The term hacking is widely used to mean bettering computer programmes, but it does apply equally well to other scientific domains. It is an informal take on science and technology. And because it is informal, it provides opportunities for innovation, research and entrepreneurship among students — the prospective technologists.

Hacklabs

Hacklabs are simple setups that foster attempts at bettering technology in an unrestricted manner. These are causal hangouts, or geeky garages with minimal resources, where technology enthusiasts coalesce to discuss ideas, understand what they learn, implement their understanding and try improvising these implementations further.

One instance of a hacklab, in this case for software hacking, could be the attempt by the Free Software Movement Karnataka (FSMK), which has opened up its office space with resources such as computers, broadband Internet and networking equipment to students, and intervene only with basic mentoring.

Currently, a team of undergraduate students has been consistently practising ethical hacking and are picking up system-level Linux programming in an autonomous way.

T. Vignesh Prabhu from FSMK points out the freedom these students have been exercising in selecting what they want to learn. “Unlike in academic environments, where courses are rigidly enforced, what we've seen students do here is build courses based on their interests, and this has been a substantial success.”

With 96 engineering colleges in Bangalore alone, 48 in Mysore and a whole gamut of undergraduate science colleges, there is an urgent need to consciously take initiatives similar to the FSMK hacklab for students.

Vikram Vincent, a research scholar and a teaching assistant at IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) Bombay, emphasises the need for such attempts in academic institutions with adequate support from managements to encourage innovation in the student community.

“On the IIT Bombay campus, we have numerous such groups and clubs, ranging from computer hack clubs to HAM radio clubs, which are in many cases initiated by the administration, but are wholly and democratically run by students with one or two faculty members guiding the teams all along ,” he says.

Localising innovation

Innovation that caters to our localised needs can be nurtured only when there is freedom to experiment.

By design, hacklabs encourage teams of student technologists to experiment with their learning, and try to provide solutions to commonly encountered requirements. Full-fledged operating systems in regional languages, a wide spectrum of localised mobile phone applications, traffic controllers and useful digital systems are some of the ideas resulting from attempts on these lines.

Saneesh Cleatus, assistant professor at BMS Institute of Technology, believes that parallel learning in the form of hacklabs could also help bridge important gaps.

Beyond the classroom

Deriving from his own experience, he says, “Learning beyond the classroom is how students shed their inhibitions; this will help students, particularly the ones who have migrated from rural areas to cities seeking higher education, to get on a par with technology. Further, the chances of harnessing technology to make localised innovations are high in teams formed on this basis.”

The idea of extending and supplementing learning beyond the conventional classroom has been around for quite sometime. With models such as the hacklabs, a workable and viable option is being demonstrated.

As early results from various such attempts have shown, hacklabs encourage students to pursue technology for the sake of technology, yielding positive results.