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IIT-B: Mecca for aspiring engineers

education Updated: Jun 24, 2009 12:34 IST
Gouri Shah
Gouri Shah
Hindustan Times

In August 2007 two engineering students of the Indian Institute of Techn-ology Bombay or IIT-B, walked up to their professor and dropped what most would consider a bombshell: “We want to build a satellite,” they said. While an average professor might have been taken aback, at IIT-B it was seen at par for the course when third-year students in the aerospace department, Saptarshi Bandopadhyay and Shashank Tamaskar, aged 21 and 22, respectively, at the time, made their request.

“He asked us to do our homework and come back,” recalled Tamaskar. “What was important was that he didn't discourage us.”
Twenty-two months of work, research and consultations later, the now 50-member team of students is well on its way to building the institute's first student satellite, Pratham, and signing a memorandum of understanding with the Indian Space Research Organisation, to provide them with funds to the tune of Rs 1.5 crore. “All kinds of exploration, academic or extra-curricular, is encouraged,” said Rohit Manchanda, faculty member and author of ‘Monastery, Sanctuary, Laboratory: 50 years of IIT Bombay,’ a book that traces IIT-B’s evolution over five decades. He said the liberal attitude and encouragement offered to students was one area where IIT Bombay might steal a march over the others.

Known for its illustrious faculty and alumni, lavish cultural festivals and a smattering of Silicon Valley funded start-ups, IIT-B has long been considered the most glamorous of the IITs. For many years now, IIT-B has attracted some of the best students, faculty and recruiters. Over 50 per cent of the top 100 rankers in the high-stakes Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) usually pick IIT-B, adding to the stature of the institute as the Mecca for aspiring engineers.

IIT-B didn't start off with this advantage, said Manchanda. At its inception in 1958, it was set up with financial aid from the then Soviet Union through the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or Unesco. “In the early years, the most sought after, liberal, forward looking IIT would have been IIT Kanpur, which thrived under the charge of its first director Professor PK Kelkar, considered an academic visionary by many, and a more modern and state-of-the-art setup, funded by the US,” said Manchanda. IIT-K was robbed of its advantage in the late 1970s, as Uttar Pradesh became a hotbed for ugly politics.

Advantage IIT-B
Mumbai, which by then had developed into a financially vibrant city, free of any Central government or socialist control, offered IIT-B the opportunity to evolve. “The aura and ethos of the city, of the time, also spilled into the institute making it one of the most democratic and least hierarchical institutes,” said Manchanda. In comparison to the other IITs, IIT Bombay is considered to be less rigid and hierarchical and has the widest mix of faculty from all over the nation. “Our strength is our faculty,” said Devang Khakar, director, IIT-B, who took over charge of the institute early this year. “It's an egalitarian place, so you could join as an assistant professor, but each is as independent as the next.”

If anything needs to be done on campus, committees are formed and the opinion and experience of several people is relied on to arrive at a consensus. The committees could look into everything from a change in academic curriculum, to ensuring that certain campus residents, such as stray cattle, do not venture into class. Unfortunately, the cattle committee hasn't been able to sort that one out. While the infrastructure and academic excellence at all the IITs, favoured with the status of institutes of national importance through an Act of Parliament, is fairly uniform, there are several

Ranking of Professional Colleges — How it was done
Research organisation C fore conducted the survey for ranking professional colleges in India.

For engineering and medical colleges a perceptual survey was conducted among the faculty of different engineering and medical colleges. The perceptual data was collected using a structured questionnaire which was administered to faculty members and final year students of various colleges. The respondents were asked to rate the institutes they were familiar with on a ten point scale against different parameters. They were also asked to assign weightage to each of the parameter.

The parameters used for evaluating an engineering college and a medical college are listed below. The weightage given to each parameter was derived by taking the average weightage that faculty gave to each para-meter. In all, 1013 faculty members and 1207 final year students belonging to different engineering colleges were interviewed. Similarly, for ranking medical colleges, 225 faculty members and 253 final year students were interviewed. Not more than one faculty member from each department was interviewed. The rating that the faculty gave to their own institute was not considered. Institutes that were not evaluated by atleast 20 faculty and 20 students are not listed.

Things that set the 51 year-old institute apart: Its liberal, egalitarian way of functioning, research facilities, mammoth cultural and technical events, it's geographical location – it is in the throbbing, financial capital of India, nestled snugly between two lakes and a national park in its backyard –-and among other things a willingness to embrace change that could benefit students and the industry.

“It's more forward looking and liberal than most other institutes,” said Khakar. For instance, the institute changed the curriculum for the undergraduate programme in 2007. Under the new system, students can choose a minor in their choice of subject, or a honours in their own subject, in addition to their main degree. So instead of cramming 25-30 courses under one discipline, they now have the option to study 20 compulsory courses, and do up to eight courses from another discipline. A minor is awarded on the completion of five courses under this option.

Huge differentiator
“This flexibility in curriculum leads to some excitement, rather than having something forced down you throat,” said Vaibhav Devanathan, 22, general secretary for academic affairs, and a dual degree programme student. “This could also help you in the job market, it’s a huge differentiator,” he added. No surprise then, that a large number of new students were making enquiries about the curriculum at the recently concluded counseling session, post JEE, said Professor AK Pani, chairman, JEE - 2009, IIT-B.

But other queries from those candidates are of concern: Which department is best for cracking the CAT (the common admission test for the Indian Institutes of Management). Which is the best course for higher education and more importantly a good pay packet? Both questions indicate that IIT-B is seen as a means to an end: A seat in IIMs or a good salary.

IIT-B's location in Mumbai makes it a first port of call for any company considering that a majority of industries that recruit engineers, such as, telecom, finance, consulting, IT, automobile, processes manufacturing, are based here. The location and easy accessibility make it a popular choice for guest lecturers as well, especially for those who may be passing through India, and for faculty who would look at considerations such as infrastructure and amenities for their family, before zeroing in on a teaching assignment.

Industry links
“Beyond the natural locational advantage of being in the industrial and commercial capital, another aspect that sets IIT-B apart is that fact that it has strong industry linkages,” said Professor Rangan Banerjee of the department of energy science and engineering. For instance, Professor Banerjee and his colleague Professor KJ Nayak, are setting up a solar thermal power station, that is funded by a consortium of industry players, including Tata Power Co. Ltd.