STTI Session: India’s relationship with Engineering

About STTI: Student Think Tank for India creates models for schools and colleges to critically explore and understand civic issues. The following is an account of our most recent session with Class 11 and 12 students of the STTI Club at DPS, Hyderabad.
engg session

In the search for relatable topics to discuss in our session, the “obsession” with Engineering came up quite a few times. Being located in the heartland of Andhra & Telangana, the issue is extremely personal for many students, as they stand at the centre of many SECP (social, economic, cultural and political) forces affecting this issue. We were initially hesitant about this topic, Aakash was endlessly warning against it/articulating worst case scenarios, and that really pushed us to think about if and how we wanted to approach this discussion. To start with, we positioned the central topic as “India’s relationship with Engineering”. I went back and forth during my preparation for this session to see how it could it best fulfil the mission of STTI: which is to explore issues that manifest in our lives, yes, but from the vantage point of larger SECP forces so that we can paint a complete picture of the root of some individual instance.

Similar to our previous session, I wanted us to first lay out what we meant when we said “engineering”. So we had a 5-minute word storming primer where we together arrived at the word MEANT. It was a challenge here to wean the responses away from things like what the words DENOTED, or some wry jokes about its current state in India etc. Eg: Engineering doesn’t mean anything in India, because everyone wants to be an engineer. Like, no. That might be a popular connotation or the last Whatsapp joke you heard, but for the purpose of this discussion, let’s come back to what it MEANS. We did that — Engineering is the art of working with machines and building things etc – and laid out its relation to how it requires knowledge, skills, a problem-solving mindset and so on. Then Mukesh spoke about the historical context of Engineering. Industrial revolution, spurt in production, therefore need for machines – British trading and factories in India – Our choices in 1947 about growing as a country, choosing the Nehruvian emphasis on industrialisation – Setting up of institutions that would produce the manpower for this, IITs set up by foreign funding – Engg. becomes a prestigious as well as a safe way to job security and better life conditions, and that developed the cultural valuing of being an engineer, driving demand for engineering education – opening up of more institutions so that more engineers would come out of them, without a focus on quality and standards, case study of US, China and India’s engineering education: http://issues.org/23-3/wadhwa/ – mushrooming of coaching institutes and many more engineering colleges to cater to that demand – unemployability of the massive number of graduates, again, because of extremely low quality teaching + curriculum + infrastructure + practical opportunities + lack of research and no space for innovation + corruption in the system (did not really go into that, though).

Kabir then recounted some examples and experiences from his work as an artist, and the emergence of new well-paying careers in the creative and entrepreneurial space. We traced this to the massive diversification that has taken place in the country’s economy, and conditions that have begun to allow freelancing, startups, creative professionals etc to prosper, especially in growing urban India. One student spoke about his uncle who had a garage where he tinkered with things only to go on to become big with robotics, although in the US and not in India. We then discussed what it might take to be successful at something, in a best-case, conventional scenario: Passion, creating a product or service that people will pay for, and most importantly the discipline to stick with something to develop expertise. And the function of educational institutions is to decide and make mandatory the conditions that they think will produce expert and disciplined engineers, or whatever. A similar role with parents – they decide what they think will best achieve the goals they want for their children… and that’s how something becomes conventional.

We then sort of unpacked the word “unconventional”, and discussed how India is at the midst of a massive continuum between tradition and modernity. Wrapped up by discussing how any personal choices were shaped by these larger forces.

I was extremely concerned about how this discussion might centre around us or the students airing our personal views and choices in a manner that was not a well reasoned argument. Thankfully, that did not happen much, and we were able to keep coming back to the larger issue at hand. As always, the students were amazing – as soon as we were able to set the tone of tracing these bits and pieces of what we hear about engineering, back to their relation with the big issue, we were able to have a good discussion going. Keeping up a combination of questions and ‘gyaan’ (talking in slightly long stretches about what we know and what we have read about a certain issue) by moderators was important.

The typical exchange was like

Moderator: “Why do you think X happened/ happens the way it does?”

Students: “Because Y”

Moderator: “Exactly… (and then a longer explanation of Y, with facts and arguments that we have researched before coming to the session).

If students did not reach a reasonable argument to a question, we asked more questions to arrive at it, and continued that process without responding with any variant of “No, you’re wrong”. And a lot of things we spoke about here are contested, and there was no force to arrive at a consensus. Diverse opinions are welcome, as are more and more questions! We hope to reach a good balance here between inquiry and reinventing the wheel, and that distinction will be understood after some practice of this discussion style. We should probably work with some texts to see how the Socratic method’s discussion style pans out.

The aim of the discussion was to lay out all the factors that have shaped and continue to shape India’s relationship with Engineering, and I think we were able to achieve that. At the very least, we made the picture more complex than either glorifying engineering, or outright rejecting and demeaning it.

[I find the second discourse is surprisingly prevalent (especially amongst the liberal arts/humanities groups) and is a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. For the longest time I was vehemently dismissive of science and engineering, on the grounds that the method of learning pursued at most institutions in India did not really develop either the scientific temper or the problem solving mindset. But what’s the analysis of that problem? Our institutions are broken — engineering isn’t.

Some inspiring links to check out:
1. http://avantifellows.org/learning-centres/our-pedagogy/
2. http://hackerspaces.org/
3. http://learn.media.mit.edu/how-mit-learns]

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