Bridging the Gap: An Interview With Dr. Mahesh Panchagnula


Neha Ashok catches up with the Co-Curricular Advisor, Dr Mahesh Panchagnula to get his views on the current state of co-curricular affairs in the institute, and on the impact of student activities

What do you think of the co-curricular activities that take place at IITM? How has the scene changed over the last two years? Where do you see it going from here, and how does it compare with that of other institutions you have been at?

I think IIT is a very unique place in that we have traditionally had the best of India’s brains come here. That has not changed for many decades now. The difference now, however, is that students are more informed about what they can do with their gifts. One avenue that has come forward to help the students, is our Centre for Innovation. One of the things I have found in this select group of students, the ones who choose to come to CFI, (since at the moment there is no compulsion or, in other words, there is no academic credit linked to it), is that they are all very resourceful. I think that’s a very important trait — it’s not enough if you have ideas, you need to have ways of putting them into practice. You need to have means by which others can benefit from them. Learning these skills is obviously not a part of our academic program — it’s hard to structure them into any academic program. Therefore CFI is, in a sense, orthogonal to our academics. It allows us to grow in another dimension that academics do not. I have a feeling that CFI has just scratched the surface of what it can do for our student populace. Comparing this to other places is a bit difficult, because the kind of brain-trust that we hold at IIT Madras is unparalleled. At least, I’ve not seen students this analytic, this insightful and this driven at many places I’ve been at, be it in the US or in India. I have a feeling that while they are much smarter than their peers elsewhere, they don’t use it as much. That is like a self-imposed hindrance, which I feel our students should overcome. It would be nice to see more students use their gifts to solve others’ problems.

What are your views on the activities that showcase IITM to the world outside? And on the specific example of Shaastra?

Shaastra is our technical festival and it really is the crown jewel of our technical activities calendar. It is completely student-run, and IITM’s organization is mostly supportive of it. I think it’s an important festival, that we gear up year round to organize. I have a feeling that if we figured out a way to hold a yearlong Shaastra, both our students and outside students could benefit in the longer run. It’ll be like four days of sampling a set of activities, versus being part of a set of activities, even if it is a smaller set, for a longer duration of time. I think we need to figure out a balance between these two. Right now, Shaastra is the pinnacle of several events that happen round the year, and the enthusiasm dies out pretty quickly after that. We have to find a way to sustain the enthusiasm to organize activities, whether if it is for our own students or for outsiders. Have periodic competitions, have periodic lecture series that where we invite our peers from Anna University and the other colleges around to come and attend. I think these kinds of activities would be good. We don’t have to make this a pompous affair — they can be small affairs where select groups of outside students are invited. I’m imagining a sort of calendar of events year round, instead of just having one four-day festival where we leave our gates wide open.

We have a lot of departments that conduct fests regularly. Where do you see this in terms of your idea for a year long Shaastra?

Thank you for bringing that up. That could be the foundation for the year long Shaastra. In fact, they are already doing some such activities — outside colleges are being invited, etc — except that the coordination between these department-level activities and Shaastra is not as good as it could be. They are pretty much serving the same verticals as the Shaastra team, but they are completely independent. For all I know, they may be approaching the same sponsors and maybe even conducting the same events. All we have to do is coordinate, and we may be able to add two and two to make five. So I think that is a very good starting point for a year long Shaastra-like association.

What are your views and opinions on the collaboration between CFI and Shaastra this year?

CFI is where Shaastra moulds itself. There are many events that take shape inside it. There are a number of problem statements that evolve inside CFI. “CFI students”, if I’m allowed to make that distinction, are very much an integral part of the Shaastra team. It’s a very symbiotic relationship. Even if you look at them as different entities, to me they are two eyes of the same being or two sides of the same coin. They are indistinguishable. I think they’ve worked very well together. I have not seen instances where they could have worked better, in fact. So, I’ll just say, keep it up, nothing more than that.


The holographic projection was one of the many collaborations between Shaastra and CFI
The holographic projection was one of the many collaborations between Shaastra and CFI

What do you think of the growth of CFI over the years, and where do you think it’s heading? There has recently been a lot of debate between competitions and projects. What’s your view on that?

I think, traditionally, our students find it very easy to get motivated by competitions. It starts with the fact that you’re here because of a competitive exam. So it’s hard to kill that spirit in our students, and we don’t want to, either. On the same note, we do, however, want to refocus that spirit in a direction where they are not competing necessarily with others but with themselves and their own aspirations. So I’m still talking competition, but against your own aspirations and what you can do for others. If you believe you can solve a certain problem in someone else’s life by making a product or a process or by some kind of an innovation, compete against yourself, your own aspiration and see if you can make it happen. I think we don’t get into that mode of competition often enough.

We are driven by competing with a fellow human being in most of our endeavors, whether it is in the academics with relative grading, or in the hostel with the inter hostel competitions. I think we need to refocus on ourselves. We could even pick a small group of students and say that we don’t have to necessarily work as individuals but, in a small group; now, let’s see if we can solve problems. So, write out a program statement, write  out a plan of action and that’s your competitor. I think if we get into that mode of operation, we would see a lot more come out of CFI that would make an impact.

Raftar CFI
Team Raftar competing at FSAE, Germany

Right now, if you look at the total resources that are allocated to CFI in the form of competitions versus in the form of individual projects, it’s less for projects as compared to competitions. Part of it is because our students are not geared to think of big problems that require big solutions. We’re just not there yet. I think we are along that growth path. If we let students know that, look, you really do need to think big and you can think big here, at IIT-Madras, we will find more students become interested in CFI. We will find more students doing projects at CFI that would benefit others. I really think we’ve not gotten the message out that, “Hey, here is a facility you can come use to think big and solve problems”.

You are an alumnus from IIT Madras. How would you compare the co-curricular activities that you would have been involved in back then to what an average IITian would be involved in today?

Well, back when I was a student in 1988-92, there were no co-curricular activities. The word wasn’t even mentioned once in my four years here (laughs). So we’ve come a very long way, and, as I said, this is just the beginning. We did have students who were very resourceful back then, who could and wanted to build stuff on their own. But the only avenue they had was to work with a faculty member who had similar ideas. And that worked very well for many of my classmates. Most of the faculty members back then were also very accommodative of students who wanted to try things out. I don’t remember anybody who was turned down for having good ideas. CFI is a different environment where you (the students) are more independent. And it’s a nice thing. It’s a good facility to have. Most of our free time was spent on very constructive discussions. We used to pretty much, for lack of a better phrase, solve one world problem at a time. I learnt a lot from those wing debates. That’s the down side of what I see as hostel life today. I hardly see this idea of a “wing newspaper” where students huddle around, read the day’s news and try to tear it apart, in a metaphorical sense. That is something we used to do on a regular basis, and I learnt a lot from those interactions — and that’s something I feel today’s students are missing.

Attendance is one of the things which students here keep bringing up frequently. A few colleges do not consider attendance if academic performance is strong. As far as co-curricular activities are concerned, students who go for competitions might fall short of attendance. What do you feel should be our approach to this?

Well, I think IIT has traditionally kept academics separate from co-curricular, cultural and sports activities. Part of the reason is that it’s hard for any one individual to judge which co-curricular activity merits, let’s say a certain credit on attendance. Without some kind of a gradation of activities, it’s hard for any one individual faculty member to make this distinction between various events. I think therein lies a part of the problem. On a slightly different note, as a matter of policy we must remember that we are in a highly subsidized education environment here. The Government of India is pretty much sponsoring our education. In return there is a requirement, which comes with that sponsorship. In this instance, one could argue that being a diligent student on all levels, is part of the requirement that the Government of India has for every one of its so called “sponsored students”. If we look from a slightly higher level, then one could say to oneself, “If I go sit in the classroom, I can still learn something new.” I would take that route, and to me that is the ultimate answer. So you go sit in the classroom, irrespective of what your current GPA or your perceived level of understanding of a subject is, and you are bound to become a better student. You are bound to be a better student whether or not your GPA goes up. I think that’s my take on this idea of attendance.

I think there is another issue, which I forgot to touch upon which I’m glad you brought up as part of this question, which is this idea of academic versus co-curricular activities. There are ways through which we can bring them together, and a start in that direction was a recent minor that we floated called “Engineering in Everyday Life”. It essentially allows students to bridge the gap between what you learn in the classroom and how that knowledge could actually be applied to solving a problem. We learn formally in a classroom (during the first semester) and try to implement it in a solution over the next two semesters. This is entirely a project driven minor. I think we need to move more into this mode of learning, so that when you graduate you not only know a bunch of stuff that was in a textbook previously, but you also know how to apply it to a given engineering situation. This minor is a step in that direction. There are also other project related activities that we want to bring under the ambit of CFI, including the possibility of some of our student projects, whether they are projects or part of competitions, being allotted B. Tech Project credits. We are open to those ideas as well. So, if you think your idea is worthy of a BTP, you should come talk to me or any other faculty member who is relevant to that particular field, and we will certainly look at ways of accommodating and evaluating your proposal to see if it befits a BTP activity.

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