Friday, June 1, 2012

Engineering the entrance

James Bond movies are fun to watch. You can have a few hours of brainless entertainment, and come out feeling pretty good at the end. I have watched so many of these movies so many times, that in my mind's eye, I have a pretty miserable mash of characters and plots, and often, it is very hard for me to remember what happened in which movie.

I remember one such movie, perhaps with Sean Connery playing the lead, in which he was trying to gain entrance into the villain's lair. The door was guarded by a big and burly character, who tried to scare Bond off with a bunch of complicated moves, swishing and cutting the air with a big and mean sword. Bond watched him calmly through the entire swordplay, and, at the end, pulled out a gun, and shot him dead.  Now that -- is what I call an entrance.

The engineering community in India is going though an elaborate discussion right now. On how, they should guard the entrance to our temples of engineering education.

The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) have long admitted students based on a single entrance examination, conducted at the end of twelve years of school education, in which, the final two impart specialized education to eligible students, in the basic sciences. At the end of these years, a student is expected to know how to calculate the forces inside complicated arrangements of pulleys pulling on blocks of wood  with ropes, or how to synthesize long chain polymers of hydrocarbons from ethyl alcohol, that you and me sometimes call moonshine. It is another story that if you ask these students to put together an actual arrangement of pulleys, as in a block and tackle, or perform some exciting chemistry experiment with dad's stash of moonshine, they will fail. Miserably. And therein, lies the problem with India's engineering education system, and how we pick the future engineers for our country.

The government, which should not be in the business of fixing anything, is trying to fix the problem. But, for a completely wrong set of reasons. They are not trying to fix the entrance process to enable a better selection of future engineers, who, in addition to having the rote requisites to understand the sciences behind the engineering, should have a passion for the subject. Instead, the government believes that the examination is too tough, and so, the new entrance strategy should be based on a mix of academic performance in school, and a new entrance examination, which presumably, will be different. To put things in a language 007 fans like me would understand, they are putting two swordsmen at the entrance now. Perhaps, Mr. Bond, will now need two guns.

So, that begs the question. How should we really pick our future engineers?

Well for starters, we should not pick the people who are going to do something else for a living after the country invests a large amount of money in them. Something else, like a job in the finance industry, setting up derivatives that crash the world's economy. But then, isn't that a pretty difficult thing to do? You can pick a student based on his knowledge of physics or chemistry, but how in the world do you pick someone based on passion for something like engineering.

Since the government is already making major modifications to the entrance, it is perhaps possible to pick a hundred or so students from all over India, who make some kind of basic cut in their high school grades, but participate in a nationwide competition to actually build something useful. This selection procedure could be similar  to the one in the science talent program that has been running in the United States for the last sixty years or so, currently sponsored by Intel, and previously by Westinghouse. And of course, such students, will be exempt from the "pressure cooker" entrance examination -- the one, with the swordsman at the gate.

So, if you pick the "super" hundred kids from India based on their ability to build things with passion, is there a guarantee that they will not take up jobs in finance? Well, there are no guarantees in life, but, for a change, you might be able to attract a few kids to the system who have a passion for building, and have high school grades, that are good enough to sustain them through the academic system at the IITs.  

I would like to believe that this is a revolutionary idea of sorts, that identifies passion for engineering, but I would be terribly wrong. The Indian Institute of Science, considered India's top institute in postgraduate research, recently added an undergraduate program. Although they have decided to select some of their students through the IIT entrance examination, they also select budding scientists through a nationwide science talent program known as the "Kishore Vaigyanik Protsahan Yojna" or KVPY. Perhaps, the IITs can pool their resources together and start such a program to select a limited number of budding engineers, who can actually do something with the ropes and pulleys they seem to get entangled with, in their nightmares.

A few months ago, I met an old friend of mine, who shared my passion for engineering in our days at an IIT. Many years have passed since. Although I stuck to a career in engineering, my friend, after working in the field for a few years, decided to get himself a business degree from a big name school. And then, he bade adieu to engineering. For ever.  He now has a high paying job in finance. So, I asked him what it feels like -- to not be associated with a field that he was once so passionate about. 

With a sigh, my friend, who was once a civil engineer, told me, "Are yaar,  pahle sachmuch ke kiley banaya kartha tha, aab to sirf hawai kiley banata  hoon! (My friend, in my old job, I used to build real castles, and now, I just build them in the air!)"

For the hordes of young people in India, contemplating a career in engineering, I hope the new entrance strategy works out. Or, there will be many more castles to build -- in the air.


  1. Most of them are there to either please their parents or to get the IIT tag.
    I remember your post 'Picking Sturdy Buffaloes' on the same topic.:)

  2. Maybe, there should be a 2 year pre-engineering thing - after which only the really interested/ enlightened ones can continue. The rest, by then, should be able to figure out their likes/ dislikes, I guess.

  3. there's another thing called 'college of vocational studies'.
    but on a different note,we hardly apply theory to research.this is where the indian education system falls apart.another thing to blame is the indian middle class mentality,that sees a secure future in timely payment of bills and not in passion of pursuing what one is capable wonder,indians end up in foreign shores...

  4. Liked the James Bond intro,desi babu