Education

Avant garde all the way

When one visualises Mandi, in Himachal Pradesh, tall mountains, meandering lanes amidst pristine, unsullied greenery, idyllic village life, are the first picturesque images one is most likely to conjure up.

But Mandi is all this and more. It is fast emerging as a hotbed of research, scientific inquiry and learning; one that is well on its way to revolutionising the rustic village mileau, for, nestled in the mountains of Mandi is the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). Spread over 540 acres along river Uhi in Kamand, it is one of the eight new IITs established by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, under The Institutes of Technology (Amendment) Act, 2011.

“Generally, the attitude is that, if one wants to have access to a world-class research institute, it has to be situated close to a metro as nothing serious is expected to happen in the mountains. IIT Mandi debunks this myth,” explains Dr. Timothy A. Gonsalves, director, IIT Mandi. “What was once a place for animal husbandry and housed stables with horses, has now transformed into an institute that fosters top-notch research,” he adds.

Innovative approach

In an era where mere textbook knowledge is passé, and the emphasis on practical experience which can make a difference socially, is the need of the hour, it makes a difference when students — leaders of the future — are groomed for such a situation, from the start.

This probably sheds light on why IIT Mandi has meticulously structured its avant-garde curriculum from scratch — right from offering subjects with a practical approach at the undergraduate level to those that are coupled with a scientific approach, peppered with the essential elements of the humanities. In essence, the four-year undergraduate programmes are divided into four unique components — an amalgamation of theory and a society-centric practical curriculum.

Design Praticum

Innovation and design have been integrated into the learning process — the words ‘reverse engineering’ reverberate, when one examines the first-year subjects studied at the B.Tech level. Think back to an Aamir Khan-ish method in the movie Three Idiots when he dismantled machines, examined them to understand how they worked and put them back together in working order — this forms the crux of the reverse engineering course offered under the design practicum model of learning.

“The basic methodology of the course is that students have to disassemble a product, identify its different components and their working function,” elucidates Dr. Rajesh Ghosh, who coordinated the course last year.

“This process requires careful observation, disassembly, documentation, analysis and reporting. Many times, the process is non-destructive — the object or component can be reassembled, and still function just as it did before it was given to students. Throughout this project, students think of ways these objects could be improved,” he adds.

Design and development skills

In the second year, interdisciplinary teams of six students from different branches are asked to propose product ideas and build working prototypes, which will later be displayed at an open-house session on the campus.

Some successful projects built and demonstrated in the previous years include a fire-fighting robot, a gesture-controlled 3-D hologram, and an automated ration vending machine, to name a few.

Interdisciplinary Project

Popularly referred to as the ISTP (Interdisciplinary Socio-technical Project), third-year students learn product design and development skills. Interdisciplinary teams of six students, arbitrarily selected from different branches, propose product ideas and then build working prototypes. What sets this course apart from other engineering projects is that many of the product ideas are derived from the needs of the society. Dr. Venkata Krishnan, Associate Dean (Research) and Coordinator, Advanced Materials Research Center (AMRC), IIT Mandi, explains how the idea to have a course on socio-technical practicum was the brainchild of director Gonsalves.

“He realised how the unique location of our institute, nestled in the Himalayan region, presented many opportunities to interact with the local community, understand their sustainable living and also to bring about a positive change with technological intervention. He was also familiar with a course of similar nature existing at Worchester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), the U.S. In 2013, IIT Mandi and WPI jointly started the course. It is a unique experience to bring in students from WPI to work jointly with our third-year students.”

Prof. Ingrid Shockey from WPI was instrumental in running this course in the formative years and continues to be involved with it. She opines how, “Learning these skills in an interdisciplinary and international team is an extraordinary experience for participants. For much of the time, they are well out of their comfort level, but we see that as a clear indication that they are learning critical life skills.”

“As part of the ISTP, we get to go to the surrounding villages, interact with the people and glean specific knowledge from them about the problems they face,” elaborates Gopal, who is all set to graduate from the department of computer science and engineering. “It is a hands-on course. One cannot sit in the comfort of a classroom and assume what the issues might be. Once we get a fair idea of the kind of problems they encounter, we start thinking about what technology we can devise that will not only showcase our expertise in the field, but will benefit society at large.”

Major Technical Project (MTP)

Here, students can work on their MTP individually or in a group. The course is a culmination of the four-year B.Tech programme and must contain a major technical contribution in the student’s discipline that will demonstrate in-depth knowledge and innovation. It can be an innovative product or technology that addresses a problem of society, or it may be more theoretical in nature, shedding more light on a particular topic studied over the course of the four years.

What started off in the valleys of Mandi with 97 students in 2010, has now evolved into a research institute of renown, by leaps and bounds. “Today, we have 900 students, 104 faculty, 150 staff, 500 alumni, and over Rs. 40 crores of research projects,” says a smiling Prof. Gonsalves.

The writer was in Mandi at the invitation of IIT Mandi.

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 10:04:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/avant-garde-all-the-way/article19140099.ece

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