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Saturday, September 19, 2015

IITs help engineering students beat stress with offbeat subjects - Economic Times

By Prachi Verma, ET Bureau | 19 Sep, 2015, 04.00AM IST

NEW DELHI: What's Odissi got to do with engineering? Or painting, sculpture and music for that matter? Everything, it would appear. India's top engineering schools have come to realise that allowing their students to acquire some of these skills is essential for all round development, especially when it comes to dealing with stress 

Recruiters say it's a much-needed step that will enable more creative and balanced thinking of both engineering and real-world problems. 

Take Nikhil Jain, for instance — he had always wanted to try his hand at art and music. Peer pressure and his parents, however, drove him to the Indian Institute of Technology at Varanasi, where he is a dual degree (B Tech and M Tech) student. But he's also enrolled for a course on human values, a subject not typically associated with a professional engineering degree. 

Apart from the disciplines mentioned above, pottery, theatre and music appreciation are among the offbeat subjects that are now found in the curriculum of the IITs, the country's top engineering colleges. The objective is to make IIT graduates smarter, with well rounded, balanced and holistic training.

"Now, having attended these courses, I intend to do something that would truly give me satisfaction, like either organic farming or something in alternative education," said Jain. "Before joining the course, our batch was very competitive and reeling under peer pressure. Also, the goals earlier were highly materialistic. I was always bothered about my placement in a big corporate and the size of the pay package."

When Jain and his batchmates step out into the world, they will be armed with more than just knowledge of engineering — they will also be equipped with the life skills needed to tackle real-world problems. 

Along with physics, mathematics and computer science, among others, most IIT students are now required to get credits in subjects such as pottery, ceramics, photography, meditation, architecture, human values, music appreciation, film critique, theatre, music and dance. These subjects are also intended to take the stress out of the students' lives.

"Learning at the IITs is mechanised and many students have been affected by this. Students in the past have dipped in academics due to pressures, both academic and personal," said IIT-Guwahati Director Gautam Biswas.

According to Biswas, three out of 10 IIT students suffer from pressure, leading to depression. 

"These students need to de-stress with non-academic subjects that would also help them to rejuvenate mental strength," he said. Professionals from all streams — engineering, finance, medicine — suffer from such anxiety and picking up a skill like writing, dancing or singing can help them beat this, according to Samir Parikh, consultant psychiatrist and director of the Department of Mental Health & Behavioural Sciences at Fortis Healthcare in the Capital. "If these skills are made part of the education system, especially in the higher education system like in the IITs, it will work as a stress-coping tool," Parikh said.

Much-needed step 

Recruiters say it's a much-needed step that will enable more creative and balanced thinking of both engineering and real-world problems.

"As an organisation, we believe in cross-functional, 'whole-brained' teams," said Rahul Gama, head of human resources at Godrej Consumer Products Ltd. 

"When we recruit from engineering and business schools, our hiring strategy is to attract young and talented India, especially people who are also passionate about their interests outside work." The IITs are attempting to do just this, by focussing on aspects involving interests outside the workspace. IIT-Bhubaneswar recently started Odissi dance as a B Tech subject. IIT-Guwahati introduced unconventional courses like the Assamese Sattriya dance, instrumental music (violin and tabla) and Hindustani vocal music. At IIT-Varanasi, every student is required to pick one humanities subject every semester. Arts courses here include painting, sculpture, music and dance, and are part of the credit requirements, as is a subject like human values. "Courses such as human values develop sensitivity and self-reflection. Such engineers would be better in teamwork with leadership qualities," said Rajeev Sangal, director of IIT (BHU) Varanasi. 

"I am glad that this institute is offering and trying to integrate more such courses into the curriculum. I will get more exposure in the field that I always wanted to be in," said Jain.

Adding new courses 

Last semester, IIT-Hyderabad started courses like sculpture, painting, poetry, clay modelling, theatre and dance. It is mandatory for every student to pick up at least two of these courses under "creative arts".

"Every semester, we intend to add new courses to creative arts. The next we will add ceramics, and in future we will also increase the credits for these courses," said Deepak John Mathew, head of the department of design at IIT-Hyderabad. "There are often complaints that engineers lack in life skills. These courses will help the students to connect to society and country." At IIT-Mandi, first year students can opt for one of three credit courses: art and architecture, music and dance, and drama. .. "In addition, in their third year, they have an optional course of four credits in which they go out and interact with society. This will help them design more useful products as an engineer," said a faculty member at IIT-Mandi. While IITs are roping in experts in various domains for these courses, some have had to delay introducing these subjects for want of faculty. IIT-Madras offers such courses to students for credits whenever it gets experts. "Since we do not hire full-time faculty in these specialities, offerings partly depend on availability of guest faculty, their willingness, their ability to adapt to a classroom ambience, teach in English, and so on," said IITMadras Director Bhaskar Ramamurthi. "It is well-established that any good programme, be it in science, engineering or medicine, should include a certain number of courses in the liberal arts/humanities. This gives a wellrounded education," Ramamurthi added. About 50 student enrol at IITMadras each time courses on art history and music appreciation are offered.

Not All IITs on Board 

However, not all the IITs are treading this innovative track. IIT-Bombay and IIT-Delhi do not have any such offbeat courses or subjects as of now. 

There are enough extracurricular options on campus to take the stress off students, including a range of cultural, educational, athletic and social activities, according to the website of IIT-Bombay. It also has a number of student festivals, the most wellknown and popular of which are Mood Indigo, Techfest and the Performing Arts Festival.

At IIT-Delhi, there have been discussions about bringing in these courses, said a faculty member at academic affairs. A decision, however, may be taken only when the curriculum is revised two years from now.

Even so, there's one other reason for IITs to look beyond conventional subjects: to balance development of both sides of the brain. Music, art, intuitive thought or pre-mature meditative/rapturous states are features of the right side of the brain, which can help balance out aspects of engineering streams that are associated with the left side, said Joy Sen of IIT-Kharagpur, who is the principal investigator of Sandhi, a project on the interface between science and heritage, which has been introduced at the institute. "I do believe non-engineering inputs will balance their left-brain strengths with the right. This should enable more creative and balanced thinking of both engineering and real-world problems," said Prabir Kumar Jha, global chief people officer (designate) at Cipla. Subjects such as graphic design, visual communication and design semantics are already taught to students at IIT-Kharagpur 

At the department of architecture, music and dance as rhythms of anthropometry (the systematic collection and correlation of measurements of the human body) are also covered while explaining vernacular forms, styles and patterns.

ET View: Imagineers, Not Just Engineers 

ndia needs engineers. It also needs 'imagineers'. For that to happen, a neglected area has to be brought under the spotlight: study of the humanities. While introducing 'off beat' subjects — the unfortunate term being used, thereby underlining their unimportance in any holistic knowledge-equipping process —institutions should push students to break out of traditional silos that make for good executioners, but lousy innovators. It was one of the world's most iconic physicists (an adept violinist, too) who said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Our future engineers and technologists, as well as their teachers, must realise that being playful with their acquired knowledge is the biggest 'skill set' 

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