Where did we lose the joy of Engineering?

Was it in the national obsession for marks and ranks? The middle class aspiration of ‘get a job, or 'get a life’? Or in the Indian industry’s insecurity which let them trade in imported technologies rather than develop new ones? Probably all these are responsible for the drones produced by our educational institutions which the industry and the likes of McKinsey now dub “unemployable”.

Frankly speaking, even the definition of engineering, where you get down to basics and just build things, gets challenged in India. Or else we wouldn’t have produced generations of electronics engineers who graduate without ever touching a single silicon wafer. So watching 74 teams from across the country compete for prizes in the first JED-i competition (Joy of Engineering, Design and Innovation) last evening, with speaker after speaker stressing that engineers in India need to get back to building stuff – solving real world problems – was refreshing.

The coolest, and of course the overall winner, was the self-balancing two-wheeler from PESIT Bangalore. But the others were no less impressive. When I saw one of the jury members, a professor at IIM-B, clapping as loudly as he could, I asked him what’s so exciting about this competition. He said, “The fact that these students come from tier II and tier III colleges of engineering and have presented such cool ideas, some of them tackling issues at the fundamental level (like the chip benchmarking system from GV Bhoomaraddi College of Engineering), gives some hope.”

Listening to Kranthi Vistakula of Dhama Innovations (a speaker, not a participant) also gave me boatloads of hope. In a way his products look wacky but what the heck, they are solving real life needs. E.g. he’s made jackets and gloves that have embedded “climacon” technology to control temperature and which give thermal protection without any movement restriction.

It’s time our young engineers looked around and got down to fixing Indian problems, rather than get in the highly elusive (now also fashionable) cycle of innovation. Chennai-based Invention Lab’s Ajit Narayanan will tell you it took him three years, six prototypes and several treks to the local spastic society to finally come up with Avaz, India’s first augmentative and alternative communication device that allows people with disabilities to communicate. It’s also the first such commercially available device in the Indian market at an affordable cost.

Proponents of JED-I, and founder of LimberLink Technologies, Swami Manohar and V Vinay, also the country’s first generation academic-turned entrepreneurs from the Indian Institute of Science, think this programme will encourage students to tackle problems that require six to nine months of effort.  They want to increase the participation from 74 to 200 next year.

In a country where 1 million engineering graduates strut out of campuses with degrees every year, why do Manohar and Vinay think this could make any difference? “Optimism”, they say. “We want to have more industry partners, especially in the core engineering sector, not just as sponsors, but to set interesting challenges for the students.  This year we approached many core engineering companies but their response was glacial.”

Today, the best competition is the one run by SAE-India. Since cars fascinate guys,  the participation is really good. “We would like to do something similar for all aspects of engineering. Most intercollegiate competitions are of the fast food variety.”

For the longest while, theoretically, we knew an engineer is someone who solves a problem ‘you didn’t know you had in a way you don’t understand’ but in reality such folks are hard to spot. Time our young engineering graduates get on to what MIT President Susan Hockfield calls “disciplined creativity, old-fashioned hard work”.

Maybe even get their hands dirty in the clean room. Now there’s one for everyone’s use at CeNSE, IISc.

 


Published Date: Jun 12, 2011 02:34 pm | Updated Date: Jun 13, 2011 11:31 am