The IIT Braindrain


The following article by a student of the EE department has been made with extensive inputs from the faculty of the department, and various undergraduate students of this institute and other IITs.

Jayant Thatte (3rd year B.Tech, EE) examines how academic life at IITs correlate to students taking up engineering as a career after graduation. The article features extensive inputs from the faculty of his department and from current undergraduates.

brain_drainMarch, 2012: A few months ago, there was an article in The New York Times probing into the reasons causing most science major students to lose their interest in their field by the time they graduate. In context, the situation here in India isn’t very different. Narayana Murthy’s recent comments on the falling quality of students aside, today a great many IIT graduates go for non-engineering jobs such as management, banking and civil services. This might indicate that present students may not be as enthusiastic about engineering as anticipated.

Prof. Nitin Chandrachoodan, of EE department, suggests that students taking non-core options is not necessarily a bad thing: it is always beneficial if someone with a good knowledge of Engineering takes up management or government roles, where they can use their engineering knowledge to better understand technical problems. Nonetheless, given the advantage enjoyed by non-core firms in placements, a question commonly voiced is: Why can’t the current system ignite a passion among its students about the engineering they learn in their four or five years?

Today, a vast number of students write JEE after their matriculation irrespective of their interest, having led to a boom in the number of coaching centres, which start training students for the ‘JEE hurdle’ from as early as high school. Therefore, entrants into IIT undergraduate programs are not necessarily those with the greatest interest in engineering.

On the other hand, the placement scenario is tipped in favour of non-core sector, which pays much more than any core company or research institute. The world runs on money, then, it may be argued, why not IITians? Given the question it may not be surprising that CAT is a very popular option among today’s students.

This article investigates the role of the curriculum in shaping the interests and priorities of IIT undergraduates.

Exam Fever

Interviews of several students, from freshmen to final years, have revealed that on an average, the enthusiasm towards the core courses drops as the student climbs into higher semesters. Inputs by students suggest that over-burdening and inefficient course structure may be contributing to this ubiquitous phenomenon.

“Every third year student of my department writes over three dozen exams per semester (counting weekly tests), which contribute to the final grades. Considering that the number of working days per semester is about 75, I feel that the exam frequency is too high.”, expressed a student.

However, many students and faculty members are of the opinion that periodic evaluation is, in fact, required since it helps the students to keep up with the class. “We all know that we all need to be pushed to do work, otherwise we will only laze out. For the same reason, I feel that continuous evaluation is necessary.” another student claims.

Prof. Chandrachoodan remarks: “I think a major problem here is that students don’t really understand the kind of load students in universities in, say, the US undergo. A look at the final year projects at a university like Purdue indicates that undergraduates there are under a considerably heavier load than over here. The whole idea of continuous assessment is not something unique here, it is a standard practice in most foreign universities.”

Prof. Anjan Chakravorty of the same department expressed that there is a need to strike the right balance. “An effective solution would be to increase the number of quizzes in the academic calendar, but at the same time ensure that no professor takes exams other than the scheduled ones.” He also added: “In today’s system, everyone concentrates on getting highest level of performance, and pushes students through too many hurdles. This deteriorates the enjoyment factor in education. Students should be allowed to learn at their own pace, directing more effort towards learning fundamentals.”

“The issue with the current system is that placements depend heavily on CGPA. Hence, the students are in a race to get good grades in every course. Most of the students before coming here are used to being exceptionally good in all subjects in their schools. They try to replicate the same here, which leads to over-burdening.” he adds.

Attendance Rules

The education at IITs has gone from an informal system with personal attention to a stricter, more rigorous system. Attendance rules in several IITs highlight this aspect. In Madras, for instance, the minimum attendance rule has consistently increased, beginning with no attendance restrictions and then going to 55, 75 and since last few years, 85%. Stricter rules don’t necessarily imply boost in sincerity or enthusiasm, students claim.

“I feel that the courses should be made more interesting rather than imposing stricter attendance rules. Currently, several students attend classes just to meet attendance requirements.”, says a student. Several faculty members are, in fact complaining regarding the falling attentiveness and eagerness of students during the lectures. “Students no longer seem to be interested in what is going on in the class. This was not the case until a few years ago and the situation is getting worse. It is an issue of concern and we are working on how to improve courses and teaching methods so that they appeal to students.” said Prof. Devendra Jalihal of the EE department.

An article published in The Fifth Estate in 2011 concerned life of foreign exchange students in the campus. This articles quotes exchange students, with similar views: “Courses are quite tough to handle”, “Continuous evaluation is deterrent, and the competitive atmosphere only worsens it”, “Students don’t get enough time to indulge in their interests and passions”.

What’s Taught In Courses

8cbcb03909e0d1b857fbe6cb285a579aA fourth year integrated M.Sc. Physics student from IIT Kanpur points out some issues directly related to his courses: “They are mostly theoretical in nature with little practical implications being introduced. So students cannot relate the course with its possible uses, and they may eventually lose interest.”

“Mech department in IIT-B has lots of projects continuously going on. So students always find something related to their department to invest time in.” said a second year student of mech department, IIT Bombay. This practical experience, he claims, has helped the mech students to have a sustained interest in their department.

Prof. Jalihal suggested that redundancy and repetitions can be eliminated if a single professor takes all related courses in successive semesters, for a particular class. He also complained that many times faculty do not get adequate feedback from the students. Prof. Chakravorty responds regarding the theoretical nature of courses by noting that “Theory may not always be fascinating, but is essential to become a good engineer. If theory is not taught in educational institutes, students won’t get a chance to learn it anywhere else.”

“Most of what is taught in a course is taught for a reason. At that point, the students may not find the connection with the industry, but they should trust the teacher. Or, they can just search the net to find out how the topic fits into the bigger picture.” said Prof. Shanthi Pavan, of the EE department.

Active Learning

Most of the IITs are already probing into the causes of declining academic motivation among students and taking measures and introducing reforms for the better. Many faculty members are now stressing on active learning as a means to keep up the students’ attention in courses.

Prof. Chakravorty elucidates a particular idea: “The professor teaches fundamentals for about half a semester. For the remaining part, students are divided into groups and assigned particular topics on which they are expected to do research and read up for about a month. After this, new groups of four each are formed by taking one member from each of the original groups. Within a group, one each member has mastered a different topic. They spend the last month of the semester teaching these to each other. In this method, since students actively participate in learning as well as teaching process, their fundamentals become clear.”

The Placement Soup

The system in IITs that governs placement, particularly sequential slotting preference, have also been put under the microscope. The first couple of days are allocated mostly to non-core companies including investment banks which offer very high pay packages, while the core companies usually start only on second or third day.

As a result, core companies which come on later days get a lower quality of students than what they expect, leading to an impression that quality of engineers graduating from IITs is not up to the mark. Prof. Jalihal suggested that the system should be modified so that each department is able to suggest two or three core companies that should come on the first couple of days of placement season, in addition to the regular non-core ones.

Prof. Shanthi Pavan gave it from the student’s perspective: “There are just too many job positions being offered that require no engineering expertise at all. A student who acquires more knowledge in his field most often ends up with a lower salary core job as against his friend, who may not have learnt anything at all in his department, but is doing a non-core job. So, what motivation do the students have to learn engineering?”

It is not attempted here to give a bottom-line solution to systemic problems in IITs today. Observations above suggest that streamlining education for bettering the student experience is a topical subject, deserving careful planning from the administration and inputs from the students. At the same time it is reassuring to note that alumni continue to do remarkably well in the non-engineering fields that they have entered, leaving a question of whether the IITs could be platform for a broader social role than they were originally intended to be.

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