11 April 2021 08:45:58 IST

Reinventing engineering disciplines for a new age

In the new playbook, students will be problem solvers and innovators with an inter-disciplinary approach

What is the road ahead for science and engineering education, and how do we create and strengthen our educational institutions to better equip ourselves against perhaps even greater challenges such as climate change, cyber security and urban mobility? Covid-19 is a wake-up call, highlighting the urgency to look at everything in a new way.

This situation is also exacerbated by the fact that the state of engineering and technology education in India is far from encouraging. Various reports suggest that a large percentage of the 1.3 million engineers who graduate annually are unemployable. Engineering seats in many colleges are going empty. And the AICTE has also decided not to grant permission for any new engineering colleges.

On the other hand, one has been aware (even before the Covid-19 crisis) that technology is the new language of the world, and is changing our lives daily. We also know that India has to almost triple its higher education capacity in the next 10-15 years to go from a gross enrolment ratio of 25 per cent to 50 per cent. Engineering education in the last 30 years has fuelled India’s success in the IT industry.

Therefore, does the problem lie with engineering and technology as a discipline or is it the way it is taught currently? Or is the problem with the students who are graduating from various engineering disciplines?

The discipline is certainly not the problem, for the world needs it more today than ever before. Competence in science and technology is like competence in language. We can’t blame the students either. Students from India’s engineering colleges led India’s IT revolution and have shown they can adapt and conform to the curriculum. Putting the blame on students is shirking our responsibility as educators. So, the answer obviously is that engineering education in its current form needs re-invention and re-imagination.

‘Grand Challenge’ approach

What are the pillars of this re-imagination? First, engineering education has to incorporate within itself a strong element of ‘Grand Challenge’ problem solving. Engineers have to work towards finding solutions to the “big problems” of the world, such as climate change, agriculture, health and education. This will not only bring in more innovation in engineering education but also create jobs for our graduates, as some of the best opportunities for innovation.

If engineering education has to fundamentally re-invent itself, then students need to be trained early to take on big challenges. One innovation in engineering education will be to encourage modules around a specific big problem (health, for example) with teams of students taking on projects to build solutions to problems.

Such an education, by the very nature of the grand challenge, will also be inter-disciplinary. The ‘big problem solving mind-set’ also pays rich dividends in a country like India, where solutions to some of the biggest challenges lie in technology. A simple problem like ‘tap water for all’ is an engineering challenge that has the potential to pay rich social and economic dividends.

Second, higher education in today’s day and age cannot operate in a disciplinary silo. A degree in any discipline, at least at the undergraduate level, has to be broad based. Engineering education will also need to be broader, with no absolute boundaries.

Integrating disciplines

If engineering has to solve problems and provide solutions, then it is important to understand that such solutions require an interplay of different disciplines. As an example, drone technology combines elements of computer science, electronics and mechanical engineering. Engineering disciplines have to collapse to reflect this current reality and new engineering degrees may have to do away with traditional branches of Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering or Civil Engineering the way we know them and be re-imagined to reflect more contemporary applications.

Engineering, by its very definition, is the application of scientific principles to solve problems. Engineering education has to evolve to reflect contemporary problems. Computer science, in some way or other, is becoming fundamental to most disciplines. Engineering disciplines have to adapt to this new reality. It has not only to integrate more with pure sciences but integrate better with humanities and social sciences too.

The current approach is to separate engineering and science education and to offer some courses in social sciences to provide a “humanities” breadth to engineering graduates. The ideal scenario has to be much more than this. It will require the creation of new courses that fundamentally integrate an understanding of society with elements of science and technology.

Entrepreneurial mindset

The third element of this re-imagination is to inculcate a maker, innovator, entrepreneurial mindset amongst engineers. Engineering education has to become more experiential. Engineers need to be encouraged to ‘innovate’ and ‘build’ while studying. Students could also be encouraged to take a six to nine month break in the middle of their course to go and work in industry. Industry gives access to fresh ideas and students get early exposure and validation of their interest.

A big part of this education (which, traditionally, higher education institutions have kept away from) is in inculcating a certain mindset. Often, institutions believe that their job is to impart knowledge but keep away from inculcating mindset traits. I believe that an entrepreneurial and growth mindset is a key skill required to excel in the 21st century. Such a mindset can not only create new, exciting ventures but will also be better able to identify problems, find solutions, build teams and execute well at the workplace. Ask any CEO, and they are all trying to find the next “entrepreneur” in their organisations.

The post Covid-19 world will require every organisation to transform digitally. This was already happening but the pace will only increase exponentially. India and the world will need more graduates who understand science and engineering and can help navigate this new world. The premium on technology talent is going to be higher, not lower. Every engineer will be more employable than before.

However, these graduates will require fundamentally different competencies and need to be educated differently — a broad-based understanding and study of contemporary technologies and society, alongside the mindset to deal with uncertainty, to innovate, to self-reflect and collaborate. It’s time to write the new playbook for engineering education.

(The writer is an entrepreneur and MD of Jamboree Education, founder-trustee of Ashoka University, and founder-trustee of upcoming Plaksha University.)