Energizing Engineering Education

Engineering education is at cross roads. AICTE & NIRF have recognised this and come out with a slew of measures, to revamp engineering education. Some of the measures are improved curricula, modern teaching learning process, hands on training, examination reforms, papers, patents, and startups.

The NIRF report detailing 200 top engineering colleges is out.

A reliable and Govt. managed ranking system has vast implications for engineering colleges. Corporate companies, students, parents, Govt. agencies, foreign students, other top institutes will all consider the ranking, before arriving at a decision. Briefly,:

  • Placements from Top Corporate Companies
  • Quality of admissions
  • Seed funds from Govt. and other agencies such as NSTEDB, etc.
  • Admissions from other states and foreign countries
  • Tie ups with other top colleges

The challenge before the engineering college managements is how to climb up the rankings. Given the nature of the challenge and with my experience in working with both educational institutions and private sector, I can say that with a little bit of enterprise engineering colleges can meet this challenge and score well in the rankings.

In this article, I am suggesting a workable and practical solution to meet the requirements of AICTE & NIRF in a structured and methodical way and climb up the rankings organically for a long term sustainability.

This solution and methodology is labelled as Digital Initiative, the other important initiative which runs simultaneously is the “TBI Program”. Both are equally important.

Rapid technological changes have not left the engineering institutions untouched. While many engineering colleges have been quick to keep pace and are succeeding, there are equal number if not more, unable to keep pace. This is partly because, technology changes have been too rapid, requiring investments, and frequent knowledge up-gradation, which educational institution have been unable to match up to.

To quite an extent, the situation is self-inflicted. Not working seriously and hard enough to keep up with the changes in the technological world, and failure to create an unique identity of their own is the main reason.

Let us put the issue in perspective and discuss a simple and low investment solution.

In a recent news report on employment, placement officers of Engineering colleges have confirmed that recruitment has come down. And, all the placement officers who were interviewed were of the opinion that something needs to be done to make students employable. Doesn’t this say something about the quality of engineering education?

In fact, the problem is bigger.

On one hand, adequate jobs are not available for freshers and even if they are available, the pays are low except in handful of cases.

On the other hand engineering education has been stagnant and unable to keep pace with the rapid technological changes.

The end result is majority of the students are either not employable nor capable of starting their own startups.

The Govt. and AICTE are seized of the matter and have come out with a series of steps to meet the vast challenges. Startups and hackathons are some among them. Grants and low cost funds are being made available to startups to encourage them to start their startups.

Insisting on thrust areas, papers, patents is another set of steps aimed towards nudging colleges to align with the real technological world.

While colleges are known to procrastinate on matters such as these, it seems AICTE means business this time around.

This was said as much, by Prof. Anil Sahasrabudhe Chairman of AICTE in a wide ranging interview to Business Line which can be read here.

To understand where education stands with respect to students, we have to note a few key points. Technology has enabled students to opt for alternative educational certificates leading to jobs and learning. This has resulted in students avoiding high cost courses if it does not leads to a job, career or business. Companies too are willing to consider such certifications.

To compete in this never before experienced scenario and challenges, engineering institutions have to offer students skills which gives them the confidence that they can thrive in this high technological world. I have factored this in the solution given below.

We also need to take note of a press release from AICTE dated: March 4, 2019, which clearly states that every educational institution must have a TBI.

This is one of the major initiative that AICTE has taken up. And, this is high impact initiative and if it succeeds it is a big contribution to the engineers of India. However, a TBI Chief Executive has to be first a mentor and then an administrator. By recruiting an administrator as chief executive a college is wasting resources. This is very important as his contribution will be meaningful if his mentoring leads to startups. In my brief experience as the Chief Executive of a STEP, I noticed that the host institution was unaware of the concept of mentoring. Most institutions I have interacted with consider a TBI as a infrastructure setup rather than as a temple for pre-incubation and incubation of young entrepreneurs.

Let us now discuss what is happening in the technology world, and factor in the same to revive engineering education in India.

Two major core technological developments are impacting the rapid changes we are seeing.

  1. Cost of data storage and speed of data transmission
  2. Convergence of technologies and IoT

Cost of data storage and speed of data transmission

What can be the single factor for rapid technological advancements in every field in the last 25 years? It would be lowering of cost of data storage and dramatic increase in speed of data transmission. Come 5G, data streaming is going to be at human comfort zone which is going to accelerate adoption.

We all know that data is central to computing. Cost of data storage has decreased dramatically over the last decades as can be seen in the diagram given below:

Data is central to all the big changes happening, and it is central in the solution I am suggesting to revival of engineering education.

Let us discuss the next category of technological development.

Convergence of technologies and IoT

The convergence of technologies is bringing in unimaginable changes in the product creator and buyer world.

Individuals young and old, are able to test and experiment and build projects at a very nominal cost. For instance, with an Arduino board available on amazon.in a bright IT savvy person can build a sophisticated project and sell it to companies directly without the help of any facilitator.

A product creator has direct access to his audience such as customers or partners like never before.

This shortening of distance in the channel is giving talented individuals or small teams an opportunity to exhibit their talents directly to the world and attract businesses and investors.

The impact of this possibility has changed how students think about earning money. Students who need to or are interested to work and earn money are researching, exploring, and trying in numerable ways to reach their goal of gainful work.

This is restricted to a small segment of our student population and the remaining segment are using these technologies either to be a consumer or for ill advised purposes. To reverse this, the Govt. of India is asking corporate companies to assist in enhancing the digital skills of citizens.

As data streaming becomes inexpensive, we are going to see more individuals use technology to gain advanced knowledge of high tech subjects directly without the help of third parties.

There are three key takeaway points to be noted here:

  1. Shortening of the path to success.
  2. The average age for starting a business is reducing by the day.
  3. Students are now familiar with numerous alternatives to understand and learn a subject or earn money.

So, any solution to revive engineering education has to factor in the above and align with it.

Importantly, the solution suggested to revive engineering education has to be scalable and have wide impact. This is possible only if the solution is software based. Any solution which is not software based has very less chances of succeeding.

To summarise the solution to revive engineering education has to have the following attributes:

  • Student focused
  • Software driven
  • Easy to monitor
  • Not expensive for student and college
  • Be a long lasting work
  • Offer multiple benefits
  • Help in jobs and internships
  • Impart skills for today’s world
  • Allow subject specific specialisation (thrust areas)

Broadly, the solution to revive engineering education is as follows:

  • Introduce students on the tremendous benefits of digital property.
  • Simultaneously, educate students on selecting a project wisely with long term benefits in view.
  • Conduct workshops on Digital Presence for students.
  • Expose students to the art and science of writing for the web
  • Expose students on how to create the different forms of data – text, audio, pictures, infographics, and video. Be creators not consumers.
  • Help students to create a digital footprint.
  • Assist and train students to use their digital footprint to network and showcase their talents to global audience.
  • Assist students to create a high value digital footprint.
  • Guide students on how to use their digital footprint to get jobs and internships.
  • Validate their skills to face the future

As you will see, in the entire exercise student is the focus.

Each one of the above listed points is a mini course by itself.

The above list will be the first step of the digital strategy an educational institution can adopt.

In the next step, each educational institution can leverage on the first initiative by creating its own software platform which can be the basis for digital marketing, international presence and boost the baseline performance of students.

This initiative will see a higher degree of success, if the institution identifies thrust areas and channels all its resources and energies in these thrust areas. A infographic of the digital strategy and initiative is shown below.

How do thrust areas help an Educational institution?

Firstly, it helps an educational institution to know where they stand in this world of rapid changes at any point in time.

As I am from the Aerospace industry, let us discuss how an engineering institution can benefit by choosing machine tools as the thrust area. Machine tools is a high value industry with Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Germany, UK making specialised machine tools. There are several niche areas in machine tools. For instance, machines which can manufacture components with 5 micron tolerance are in great demand. Millturns and Turnmills are recent machines and as of now there are few manufacturers in India who can make reliable and sturdy machines of these kind.

If an Engineering college decides to focus on CNC machines (machine tools) they can concentrate on ATC, Controllers, Head, etc. as specific areas in the thrust area – CNC machines.

Specialising in such areas can help passing out engineers land up high paying jobs.

For instance good component manufacturing companies are going in for networked IoT enabled CNC machines which are state of the art machines.

Similarly, when focus areas are decided, relevant industry experts can be consulted to advise which specific areas to concentrate on, and in which areas India has an import requirement. India imports Re. 10,000 crore worth of machine tools every year. With Boeing coming in to India and business touching $ 1 billion, there is tremendous room for business, research, and jobs for students.

How many of us know PSG college of Engineering in Coimbatore makes mini CNC lathes, for a low price with a tolerance of 20 microns?

When we say research, we generally imagine high tech research. This is another way we avoid taking up responsibilities. We can undertake many basic research, which though simple can yield good results.

For instance, can the CNC machine tool manufactured by PSG be converted to a TurnMill?

Mr. RajKamal Rao managing director of rao advisors, USA, says there is a disconnect between students, faculty, and college management. Today’s youths have to change their career paths at least three times in their career span. In this background, imparting digital skills as explained above is designed to minimise their career shifts,

Important benefits of thrust areas are:

  1. Colleges can identify at least 3 or major partner companies and work with them to undertake research on a mutually beneficial partnerships
  2. Resources can be channelised towards these thrust areas
  3. Students can gain advanced knowledge and expertise in these areas leading to good jobs

Implementation of the digital initiative:

Implementation of the digital initiative is an ongoing exercise. It requires a set of staff to implement and get the defined outcomes. All this means additional costs.

It has to start in the first year and has to continue till the final year.

My suggestion would be to entrust this entire digital strategy project to the Chief executive of TBI in charge with suitable assistance. This measure will ensure that this initiative is independent of academic stream.

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