offer practical training to students. This is where government can play key role. Government funded departments have started online courses where IIT teachers have taught UG level courses, which are accessable to private colleges. Similar things can be done for lab training and associated module. Govt. together with premier institutes can work on standardising the lab training modules. Govt. can also think of having city level (at least in major cities) central laboratories which are mandated to train engineering students in certain lab courses.

Moreover, what Government can do together with premier institutions is, there can be online lab courses and modules so that the teachers can understand how to basically plan a lab course. These lab courses are very important for the students to understand the practical aspect of chosen subject. Once this is done, then you need a scientific evaluation method to evaluate whether the colleges are doing what they're supposed to do or not. This is also something which has to be enforced and evaluated by experts in a given field.

How to motivate students and faculty to use these courses:

Dr. Mayank: I believe that everything will not happen by motivation, something we have to enforce. To those who are self-motivated we don't need to tell all this. Those who are motivated are already using these courses, but they are very few, may be less than 1%. When it comes to streamlining the mass and bringing societal changes, in national interest, I believe some level of enforcement is needed. The enforcement may not be direct, but certainly a demand and supply eco-system can be created by the govt. which will enforce people to maintain a certain level of quality. Teachers must not opt for teaching profession just as a (last) option.

On Action and Consolidation:

Dr. Mayank: Then comes how to consolidate. To consolidate you have to simply cancel the licences of engineering colleges if they are not following strict norms. It is very simple and very similar to medical stream. If a hospital does not follow strict norms its license is immediately cancelled. Education/ teaching is just the same thing. These institutions and their teachers are expected to nurture the future (talent) of the country. If you don't focus on that, you're going to ruin the entire generation of the country. Therefore, consolidation and action mechanism are very important.

Regulations apart mindset of the students and teachers must change:

Dr. Mayank: Also, the mindset of teachers and students also must change. The teaching focus of most of the teachers is in the direction of training students to get grades. The same is among majority of students, the worry is always to get better and better grades. What's the point in learning a subject, where the student end up vomiting concepts in exams and forgetting everything after that. So, unfortunately, an entire eco-system requires a reset. Premier institutes certainly have taken care of such things from the very beginning and hence have a vibrant learning eco-system. The same needs to be learned by the masses.

Seeding innovative thought at school level:

Dr. Mayank:This is very important. I would say the first step is regulate, if not block, the private coaching system. The coaching culture in the country, is killing innovation at the very early stage, by promoting a worry for getting higher and higher grades. This is taking the attention away from developing strong foundations and a scientific approach towards learning new concepts. In India, because of coaching tradition, kids learn concepts first, before learning - "how to learn". Due to which they are always dependent on someone other to train them, independent of their age. Our neural network, which is the most advanced processing unit, is designed to learn "how to train yourself". However, these coaching institutes are blocking our kids to exploit such great capabilities of humans. If we look around, we will notice that majority of people don’t explore on their own. Neither majority of people carry critical thinking. They are just doing what majority of people prefer to do. They tend to depend on others for everything. Government can play a key role in this direction. Schools should also focus on practical ways of teaching, rather just dictating concepts from text books (spoon feeding). Teachers at schools should be trained on how to teach in a scientific fashion, rather doing spoon feeding. Moreover, students should be encouraged to think beyond their imaginations. For instance, students should be encouraged to think big example, by asking them to find solutions to the fundamental future challenges like water, energy, pollution, cleanliness, mobility, etc, to name a few. If students are given such assignments and encouragement to think big at a very early stage of their development, their scientific aptitude and attitude will develop quickly. If you look beyond India, you will realize that countries like Japan, Germany (which are quite advanced in their technologies) put a lot of focus on nurturing talent at the school level. India having a fantastic (ancient) gurukul tradition can impact the same again, as we have it in our DNA.

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Author: Srinivasa Reddy N
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