The following article was written for MyIndMakers. Pasting it here for reference:
Typically articles on Education either focus on statistics at a high level or about the standards in Premier institutes of learning or in some rare cases tell us that both Nalanda University and IIT are institutes of excellence! There are very fewarticles available that discuss specific issues like the topics in the syllabus; content in the text books; teaching methodologies practiced and such mundane but critical issues that affect all students.
What I would like to share today are some thoughts from my personal experiences/learnings, first as a student (of course!) and second, through numerous interactions over the years with students and colleagues in the engineering field. My thoughts are specific to the MPC (Maths, Physics, and Chemistry) stream of Intermediate (11th and 12th class) colleges and tier-2 Engineering colleges in the Telugu states of Telangana and AP. I can talk about these institutions because I am a product of these colleges.
The first fundamental difference between a school and an intermediate college is that most colleges (that are not residential) do not have a playground. The concept of a campus takes a complete new meaning here – a single building with multiple floors and rooms. (In a few colleges, some rooms come with AC, some without AC. And students are charged separately for these too!). Admission is broadly divided according to the kind of entrance exams the students will have to face to get into under-graduate courses. So there are IIT, AIEEE, BITSAT, EAMCET etc sections! And within these sections, further division happens based on your marks sheet from 10th class.
Teaching methodologies are focused on preparing the students for the Intermediate board exams and the entrance exam they choose for (Undergrad colleges give weightage to both the board exams and the entrance exam). The teaching format for the board exam is quite standard – the text book must have been taught at least 2-3 times! Students are repeatedly made to practice every single problem, every single equation, and every single theory. The reason is because questions in the board exam are guaranteed from the text book.
Given the predictability of the question paper, there is this intense pressure to score high marks. “High marks” here don’t indicate 75% and above. A fairly large number of students end up with >90%. I have known of families who were not happy with their children getting 95%, because scoring near full marks is just so easy in these exams! A greater than 75% score in CBSE 10th class board exam is seen as a good score. Just within a year even a 90% in 11th board exam in the State syllabus is seen as an average score! Then there is English, Sanskrit/French subjects. Post the year 2000, even these subjects became high scoring subjects – the languages ceased to be subjective too – predictable questions with predictable answers.
A few years back, there was an uproar by students and parents that one question in the Physics paper was out of syllabus. Only about 600 students out of the whopping 1.5 lakh students who wrote the exam solved the problem. The board clarified that the question was out of the textbook, but not out of the syllabus. But the board had to give in to the pressure and was forced to award grace marks to 1.5 lakh students!
The same system continues into the 12th class too. For two full years, students are devoid of any regular sporting activity; are brainwashed into mugging up text books; are not prepared for the rigors of analysis needed in the engineering education; and are treated like robots!
Preparations for the entrance exams is also on similar model (except of course for the IIT sections) – the state level tests are extremely predictable on this front too. These exams attract nearly 2 lakh students, and almost everyone who writes the exam is guaranteed an engineering seat, because we have a problem of plenty! Sample this – last year 73,000 seats were not even filled in the Telugu states.
Typically, you would want to classify engineering colleges into Tier-1, 2 and 3. In our states, we can go up to tier-10! Setting up and running of a college is a scam in itself, and we will not go into those details now. One of the most admirable things that the Telangana CM, KCR has done is that he has boldly cancelled nearly 40,000 seats in nearly 150 colleges across the state this year.
Coming back to our focus area, most students scoring a rank below 10,000 typically get into tier-2 and 3 colleges, depending on the branch they are interested in. The playground is back now – but 1st year students take a while to realize that they can now get back to playing once a day, given how they have been programmed. Majority of those students who scored more than 90% in Intermediate now end up scoring less than 70-80% in their 1st year of engineering. The drastic drop is primarily because of the lack of focus on analysis in Intermediate, and the correction methodologies adopted by engineering system.
The percentages typically go downhill as the years progress (variety of factors which includes poor faculty quality), and by the end of 4th year, majority of those who scored more than 90% in Intermediate, end up with percentages between 60 to 75. In fact, a common question that 4th year engineering students prepare for interviews is this – “Why is there a big fall in your grades from Intermediate to Engineering?” By the way, the top ranked engineering students score about ~80-85% depending on the university.
At the end of 4 years, an Electronics and Communication Engineering (ECE) student is expected to know the basics of how a phone, TV, Radio, Satellite etc work. Here is my open challenge - Go to any tier-2 college. Assemble all the 120 students of 4th year from the ECE stream in one room. Ask them to define Modulation first; Frequency Modulation next; and then ask them to link it to their favorite FM station. Not more 12 students will answer all these questions correctly (50% of them can answer 2 questions correctly). FM is a concept that is taught in the 2nd year. FM Radio is something all of us listen on a daily basis – yet not more than 10% of students will be able to coherently link and explain the concept of FM and how FM 91.1MHz radio works!
There is an Antenna on almost every street these days. Antenna Theory is taught in the 3rd year. Ask the students to define the various types of Antenna. Nearly 70% of them will reel out names. Ask them to co-relate these names to the ones you see on cell towers. Not more than 10% will be able to do it. Why? Because the approach in our system is to merely mug up the names of antennas, not to correlate them!
When the 2G scam was big news, I asked a class of about 40 engineering students what is 2G. Half of them had no clue. Every PSLV launch (which happens almost every year) is front page news. Majority of 4th year students have no clue what PSLV is. No significant scientific achievements of the country are ever discussed in engineering classes – how do we expect people to develop a scientific temper then?
Industrial tours are organized. ECE students go to Doordarshan and BSNL offices. And within two days forget what they were shown. These students put these things on their resume. And when the interviewers ask them some basic questions, many of them throw up a blank face (or sometimes invent new theories too!). Why can’t we have a system in place wherein students have to write down what they have learnt and the faculty should assess what the student has learnt from the visit, and then guide the students in improving their understanding, if needed?
And then there is the communication problem. Largest circulated Telugu newspaper, Eenadu, recently published on its front page, findings of a recent survey that said nearly 90% of the engineering students do not have fluency in English, and are therefore finding it very difficult to survive.
The problem, in my opinion, is two fold – one with English and the other with communication itself. There are students who can express well in their native language, but can’t do so in English. And then there are students who are not quite good in expressing in a language they are comfortable in! This demarcation is crucial and currently doesn’t happen anywhere in the 6 years of education the student has after high school.
The roots of this problem again traces back to Intermediate. During this most crucial phase of a student’s life, there is near-zero focus on allowing free flow of thought – both in the science subjects and the languages. Most colleges are English medium – but most classes (especially Maths) are taught in Telugu! In school, one gets to participate in a wide variety of competitions that showcase expression of thoughts (writing, elocution, debate, arts etc) – in Intermediate, this is stopped completely.
Engineering syllabus now mandates a separate course on English Speaking and other related personality development activities. However, these are restricted to one semester only, and are not continuous in nature. As much as teaching English is important, teaching them how to technically communicate is important – ask anyone who interviews freshers from tier-2/3 colleges every year – he/she will agree on how poor we are at technical communication!
The solutions to the above problems are self-evident. Yet, our system does not make an attempt to correct them. While those in power still ponder over this, I have an appeal to those who are reading this – please go back to your colleges, and offer to interact with the students for a day or two. Share your work experiences with them; teach them interesting things that you learnt in your job and never realize it is the same thing you studied in college too!
If your work entails working on things that people use daily (like a vehicle, a phone etc), interact with the students on interesting facts about it. Teach them how to coherently explain their project; teach them how to explain various concepts (cite various real life examples like FM radio) – and it is while teaching them these that your experience has to come to the fore. Teach them the beauty of invention, the satisfaction of being part of a field that connects the world and helps in its prosperity. The system needs to improve, no doubt about it – but the least we can do is interact with 20 engineering students and hope they learn what we have learnt. It’s a good first step to start changing the system.