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Be socially literate, too

education Updated: May 22, 2013 10:32 IST
Anish Mathuria
Anish Mathuria
Hindustan Times
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Teaching and research are treated as part of a continuum at Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology (DA-IICT), Gandhinagar. What we teach our students will not only help them acquire the necessary basic foundations in their field of study, but also instill in them the spirit of intellectual enquiry. Research is the process of intellectual enquiry. It entails moving beyond the confines of existing knowledge in order to develop “new fundamentals.” Critical thinking, self-learning, writing, and discussion are some of the essential requirements for doing research. Research skills can only be acquired gradually, and they require the stimulus of the atmosphere. With this in mind, students, both UG and PG, are encouraged here to undertake investigative assignments as part of their course work.

Students who are motivated towards research are likely to be more employable or adaptable in the modern workplace. In order to promote such motivation in our UG students, we have in place a research internship component in their study programme. Presenting papers and attending conferences is also encouraged and supported.
Our master’s programmes, with their focus on information and communication technology, have students drawn from diverse backgrounds, such as ECE, computer science, information technology, and agriculture. Curricula and courses are specially designed to accommodate such diversity.

The institute faculty is one single entity, not separated into departments, in keeping with the spirit of multidisciplinary studies and growth. Doctoral students have, as a result, an added dimension of freedom in orienting their research work in interdisciplinary domains.

Amongst the many R&D projects being carried out by DA-IICT faculty and students, here are examples of two socially driven projects, which seek to enhance the use of Indian languages in information retrieval. The first project is directed towards the development of a search engine that will allow querying of information from Indian language text documents available on the web. The other project is about developing a search engine for audio databases in Indian languages.

Both projects are funded by the government of India, and they are being jointly executed with other premier institutions in the country.

It is well accepted that many breakthroughs of the future will span several distinct disciplines. This demands that we create innovative courses programmes that will prepare students for multidisciplinary activities. As educators, we have to look critically at how to ignite the urge for learning in our students. We also need to motivate students towards R&D to create potential innovations that will help tackle future local, national, or global challenges. It is not enough for engineering students to have an understanding of the core technical disciplines. Engineers are expected to create products that will help shape a better life, so every engineer needs to be socially literate. This requires introduction of new courses that relate technology to societal issues. Research at the PhD level imparts professional training in doing research. There is a significant demand in Indian academic institutions for faculty who are accustomed to research as well as teaching. As educators, we need to respond to this need by training more PhDs.

Research breakthroughs can also be a source of national pride. When researchers from India successfully solved an open problem concerning primality-proving algorithms, the world reacted with astonishment.

As an outcome of deliberations at this institute on what sort of mathematics should be taught nowadays to engineers, it was pointed out that there are three broad fronts on which institutions of this era have to constantly work (Internal Report: Mathematics Teaching Beyond 2000: Some Loud Thinking, Virendra P Sinha). These fronts may be characterised thus:

* Separated by a common purpose: Amidst unity on the need to teach mathematics as part of the common core, there is diversity of views, mutually conflicting at places and inevitably so, on what all should in the current era be taught, what should go and what should come in its place. Maybe, the different things that people want are not that different after all. There is a need to thrash out basic issues of this kind through workshops and seminars, with all disciplines participating.

* Problems of scale: Large classes, large tutorial sections, tutors drawn from various different departments and disciplines, large gaps between skills and knowledge-base that core tutorials demand of the tutors and those that they commonly use in their own professional sphere for teaching or research, widely differing views on the magnitude and significance of the work load demanded by assignment problems - all these are problems of scale that require a fresh, vigorous and sustained initiative to resolve, more so now than a decade earlier.

* Understanding vs application - truths of logic and truths of life: Truth in logic is relative; it is what propagates from the constituents of a proposition to the proposition itself, or from axioms to theorems to theorems. To understand is to see how such truths propagate.

Truths of reality, of statements about the physical world, on the other hand, lie in meanings, and in what is borne out by the goings on around us. To act and to apply our physical and mental abilities to deal with worldly issues is to correlate such truths.

Both kinds are important in their own way. But, for truths of logic to evoke wide interest, they must be seen to ultimately help us comprehend the overall picture that truths of reality form. Curricula need to be so fashioned as to reflect this fact.

This, in a way, holds for teaching in general, and not for mathematics alone. It is part of our major concern to keep this in mind.

The author is dean (R&D), Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology, Gandhinagar