Engineering education in the country faces huge challenges, with colleges barely able to fill even a third of the available places in fields other than computer science and computing. Students do not want to join any of the traditional disciplines such as civil engineering, mechanics, materials science, metallurgy, electricity, etc.
This leaves many questions unanswered. If everyone is studying IT/CSE and every business and product they create is related to e-commerce and IT, what about other disciplines? It is easy to switch from mechanical, civil, electronic, etc. to computers, but the reverse will not be easy.
And what about India’s unresolved issues at the local level. Someone needs to develop technologies in the fields of health, agriculture, energy, defence, space, civil infrastructure, transport, waste treatment, semi- drivers, manufacturing, drones and many more. Engineering is not about civil, mechanical, CSE, etc. Engineering is about providing optimal and sustainable solutions to the needs of society. Most of the problems we face in society do not come with a disciplinary label. They often need multidisciplinary teams to develop a solution. If all disciplines merge in CSE and IT, our potential for innovation to address societal challenges could be severely affected.
How to remedy this situation and renew students’ interest in these traditional disciplines? In my view, this requires a multi-pronged approach at the national level, as shown below.
First, we need to change the perception of traditional disciplines. For example, mechanics is no longer about dealing with large machines that require physical strength to operate, and civil engineering is not just about building bridges and dams either. Industry 4.0 has completely transformed mechanical engineering with many departments doing advanced work on micro-electro-mechanical systems, microfluidics and other similar technologies. Many civil engineers now study environmental issues and work on a host of pollution-related issues. Metallurgy has evolved into materials science. Electronics is no longer about communication, there is VLSI and nanoelectronics. Electricity is not about electric machines, it’s about smart grids and renewable energy. There is a need for AICTE and the University Grants Commission (UGC) to create awareness workshops and provide guidance to students at the school level. Institutions must also offer minor degree programs in areas of high employment demand so that each student can acquire the knowledge required from the point of view of employment.
Second, 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 computer revolution that swept the country starting in the late 90s, several other technologies arrived that had a big impact on the search front. Some countries have also benefited. These include biotechnology, nanotechnology, cognitive technology (AI/ML, etc.) and quantum technologies. Drones and other applications have become possible due to advancements in batteries etc. through research on nanotechnology and other materials. Each decade has seen a new technology capture 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. This is when jobs are created and educational programs become attractive to students. Here are the main steps.
lEach mission must begin with the establishment of research facilities and the construction of a research base in the country. All of these missions should involve experts from industry and allied departments from the start.
lResearch initiatives must be supported by major funding programs for innovation and start-ups. There must be programs to encourage industry participation. The knowledge generated by basic research must be constantly channeled into application-oriented areas.
l Educational programs should be planned from the beginning to determine how many graduates the country needs in these technological fields at the degree, graduate and doctoral level and in what time frame. Model curricula and study materials should be designed with the help of top educators in academia and industry professionals. Teacher training and special workforce development initiatives need to be undertaken. Such an alignment of research, innovation and education activities is important for these technological missions to ultimately generate jobs and value for society.
As a nation, the country is missing out on great opportunities that these new technologies offer despite the vast pool of knowledge and talent available locally. Without proper planning and execution, it will be an ongoing saga of India missing many such buses. We can do better. Careful planning holds the key.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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