The future of the nation lies with how well we prepare our next generation to face it. The IITs have long been our centres of excellence in engineering and thus much debate revolves around why the IITs do not lead the world in research, or file more patents, and most recently how IIT students are steadily falling behind in their abilities.
These are debates which I have done with friends, with the professors who taught me at IIT and even with myself. But to unravel the answers to these debates we must try to understand the ethos of being an IITian.
As is highly apt this week, I’ll quote Steve Jobs, “Why join the navy if you can be a pirate?”. It’s a sentiment that echoes in the hearts of most IITians I come across.
Society, parents, neighbours, uncles, aunts, journalists, politicians and even some business leaders at large expect us to join one of the IITs, get trained as an excellent engineer, and perhaps follow it up with an MBA degree to eventually become a well defined cog. But rather than just be cogs in a larger engineering machinery or a sales contraption we would rather be pirates sailing the high seas of whichever adventure seduced us away.
Put together enough uranium atoms i.e. smart kids together and you start to have an energy (equate energy with value, technology, money or even happiness) creating a chain reaction. But you need critical mass for that to happen. So therein lies a key challenge.
The number of IITs have been increased and so have the number of seats per IIT. The engineering inclined academic cream of students in the country reaching the IITs is no longer as thick as in the past and it gets spread over the numerous IITs even more thinly. Thus there may be fewer times when sufficient critical mass will be available, for stimulating a competitive and yet collaborative environment for creating new ideas.
This is one aspect of the overall debate i.e. whether more IITs should be created or not, if the standards of IITs can not be maintained. But the country does need more IITs so we need to make sure all the other pieces are in place to keep the standards at IITs on an upward trend.
Something piqued a widely respected business leader to comment on the quality of students at IIT. It was a politically safe statement to blame the coaching institutes for a decline in student quality that he noticed. And I disagree with him. I can (debatably of course) claim to have been both to the top school and the top coaching institute in Delhi.
So if you can’t blame the coaching institutes, blame the entrance examination. But the straightforward fact is that even though the questions are all multiple choice, unlike the way it used to be when I gave my IIT JEE exam, the questions are still not easy to solve. The IIT entrance examination continues to successfully identify the cream of Indian engineering students.
Which brings us back to the question whether spreading the brightest students over a larger number of IITs will reduce the general quality at IITs. But even low enriched uranium can be ignited by bombarding with enough high speed neutrons, the particles responsible for starting and speeding up a nuclear fission reaction.
So to keep the standards at IITs high we only need to engage the students in challenging things and they will come up with things like the micro satellite being built by students at IIT Kanpur and IIT Bombay and parallel computing technology for drug discovery at IIT Delhi. These are just some of the examples.
I did manage to try out a high speed neutron bombardment experiment myself, at my startup and a team led by young IITians responded by building a super advanced version of an existing wireless technology. It was a sweet feeling when recently the CEO of the US startup which was the original pioneer behind that wireless technology sought our opinion on their approach to scaling up the technology because we had already demonstrated a working system last year.
We have become top class pirates. But it is not always about technology and we are not the only ones. So are another set of very young IITians striving to improve agricultural efficiencies via their Farms and Farmers venture. The world’s next Amazon is also right now getting created by another group of IIT pirates.
(Chandra is the CEO of Virtual Wire Technologies, a start up firm, and an IIT Delhi alumnus)