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Farming, AI, language: college labs are going beyond the pure sciences

Hindustan Times | ByPrakruti Maniar
Feb 22, 2018 12:29 PM IST

Unique labs across the country are helping students of management, language and engineering to work on their core skills and prepare for jobs, besides encouraging research.

Until three months ago, the students of SMES’ Dr Bhanuben Mahendra Nanavati College of Home Science (Matunga) would practise their English language skills in a classroom three times a week. Now, they have access to a dedicated language lab on campus, which they use any time to work on individual problems, be it grammar or pronunciation, under the guidance of mentors.

At an increasing number of Indian campuses, laboratories are no longer about just the sciences. Institutes are setting up labs for management students to understand agricultural production, to encourage Artificial Intelligence (AI) research via data analysis and promote learning through experience, rather than textbook wisdom.

“Our education rarely connects directly with society,” says Antara Sengupta, education research fellow at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a Mumbai-based think-tank. “Field visits and practicals are not common.” It also tends to create graduates who know a lot in theory but are mostly unprepared when they get jobs in the real world.

Raghav Aggarwal, 30, founder of Mumbai-based artificial intelligence company, Fluid says most of the workforce within his field is self-taught, through online courses and other material. “Educational institutes must step up,” he says.

The agricultural lab at WeSchool, Mumbai, for rural management students, includes a display of farm equipment, seeds, soil samples and plants types.

The lab network

Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Karnataka, is set to have a centre for data analysis, to eventually build artificial intelligence (AI) models that can be used in healthcare. “The platform on which AI is built is data science, or the process of collecting and analysing data,” says Harishchandra Hebbar, professor at the school of information science at MAHE. “We have a lot of medical data from a hospital on the MAHE campus. We will use it to help build these models.”

Hebbar gives an example of a cancer prediction model as the kind of breakthroughs he expects from the centre. “The AI can track the gradual symptoms that lead to oral cancer and also predict if a person may develop it, for example, helping us nip the causes in the bud,” he says.

The Mumbai-based ITM group of institutions set up labs three campuses (Baroda, Raipur and Vijayawada) a month ago to offer practical training in subjects like 3D printing and robotics. “To understand the gear mechanism of an automobile, instead of textbook diagrams, they can now 3D print the models of the parts, assemble it themselves and understand how it works,” says M Srinivasa Rao, assistant general manager of technical training at ITM group of institutions. They can also interact with a robot arm in the lab, and programme it to perform other tasks, like holding something or fixing a nut and bolt. “This prepares engineers for the kind of jobs they will do,” he adds.

The SP Jain School of Global Management, Lower Parel, has launched cloud-based innovation labs dedicated to API banking, blockchain and Internet of Things. “Management students should be aware of the latest technologies and know how to use them to solve issues at the managerial level,” says Vikram Pandya, director of the FinTech programme at the institute.

The virtual lab has a database of industry problems from the banking, financial services and insurance sector, and code snippets that can be used even by a non-technical person. The lab could help students understand how international money transfers can be made more efficient, by reducing intermediaries, for example. “They can experiment how this may be solved on the platform,” he says. The key takeaway is a familiarity with tech, and knowing when to use it.

The L N Welingkar Institute of Management Development and Research (WeSchool), Mumbai, has launched an agricultural laboratory for rural management students. It includes a display of farm equipment, seeds, soil samples and plants types.

Students also participate in a four-month project of harvesting a crop, “during which they understand how dependent farmers are on natural cycles,” adds assistant professor of research at the institute, Rachana Patil. “They also learn the economics of using one fertiliser over another, and how it affects the farmer and the supply chain,” adds Swathi Sethi, head of the postgraduate diploma in rural management.

“We thought it was important for students to understand the rural economy, which is influenced for the most part by agriculture, in order to be better managers in the sector,” says Vineet Burkhe, professor of rural management at the institute. These students come from different social and educational backgrounds, and having a lab, even if its not completely interactive, helps as a leveller.

The impact

The labs are helping in several ways; increasing employability, providing opportunities for research, and exposing students to hands on learning.

At Dr BMN college’s software backed language lab, students work on English language skills, including grammar, pronunciation and writing.

The lab has 15 computers, with a mic, headphones, and the software. Each student has her own profile on it, and mentors are assigned to mark the lessons they need to take and track their progress.

“The advantage of such a lab over the conventional classroom is that students can work on their individual problem areas,” says Mala Pandurang, vice principal of the college. “This especially helps those who would be otherwise too shy to speak up in the classroom.”

Is it enough?

Pandya of SP Jain adds that today it is “tech first;’ in any business, and exposure to new tech is essential to everyone, not just programmers and developers. Sengupta of ORF says that it is high time more colleges step up. “In the area of AI, for instance, the world is already several steps ahead. We have to start now,” she says.

“Labs should not just be treated as mere infrastructure like computers and software,” says Kamakoti Veezhinathan, professor in the department of computer science at IIT-Madras (IIT-M), who has headed the engineering lab at IIT-M since 2005. “Take a problem, traffic on the Indian roads for example. Then see how you can use artificial intelligence to solve it, and build your lab around it.”

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