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Biotechnology Education in India

If one substitutes Biotechnology for Engineering in this article, this is exactly what is happening in biotech education in the country.  This must be happening in Biotechnology courses taught in the engineering colleges that do not have any biology background or atmosphere in such colleges.

Nandini Venkataraman

I read with considerable interest the report in The Hindu dated 26th May,2008 on the meeting organised by Nandini, “Voice for the deprived”, in Chennai on the State of Engineering Education in Tamil Nadu. Being a fairly recent Chemical Engineering graduate from CECRI (Karaikudi in Tamil Nadu) and having had two very different academic experiences in India and the U.S., I feel I have a fairly good vantage point to comment on the situation.

I was only able to assess the quality of education I had received in CECRI, when I came to the U.S. and struggled in my first semester. Engineering education in India is a lot more qualitative than it should be, with inadequate emphasis on numerical ability! The knowledge level, the thinking ability and the creativity of many of the teachers is so poor that they are able to add very little value to their students. Few teachers update themselves and still use outdated textbooks from the 1970s for their classes. My first revelation on this aspect came when I took thermodynamics, a very important subject to most engineers, in my first semester here and realised that I had to completely re-learn many basic concepts!

Demand supply study

The problem is compounded by the quality of students that come into these colleges and their interest levels. Institutes like IITs take great care in the quality of students they select and hence produce good engineers. Other institutions select the "second-tier" students and produce mediocre engineers, with very little value addition in terms of thinking and problem solving ability. Besides, getting an engineering degree has become a default course of action in many instances, rather than a thoughtful decision, as it should be. The students are frequently propelled into an engineering career by peer pressure, family pressure and poor guidance in high school. If there are reliable statistics on the demand-supply situation for engineers in India, I have not seen them and it is certainly not widely known, making it extremely difficult for the student to make informed decisions.

Creative approach

Creativity and original thinking are often acquired qualities and not necessarily inherent and they are certainly some of the most important qualities a good engineer must possess. Creative thinking is rarely encouraged in our high school system of education, which encourages memorizing. I know of people, who are still able to recite text from our high school physics textbook, after so many years!! If schools and colleges do not take a creative and problem solving approach to teaching engineering, how is it reasonable to expect to produce quality engineers? Very often, one finds that students from large cities and those who come from families with educated parents are able to find jobs a lot more easily than students from rural areas, mostly because of their communication abilities and not necessarily due to their technical superiority.

Bridging the gap

It is the duty of the schools and colleges to devise methods to identify shortcomings and bridge such gaps. On the subject of traditional engineering courses such as Chemical and Civil engineering, while it is true that the number of seats are being reduced every year, it is also true that many of the existing chemical engineers are also struggling to find relevant jobs and a lot of them end up in unrelated jobs. So, is it really necessary to increase the number of engineering seats and have more unemployed engineers? If the current and projected demand for engineers in India is known the it may be possible to make the right decision on increasing or decreasing the number of seats.

If we are not careful with management courses, there might come a time when we will have to rethink that as well. However, it is true that many courses, particularly in the humanities, are being largely ignored at the graduate level, probably because colleges do not take efforts to project them adequately. Until the quality of teaching is improved and efforts are made to improve communication skills, the country will continue to produce unemployable engineers.

To improve accountability, one of the things they do in the universities in the U.S. is to request teaching evaluations from students at the end of every course, as a matter of routine.

If the system of education continues as it is, we will merely be "mass producing" engineers, at best.