|01 The FacAd System||04 Aspire: IIT Bombay Research Park|
|02 Practically Online: The Virtual Lab Dilemma||05 Where are the Firangis 2.0?|
|03 Pursuing a Ph.D during the Pandemic||06 Honest Resume|
The FacAd System
By Achintya Goyal, Soham Purohit, Mithilesh Vaidya and Neilabh Banzal
Most of us are introduced to our Faculty Advisors during the first week of our Insti life. We are told that we should freely approach them in case of any problems, academic or non-academic. We are assured that the system is designed to cater to our needs and that FacAds will act as guides for the duration of our stay in the institute. But is the system working? A common sentiment towards the FacAd program is that it is not nearly as effective as it could and should be.
The UG rulebook outlines the role of a FacAd, but as aptly described by one of the FacAds, it has been reduced to a “glorified rubber-stamping system” which takes up time that could be put to better use. Unlike the mentorship programs, where rapport building is an integral part of the process, FacAds can rarely do that because of time constraints and the fact that each FacAd has anywhere between 20 and 140 students assigned to them. This leads to the student only approaching their advisors when they need their signature on a piece of paper. In the rare cases that the student-advisor relationship is able to progress beyond asking the “stamping system”, it is beneficial not only for the student but also more meaningful for the faculty advisor. They feel that they are bringing about a change, are able to have more constructive discussions with the student and the overall exchange does not feel like a chore. They are able to guide the student in terms of what research might suit them or which company they should try to get an intern at and help them more effectively in case they face any academic or personal issues.
Insight surveyed both students and faculty to get their views on the topic and suggestions as to what they would like to see improved in the program. To our surprise, many of the conclusions that can be drawn from these surveys are similar to the conclusions drawn in an editorial written by Insight in January 2010. This suggests that even though it is known that there are flaws in the existing system, hardly any steps have been taken in the past ten years in the right direction. We have presented these conclusions and steps that we think should be taken to improve the program in this article.
The student survey brought up some interesting facts. 15% are unaware of the program, while 12% don’t even know the name of their FacAd. Unsurprisingly, most of the above are freshies. Since it is an important student support structure, the number is significant. Raising awareness should be a priority for all the concerned authorities - SMP, the department councils, and UGAC.
About 72% of the students surveyed prefer conversing with their ISMP/DAMP mentors for academic issues. This defeats the purpose of the FacAd program since resolving academic issues is the core objective of the program. Similarly, 72% approach their DAMP/ISMP mentors for personal problems. These alarming numbers imply a lack of student participation in the FacAd program. We dug deep to understand the reasons for this trend.
The biggest obstacle is a lack of clarity, among both faculty and students, regarding the goals of the program and the powers and responsibilities of a FacAd. Students are told that the Faculty Advisor is their point of contact for any academic issue. But so is the DAMP mentor and, to some extent, the ISMP mentor. This lack of clear division between responsibilities is a major cause of confusion among the students. Moreover, it's way more convenient to text your mentors, as compared to the formal interaction via email with FacAds in most cases. Students end up approaching their ISMP/DAMP mentors since a rapport has already been established. Proper documentation of the roles and powers of a FacAd, combined with increased encouragement from ISMP/DAMP mentors, will go a long way in alleviating this issue.
Very few departments take the initiative of organizing a meet. Students refrain from opening up to their FacAds initially, which can be effectively countered by regular mandatory meetings. The FacAd-student ratio can be improved so that personal attention towards every student can be expected from every FacAd. FacAds should go the extra mile with freshies; once freshies realize the importance of personal guidance from an experienced faculty member, they will never hesitate in contacting their FacAds in their insti life.
Many respondents pointed out that often, FacAds are unaware of some basic academic rules e.g. one FacAd was clueless about the 54 credit rule for UGs. Some sort of orientation for the FacAds is a must. They should be periodically informed of any changes made to the rules. A central, up-to-date handbook is a viable solution. As far as promptness is concerned, 78% of students stated that their FacAds were prompt in responding to their queries, which is a healthy chunk. However, a couple of students lost faith in the program after the advisors failed to reply during critical periods such as course registration. Sometimes, the solutions provided by the FacAd are unhelpful e.g. 2 students mentioned that when an issue related to a running course was brought up during a meet, the FacAd suggested that it should be resolved by talking to the course instructor. No wonder students are concerned about the effectiveness of the program.
42% of the students have interacted with their FacAd primarily over email. For logistical issues such as course registration approvals and signing off on Semester Exchange mappings, email suffices. However, it is hardly effective for establishing a rapport and discussing personal problems. Both students and FacAds should engage in video calls during these testing times since face-to-face interactions lower inhibitions and conversations can flow freely.
The results of the survey floated to the FacAds were as follows- from the 32 responses received, it was observed that the number of years spent by the professors at IIT Bombay before becoming a FacAd was low on average, with 11 out of the 32 having spent only a year. Further, the number of times of having handled that responsibility was also low, again with 11 professors doing it for the first time. Only 9.4% of the professors had received a formal orientation/training session on behalf of the department regarding the responsibility, whereas 68.8% did not receive any form of orientation, while the remaining fraction had informal discussions or general advice from ex-FacAds. As a result, professors have not had the opportunity to deal with cases that the Faculty Advisors are supposed to be aware of. Since the duties are not rigorous or involved but are very important, a single orientation session organized by the department wouldn’t take much time and would greatly aid in solving the current flaws that are visible in the FacAd system.
A staggering 93.8% of the professors were assigned the role while the rest took it up voluntarily. We found that out of all the departments, only the Electrical Engineering department enforced compulsory meets with the students regularly. This seems like a suitable solution to many problems that have been brought up in this article. It also provides a platform for students to voice their concerns, and build a much-needed rapport. Specific questions were asked targeting the FacAd system, and the professors had a lot of suggestions and criticism, highlighting the fact that the issues aren’t invisible to them. When asked about whether a lack of awareness was a problem that led to students approaching too late, only 28.1% believed that there was no issue. This indicates a lack of publicity regarding the importance of Faculty Advisors and the system. In the first week of entering college, the freshers do have an orientation session by the department where they are introduced to their Faculty Advisors, but clearly, this is insufficient, probably because the need to consult them comes at a later stage of one’s insti life.
Several useful suggestions were obtained through the survey regarding changes in the structure. The most popular one was regarding approvals and other such logistics, which are time-consuming and simply a formality because, in almost all instances, the academic office is aware of the rules and can give the approval without an expert opinion. The comments seemed to indicate that students approaching FacAds for approvals was the most common type of interaction, and hence the opinions of the FacAds to solve this issue varied. The suggestions ranged from reducing the type of approvals needed from FacAds to the downright dissolution of the FacAd system itself. However, the conclusion is simple: most FacAds believe that this business is simply “clerical work” and is simply a waste of time, which they could have otherwise spent in meaningful discussions and genuine advice. Further, it was also pointed out that there is a lack of incentive for them, and due credit is necessary since all FacAds put in a lot of time and effort.
Several FacAds were also aware of the students’ issues, such as lack of interaction and awareness. Proposals for correcting this included: compulsory meet at the start of the semester/month, effort to increase awareness of the importance of advice from faculty, collaboration with ISMP/DAMP with an increase in robustness of these systems.
Based on our survey, both the students and professors are unhappy with the current FacAd system. From the student's perspective, the lack of awareness seems to be the most pressing concern. A majority of the students solve their academic problems via DAMP Mentors and ISMP Mentors. Thus, they fail to avail themselves of the opportunity of learning from the experience of their FacAds, who can often offer a perspective different from the one provided by their mentors. Most of the communication between a student and a FacAd is administrative, via email as the medium. This stops a connection from being formed and makes the student feel that the FacAd should be approached only for administrative matters. Some categories of the student applications received by FacAds can be processed directly at the Department Office without the involvement of a FacAd. Then, the FacAds can focus on guiding the students depending on the students' future plans.
At the moment, there is a communication gap between the students and their FacAds. To bridge this gap, regular group meetings can help break the ice and help establish a rapport between the students and their FacAd. The interaction in the first year is primarily limited to the department orientations and paves the way for minimal interactions in the following years. Thus, steps need to be taken to ensure that there are at least a couple of meetings in the first year that set a tone for the years to come.
While we strongly believe that there is a need for regular meets between the FacAds and students, we also realize that conducting said meetings requires a significant time commitment on the part of the FacAd. Currently the FacAd - Student ratio is not uniform across departments, the Electrical Engineering Department has a ratio of 1:20 whereas the CSE department has a ratio of 1:140 with other departments falling somewhere in between. The large number of students assigned to each Professor makes it difficult for them to reach out to the students in groups, let alone individually.
Thus, it is the students who need to take the initiative, approach the FacAd and seek their guidance. Regular group meetings will help in establishing a line of communication, and in addition to those, there needs to be an increase in awareness amongst the students that they can approach their FacAds and seek guidance about their long-term plans and academics. This is one of the major objectives of this article: to promote interactions between the students and the FacAds. We feel that this will result in students receiving a unique perspective from people that are experts in their field and can provide help with Ph.D. opportunities and internship/job openings. In the long run, there should be no hesitation from the students' end in approaching the FacAds.
The role of student mentors in increasing awareness about the importance of consulting FacAds is paramount because as seniors they are well placed to tell students about the benefits of having a productive relationship with their FacAds and as mentors, their advice and recommendations are often better received. . Regular interactions between the DAMP Coordinators and the FacAds will also make it easier to identify and resolve bottlenecks.
Nearly 70% of professors we surveyed received no orientation regarding the role of a FacAd. 20% of the professors had informal discussions about their roles as FacAds. Furthermore, quite a few FacAds feel that some rules and training are required for FacAds. We at Insight think that there is an urgent need to define the role of a FacAd clearly. To quote a professor from the survey, "Is it academic approval of courses? Is it for being a kind and sympathetic person? Is it for someone who will guide the future of the students? As in many things at IITB, it seems to be all of the above in a khichdi-like manner where there is no accountability." Thus, we also need to demarcate between the roles of a Faculty Advisor, a student mentor, and the Department Office.
To summarise, we propose the following actions be taken to improve the structure of the FacAd system -
Practically Online: The Virtual Lab Dilemma
By Muskaan Chandra, Prerna Gupta, Shashank S K and Shaswat Gupta
“You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing and by falling
Engineering is a profession of practice; it applies science and mathematics to building projects for society’s benefit. Sustained investments by engineering universities in hands-on experiences help motivate students to pursue valuable research and prepare them for higher education and technology-based careers.
The administration of our college has repeatedly said that their goal is to keep things as close to an offline semester as possible. However, one certainly needs to ask whether we have gone too far in achieving this goal that we have forgotten the larger picture, that is, to become capable engineers. It is not an unknown concept that engineering requires hands-on practice and a lot of lab-based training. Thus, one might wonder how much we are missing out on when it comes to the student engagement and immersion necessary for conceptual and procedural understanding for experimentation.
Virtual labs, a concept many of our readers are familiar with, have gained pace this semester as alternatives for our lab courses on campus. While computation and software-based labs, such as ME119 and CS101, have been quickly taken care of, the equipment heavy labs have not been done justice within the online mode.
Many departments like Mechanical Engineering have chosen to make almost all the labs completely virtual, even equipment-intensive labs such as Solid Mechanics and Fluid Mechanics. In contrast, other departments like Electrical Engineering have couriered the required materials to each student’s home. Needless to say, people have been creative in finding solutions. However, are these solutions actually helping students?
Our panel of editors contacted various stakeholders and other people involved in the decision-making to understand the reasoning behind these steps and to question their impact. An extensive survey of the students was conducted to get an aerial view of the problem at hand. Read till the end to get a full insight into our findings.
Thus, waiting for an offline semester to conduct lab courses in brick-and-mortar labs might seem like a genuine option prima facie, but it would create more problems than it solves on careful consideration. Hence, the decision boils down to, either gaining some practical exposure now through virtual labs, albeit sub-optimally, or facing the unknowns of an uncertain future, which might ultimately result in zero practical exposure.
The choice is obvious. We have to live with virtual labs. All we can do is dutifully improvise and harness its full potential by utilizing the experience of running these labs virtually (a majority of labs have been run virtually at least once now) and learning from the modus operandi of labs that were relatively more successful. Towards that, let’s discuss major pain-points faced by the students in the last few semesters.
Imagine you are an aspiring driver. Having never driven a vehicle before, you binge driving lessons on YouTube and read a bunch of manuals showing pictures about how to change gears, how to turn the steering wheel, how to put the vehicle in gear one, and start rolling? Indeed, now you “understand” how to drive a car, don’t you? That way, I can fly a fighter jet, maneuver a submarine, cook at a Michelin star restaurant and perform heart surgery. Sounds too good to be true?
The lab atmosphere, peer-to-peer collaboration, interaction with actual equipment, on-ground problem solving, curious exploration, one-to-one TA and professor interaction, and performing the experiments along with the associated data analysis, and journal writing make up a vital part of “Experiential Learning.” Merely watching short video-based demonstrations and reading static slides with pictures and diagrams of lab equipment is no substitute for operating instruments in a brick-and-mortar lab. Matters are made worse if the resolution and audio quality are themselves poor.
We must acknowledge that it is a complex, multifaceted practical challenge to replicate some, if not all, of the above in a virtual mode. We discuss some technology-driven remote laboratory setups as a solution later in the next part of the article.
While it is no surprise that our theory courses have become more hectic in the online semester, they are no match for the workload of lab courses. A whopping 64 percent of our respondents felt that the labs required significantly more effort than they would have, had they run offline. There were a few cases of 3 credit labs that required around 12 hours of work per week, as compared to the recommended 3 hours per week.
Most professors wanted to ensure that students understand the concepts thoroughly and do not miss out. Assuming that things would be smoother online since there wouldn’t be any hardware to handle, they may have overcompensated by giving more than necessary assignments and material to explain the topics. While the thought is certainly noble, students may feel overwhelmed and tend to speed through the important things rather than go through everything that the instructor has uploaded and asked to submit.
In addition, some labs were PP/NP based, which meant little return-on-investment for many students who work for credits and good grades. Thus, many students felt demotivated to spend unjustified amounts of time just to end up with a PP grade.
Missed a particular instruction by the professor? Ask your neighbor. Didn’t quite get why the instruments are calibrated a certain way? Ask your neighbor. Not getting the answer in the expected order of magnitude? Ask your neighbor. We learn from our peers as much as we learn from our professors. According to our survey, almost 71 percent of the respondents felt that the online semester had negatively impacted their peer learning. Working in teams means active involvement in the success and failures of others and complementing each other's strengths and weaknesses, helping us gain essential life skills such as negotiation, communication, and collaborative problem-solving.
In addition, reaching out for help is a considerable task in itself. Gone are the days where you could just walk up to a TA and have the issue sorted out within minutes. Now, mails must be sent, resent with gentle reminders, and resent again on different platforms just to schedule an extra meeting. If professors or TAs are unreachable for an extended period, the student is ultimately left alone to deal with an issue that was no fault of their own. Even when help is provided readily, it is significantly more challenging for TAs to resolve laptop-related problems only by viewing a student's shared screen.
Infrastructural issues range from limited internet bandwidth to unreliable laptop performance and insufficient system requirements on the student’s side. Several students reported regularly dealing with network and power outages, laptop heating, and software crashes. Often there were compatibility issues with the software and no technical support provided for macOS. A single laptop malfunction could leave students in a highly vulnerable situation, losing all previous work, or worse, having to miss exams without the option of retaking them. Reinstalling software on repaired or borrowed laptops and recovering previous labs is an additional hassle.
While the dependence on IT infrastructure for running virtual labs cannot be eliminated, we can certainly consider minimizing the reliance on students’ laptops by exploring and migrating to virtual desktops, allowing remote access to computers in the lab, and other remote server applications.
In an offline lab setting, evaluation usually centers around how well the student performed the experiment, judged by the observations, calculations, and results in the reports, followed by a viva to gauge the student’s understanding. As for any good evaluation scheme, this is fair, objective for the most part, and incentivizes the student to make an effort to learn.
However, emphasis on writing reports, performing calculations in an online semester fails to accurately capture, if at all, the practical aptitude of the student. Recalibrating the focus of evaluation on report writing and calculations alone might push students to resort to peer-to-peer plagiarism, given that the datasets uploaded for such report-making would be shared among multiple students.
So should we emphasize more on projects, vivas, and proctored quizzes vis-a-vis report writing?
Giving projects in an online semester are not only time-consuming and effort-intensive but are also subject to their own set of issues and pitfalls, like, for instance, a lack of access to research equipment.
Holding proctored quizzes mean that the usual issues with an online proctored exam apply: limited bandwidth, lack of effective proctoring, electricity loss, etc.
What about Vivas? Can we conduct more of them?
Vivas have their own set of limitations too. The TAs primarily conduct Vivas, and since there are usually a lot of students registered in a lab course, TAs are often short-staffed. Professors face trouble in recruiting a sufficient number of TAs. Additionally, the viva process is far from objective, since the difficulty, the number of questions asked, and the evaluation of the answers given, can vary subjectively from one TA to another.
Clearly, no one evaluation technique is better than others; all have their respective shortcomings. We must accept that there are no “right” or “wrong” answers here, and that choosing the best alternative is not always straightforward. All we can do is request the instructors to be flexible and accommodative in their evaluation approach and decide on the right mix of evaluation strategies with active rational discussion with the students and TAs to best suit the circumstances.
Conducting virtual labs was a challenging experience for all the stakeholders, be it the students, professors, or the TAs; it was far from ideal and undoubtedly catalyzed a loss in practical hands-on learning. On the other hand, shifting lab courses to an uncertain future offline semester is not a prudent alternative, as it brings a host of serious problems.
However, Virtual labs (our best and only alternative) have plenty of room to improve and have the potential to become way more effective. We discuss some solutions and remedies in the next part.
Conducting virtual labs was a challenging experience for all the stakeholders, be it the students, professors, or the TAs; it was far from ideal and undoubtedly catalyzed a loss in practical hands-on learning. On the other hand, shifting lab courses to an uncertain future offline semester is not a prudent alternative, as it brings a host of serious problems.
However, Virtual labs (our best and only alternative) have plenty of room to improve and have the potential to become way more effective. We discuss some solutions and remedies in the next part.
Following are some of the suggestions we could come up with to improve the virtual lab experience and learning outcomes after closely interacting with various stakeholders:
Are we living in a computer simulation? Perhaps. But what about our labs? One way of running virtual labs is to migrate experiments onto software simulations, allowing students to perform any experiment, in any combination of conditions as they please, any number of times, anywhere, anytime, at no cost.
There are, of course, some limitations to this. Does running simulations alone make us more proficient engineers? Perhaps. Can we match the learning outcomes of physical labs with simulations alone? Perhaps. The learning component of these labs may be cut down to light coding, occasional debugging, and familiarity with specific software.
While conducting simulation-based labs alone might not be the best substitute for physical labs, we believe that it is a reasonable supplementary solution, which can be used in conjunction with other solutions discussed below.
Curating affordable hardware kits and sending them to students all over the country is also a viable option. In the last semester, the Department of Electrical Engineering in partnership with the Wadhwani Electronics Lab, took upon this seemingly monstrous task of delivering lab kits to students for two lab courses. Despite a few hiccups initially, the two courses, Digital Circuits Lab and Microprocessors Lab, ran seamlessly. Students were delighted with how the labs were conducted and didn’t seem to have missed out on much had the labs run offline.
Link to the detailed report on curating affordable kits : WEL Lab sends kits to students homes
While equipment-heavy experiments in departments like MEMS and Mechanical Engineering cannot be sent home as kits, downsized versions can always be made available. It requires some creative thinking (and money) to design such kits to perform a reduced number of more effective experiments at home. Kinematics and Dynamics of Machines Lab, offered to third-year UGs of Mechanical Engineering, redesigned experiments to utilize objects easily available at home (eg: steel ruler, pins, cardboard, sensors in a smartphone, etc.) to cover as many concepts as possible. The microprocessors and automatic control lab allowed groups of students to remotely control lab computers to program micro-controllers and see the outcome on video!
Thus, we believe that the hybrid model of running labs strikes the perfect balance between hands-on learning and curriculum continuity. More departments should explore and switch to this model wherever feasible.
Taking inspiration from the enormous successes of NPTEL and CDEEP, we propose a Pan IIT collaborative game plan to curate quality virtual lab courses. This would not only distribute the workload among various colleges, but also ensure that each course provides nothing less than the best experience to students. These courses could be used in all IITs, NITs, and other colleges, owing to the similarity in course curriculum and syllabi, saving plenty of time and effort. Even if each faculty were asked to design just 2 good experiments per semester, we believe that our goal could be achieved without a considerable workload. A student would be able to access course content anywhere, anytime, any number of times with a simple internet connection. The job of the TAs and course instructors then will be to provide specialized guidance, mentoring, doubt-solving, and help with esoteric topics of the lab course and evaluation. Even when offline operations commence, such lab courses would be extremely valuable to the instructors, TAs, and students to use as reliable, high-quality references.
There is an abundance of learning potential in a remote laboratory setup waiting to be utilized. An ideal virtual lab is a remotely accessible laboratory interface, complete with remote control of machine equipment, a live video feed of the experiment in progress, data visualization tools, and quizzing tools built right into the interface:
We understand that this might require significant investments from the institute to build and maintain and hence can perhaps be outsourced for the time being, if possible. However, beyond addressing the urgency of Virtual Labs now, the learning enhancement offered by the development and implementation of such systems would continue to bear fruit even in the long term as an effective supplementary tool to physical labs.
A 2017 study exploring knowledge retention among students involving virtual labs found that using virtual laboratories in classrooms for training students before using physical laboratories demonstrated a significant improvement (>100% change) in learning compared to physical laboratories without virtual labs. Virtual labs as pre-lab or post-lab exercise augmented reflective learning and information retention among 145 students in this blended learning case study, compared to an independent control group of 45 students who had no virtual laboratory training.
Combining the ideas of university-level collaboration and remotely accessible laboratory interface, one can take help and draw inspiration from the Virtual Labs project, initiated by the Ministry of Education, Government of India, under the National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology which aims to provide remote access to Laboratories in various disciplines of Science and Engineering for students at all levels from undergraduate to research.
The project also provides a complete learning management system where the students can avail various tools for learning, including additional web resources, video lectures, animated demonstration, and self-evaluation, which can be used to complement physical labs.
Such remote Labs do not require any additional infrastructural setup for conducting experiments at user premises. One computer terminal with broadband Internet connectivity is all that is needed to perform the experiments remotely. These experiments and labs will be hosted for open access through the main project website: www.vlab.co.in
The project has enormous potential; however, it is not thorough and far from complete. We request the IITB admin (who is an active partner in this project) to drive this initiative to benefit the entire student community of India.
One of the many problems identified with running labs online was the lack of peer learning. This issue can be partly solved if students are divided into groups to work on their lab assignments. The same was done in some labs and can be replicated across many more. This would significantly reduce each student’s workload and give students a taste of collaborative learning, thus making them more holistically developed. Such a grouping was common in an offline mode, owing to a significant supply constraint, (Number of students >> Number of workstations / equipment setups); however, virtual labs have made this constraint irrelevant, which might have motivated instructors to ask for individual completion of lab assignments with an aim to provide individual learning, however, resulting in an unprecedented increase in workloads.
TAs need to be actively involved in the labs. They need to be trained well to handle issues that may surface in an online setting. Professors should ensure that the TAs they select can commit the required time to the labs, which is not the case with the TAs of many courses. To combat the subjective dependence of viva on the TA, the course instructor/head TA could formulate a list of standard questions with elaborate marking schemes. This technique could be implemented in conjunction with TA rotation (a particular TA takes all the vivas related to one specific experiment to maintain uniformity, or one specific student group is evaluated by a different TA during different intervals of the course, again to maintain uniformity).
Professors may limit the material they give to students to the time prescribed for the course. This may mean that they have to compromise on a few topics, or even merge lab courses/ experiments as a temporary measure, but it would ensure that students do not feel overwhelmed by the course and end up losing their interest in it completely.
Moreover, we feel that having PP/NP graded labs disincentivizes students studying for the course. Thus, it is better to give students credits for what they have worked towards.
In a setting where the two primary stakeholders are not able to interact with each other effectively, the significance of a formal feedback and grievance redressal system grows exponentially. We believe that taking constant feedback from students (as simple as floating an anonymous Google form at the end of every experiment or weekly) and actively working upon frequently surfacing issues could result in a better experience for students and professors. While we do have the mid-term and end-term course feedback systems in place, we feel that a more continuous and active flow of ideas between the two parties would be better effective.
With this article, we hope that we were able to inform and rouse the student community about the role of practical learning in engineering academia and highlight the trade-offs and challenges involved in imparting a quality lab experience via an online delivery mode and discuss major dimensions for improvement.
How many students are genuinely interested in the content of lab courses and benefit in a meaningful way? Say you are a Chemical or Electrical Major, but you finally aspire to join an IT or Consulting job. What contribution does a lab focusing on transformers or fluidized beds contribute to your placement or the skills you need in your dream job? Have labs just become a vehicle for credit completion?
It's part of a much larger, unspoken, fundamental disconnect between student placement alternatives, their choices, and the curriculum. On the one hand, it is the duty of elite engineering institutions such as the IITs to train students in engineering to contribute to research and problem-solving in society. On the other hand, there is a massive demand for intelligent minds honed by teachers and peers at elite institutions in the job market for, say, programming, consulting, and finance. This leads to greater job availability and attractive compensations, causing graduates to strive for and take up these jobs.
Despite this disconnect, we believe that it is the very purpose of IITs to provide world-class engineering education, of which, labs are a primary building block, thereby warranting a critical review of the same.
Pursuing a Ph.D during the Pandemic
By Lokesh V, Abir Mehta and Shashank SK
The PhD program is one of the most challenging academic undertakings one can pursue. It is a big jump from the master’s or bachelor’s programmes. PhDs are required to produce original research that expands the boundaries of knowledge in their particular field. As a result, pursuing a PhD is often a lonesome and gruelling experience.
A 2019 survey conducted by Nature painted a dismal picture. It revealed that out of 6000 PhD students, more than a third (36%) sought help for anxiety or depression caused by their PhD studies.
In this article, we seek to take a close look at some of the issues that PhD students in IIT Bombay face. We try to understand the reason behind these issues and discuss a few solutions which could help PhDs cope with this arduous journey.
The first year of the programme starts off by taking specialized courses that are relevant to their research. After this, the programme is largely unstructured and students start working on their research, under the guidance of a Principal Investigator. At this stage, it becomes important for a research scholar to secure remuneration for their research programme.
The institute is reputed for conducting standard research over a national scale and receives substantial funding from governmental organizations like the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Department of Science and Technology (DST)), Department of Biotechnology(DBT) etc. for its research.
This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. PhDs face many challenges in their journey. Let us discuss a few:
1) Married scholars’ accommodation:
Married scholars' accommodation has been one of the factors affecting the quality of research in the institute. Embarking on and getting through doctoral research while having family responsibilities can involve conflict and tensions, such as multiple expectations from your time, attention and resources. To assist these scholars and their families, extra measures need to be taken so that they can pursue their studies while also taking care of their family. Most of the married scholars take a long time to get accomodation in the married quarters.
The expenses incurred due to staying outside the campus are compensated by the Housing Rental Allowance (HRA) but other expenses do cause a financial burden. Getting permission to enter the campus becomes tedious and taxing during the pandemic. It spoils the purpose of staying in Mumbai for research as the various restrictions imposed due to Covid makes the research difficult to be implemented. Some married scholars face the challenge of staying away from their families and loved ones which also causes emptiness and depression. This is aggravated by the restrictions on their travel due to the ongoing pandemic. A large queue exists for the married research scholar to get accommodation on campus. This process should be made more transparent and effective.
2) Work – life balance & Student - Supervisor relationship:
As some students are staying at home and some are in the institute, it is now the responsibility of the student to perform their work and get their degree. There are no strict guidelines from the institute about how many hours a research scholar should work.
Work-life balance also depends upon the tasks and responsibilities assigned by the supervisor. The relationship with the supervisor is probably the most crucial factor which would affect the PhD experience and intellectual development. Managing your expectations from the supervisor should be realistic.
Most supervisors are supportive of the students and should make them work with sufficient rest. Some students experience hiccups in their relationship with the supervisor due to lack of progress, frustration with work, personal problems and time constraints during the pandemic.
3) Challenges faced in different years:
First-year students face the challenge of transitioning into the new system and clearing the coursework for their research. Non IIT scholars should clear qualifiers to prove their prowess.
The intermediate scholars have lost 1 year of their research. They are facing a lack of self-confidence, lack of fraternity among the fellow students, and have to perform or perish. The uncertainty in completing their course is taking a hefty toll on their mental wellbeing. The meagre PhD fellowship of 30000 – 35000 causes significant stress and anxiety to the students as it is insufficient to meet the expenses in India. Moreover, seeing their peers earn more in other fields, scholars often feel disheartened. Many question their decision to enter the research field and most believe better incentives are required to keep researchers motivated. This is exacerbated with the delayed fellowship of some funding programs.
4) Ethical dilemma:
One cannot carry out research by overlooking ethical issues. Ethics is about protecting the reputation and maintaining high standards for the researcher and the wider research community. The pandemic has imposed a lot of restrictions, like the 7 day quarantine, ban on social gatherings and restriction to go out of campus. This has caused an ethical crisis among the researchers as it is difficult to follow all the protocols set by the institute. For example, some researchers complain about the inability to conduct their research efficiently due to the protocols introduced. Primarily the restrictions put on the availability and accessibility of labs make life harder for the research scholars. Ethics are important in research where the student will encounter ethical dilemmas and it is important to abide by protocols and be legitimate with their conduct.
5) Anxiety about future prospects:
Receiving post-doctoral positions in other countries has become harder due to the pandemic. Many nations prefer to retain their citizens in academic and research positions from the fear of transmission of COVID by immigration. IIT Bombay has relaxed the protocols to join as a post-doctoral in the institute. However, final year students are losing their prospects of getting a good post-doctoral position due to this issue during COVID – 19. Unlike Postdocs, PhD degrees do not give good academic positions. Getting a job in academia will not be impacted but industry jobs will dwindle as they are going through a recession.
The pandemic has stalled the activities of the Research Scholars Forum (RSF). Work in the Student Task Force (STF) and Hostel Task Force (HTF) have occupied the professors of Research Scholars Forum and the Institute Research Scholar Companion Programme (IRSCP). Unresolved issues at the grassroot level of the PhD students must be resolved. Therefore, RSF could be revived and could be an additional support to the Post Graduate Academic Council and IRSCP.
Ways to mitigate stress:
The common stress faced by students are time management, procrastination, perfectionism, academic stress and high expectations from self, communication skills and personal issues. The current uncertainty in the pandemic and lack of control of the situation has exacerbated the situation. In such cases, it is highly recommended to approach counsellors, who can help by:
Some solutions that could help
We interviewed quite a few PhD students and professors in the course of this article. Each of them had a few words of advice for PhD students who are going through a hard time. We hope these can help:
Aspire: IIT Bombay Research Park
By Ark Modi, Jaydeep Sharma and Prerna Gupta
A modern, developing economy can thrive only when there is constant progress in innovation and technology. This requires industries to adapt to new technology faster and think of ways to commercialize it. Unfortunately, in India, there is a deep divide between the industry and academia. While academia has the knowledge to innovate and improve, it is the industries that have the infrastructure and capital to commercialize it and contribute to the economy.
In order to bridge the gap between industry and academia and to foster collaboration between the two, the concept of Research Parks was introduced. Research Parks are geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and collaborate to complement each other's strengths. While Research Parks aren’t new in the West, they have only now stepped foot in India. IIT Bombay is the second university in India to have a Research Park after IIT Madras.
The IIT Bombay Research Park, ASPIRE, recently celebrated its 5th anniversary in June 2021. This piece is a look back at how the Research Park did in the last 5 years and how it aims to move forward into the future.
The Ministry of Education, Government of India commissioned IIT Bombay to build a Research Park in its campus in 2016. The vision of the IIT Bombay Research Park Foundation (IITBRF) is to achieve recognition for innovation, entrepreneurship and research excellence through industry-academia collaboration. Modelled on learnings from successful national and global research parks, ASPIRE is envisioned to become the nerve-centre linking knowledge, expertise, and resources to boost industry-academia collaboration in India.
Companies are encouraged to set up working spaces, labs and offices in the Research Park and benefit from the facilities that it provides. These facilities include, but are not limited to, leveraging the expertise of the faculty and the enthusiasm of the students, working in various high-tech labs, and accessing an exhaustive collection of books at the IIT Bombay library.
While the Research Park offers a multitude of benefits for the companies, the real benefactors of the establishment are the institute and the students. The companies who have leased space in the Research Park are supposed to engage with the students through different activities or scholarships to retain their membership and space. Some of the modes of engagement are Fellowships & Scholarships, Endowment for a Cause, Employment Creation, R&D Projects, Faculty Visiting Fellowship, Joint Project with Third Agency, Joint Training/ CEP Courses, Adjunct Faculty etc.
The IIT Bombay Research Park has earned quite a lot of laurels despite facing unforeseen challenges posed by the pandemic. It managed to garner funding of almost INR 10 Crores generated through R&D collaborations spanning 5 years. 26 joint publications and patents have been registered and 79 students have benefitted directly by getting internships and employment.
Currently, 16 companies are members of the Research Park, out of which 12 have research facilities set up on campus. The rest 4 are part of the Associate Model, a concept devised to solve the obstacles caused by a shortage of space and delays in construction activities. Companies who are part of the Associate Model enjoy all the benefits provided by the Research Park despite not having a physical presence on campus. Moreover, they have the top priority to be assigned space on campus, as and when it becomes available.
Even though the Research Park is still in its nascent stages, there is quite a lot of collaborative work done by the companies and the students and faculty members. Murata, one of ASPIRE’s members, is working on commercializing products from 3 startups of IIT Bombay. Ubisoft is working on 2 R&D projects involving AI/ML and computer vision. Applied Materials, the oldest member of the Research Park, occupies the largest area on campus and provides students with a lot of opportunities to work with them.
What’s even more noteworthy is that 5 startups that were incubated by SINE, after growing tremendously and facing the industry for years, have decided to set up facilities in the Research Park. These companies are Nanosniff Technologies, Ideaforge, Atomberg, igrenEnergi Services and CTech.
In order to ensure that companies do not view their facilities in the Research Park as mere real estate investment projects, the IITBRF came up with the iCoins system. According to this, a company is supposed to earn a minimum number of iCoins each year to retain their space in the Research Park. The minimum requirement of iCoins varies with the size of the area leased, for example- 1000 square feet of land calls for at least 400 iCoins.
The iCoins system was established to ensure that companies utilize the state-of-the-art infrastructure that IIT Bombay has to offer as well as its treasured intellectual capital. Thus, to earn these points, companies need to engage with students and faculty members through various activities. These activities could be joint R&D projects, sponsoring projects for students, giving internships, taking workshops and classes etc.
A new and interesting mode of engagement is the Supervised Learning Project (SLP). It is an in-semester internship program for students, wherein they get to work closely with the company for 7-8 months. This ensures that the students are able to contribute to the companies after spending 1-2 months in training. Ubisoft recently recruited around 20 students for SLPs.
In order to keep track of the activities of each company, an extensive database is maintained. At the end of every year, the database is reviewed by an expert committee to track the progress of the companies. In case a company fails to earn the minimum number of points, it is given up to 3 years to compensate, post which a notice to vacate the area occupied is served. On the other hand, if a company has extra iCoins at the end of the year, they are carried forward to the later years.
The Research Park has been organizing various seminars and sessions in the industry to increase awareness about the opportunities that it provides to companies. This has seen an uptick in the number of companies interested to be part of the Research Park.
In order to do so, a company is supposed to write to the Research Park, expressing their intentions, post which a Proposal Form is sent to them. This form inquires about the financials of the company to check its capability of surviving in the Research Park. Questions about the annual turnover, the R&D budget, areas of interest etc are asked. A committee that consists of experts in the company’s areas of interest is formed. They are presented with the proposal and they scrutinize whether the company would contribute towards the Research Park or not. It is only after the approval of the committee that some space is leased out to the company.
The IIT Bombay Research Park building is expected to be fully constructed by 2023. It is supposed to be a 14-floor green building with a plethora of facilities available for the companies to make use of. It is to be built on an area of 5 lakh sq. feet, 60 per cent of which will be rentable. At least 50 companies are expected to set up their facilities in the Research Park in the next 2 years. The manufacturing sector looks particularly attractive due to Government schemes like Make in India and the associated funding provided.
Initially, only IIT Madras, IIT Bombay and IIT Kharagpur were granted funds to build research parks on their campuses. However, we can expect at least 8 new research parks at various universities like IIT Delhi, IIT Kanpur, IIT Guwahati, IIT Hyderabad and IISc Bangalore in the coming decade.
Where are the Firangis 2.0?
By Mithilesh Vaidya, Navjit Debnath and Ark Modi
India is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. Just have a look at your batchmates: we come from different states which speak different languages, celebrate different festivals and relish different dishes. However, we were raised in a very similar educational environment. We all went through the same rat race of clearing an entrance exam to step inside IIT Bombay. As a result, it isn’t too surprising that our campus lacks a healthy diversity in perspectives.
A global community can mitigate this issue - by interacting with peers who were brought up in a completely different society, there is a lot to learn. It can add a new dimension to the ideas and conversations which exist on campus. Developing this open-mindedness is crucial during college years, while we are still forming our identities so that we will be open to new perspectives even as adults.
Apart from the above philosophical reasons, we have a number of pragmatic reasons for boosting the international community at IIT Bombay. Firstly, our QS Ranking parameter for international faculty and students is a laughable single-digit score that pulls down our overall ranking. Although these rankings should be taken with a pinch of salt, they still heavily influence the perception of a university among the global academic community. More importantly, by tapping into a bigger pool of motivated students, one can expect a higher quality of research. It’s a reinforcing cycle: better research draws in more international students, who in turn contribute to improving the research output.
Lastly, through this article, we aim to voice the issues that plague the existing community and propose solutions for some of them.
Our focus will be on students who are here primarily for academics. Since exchange students are here for a different experience, we plan to cover them in a separate article. We will be mainly talking about Masters and PhD students but not UG. The only way to get into a UG program is through the dreaded JEE/UCEED. It is a near-insurmountable barrier for an international student, owing to the nature of the exam and the intensive preparation. Reforms for boosting UG students warrants a separate article.
Funding is a major factor for post-graduate admissions. Although research scholars are willing to forgo a job, a healthy stipend that helps them break even and save a few extra bucks is crucial. Most scholars work as TAs, RAs or project associates and the amount of stipend depends on the source of funding. Unfortunately, the paucity of funds at IIT Bombay makes it difficult to match the stipends provided in Western universities. However, scholarships can ameliorate this situation. Students applying at IIT Bombay have a number of options to choose from. Apart from self-financing their stay, they can apply to various funding agencies. Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Study in India by MEA are some of the most popular agencies which provide stipends to MTech and PhD students.
The admission procedure varies across departments. Some conduct written exams, some opt for vivas while the rest may consider both. However, after the department finalises a candidate, the rest of the procedure is uniform: the candidate’s details are forwarded to the IR office, which in turn forwards it to the concerned funding agency. The final call for a scholarship is taken by the agency and communicated to the student and the institute. GRE scores are desirable while TOEFL/IELTS scores are mandatory for those who did not complete their secondary and higher education in English.
After extensive interviews with current and past international students, we unearthed a few issues which beset their stay at IIT Bombay.
Almost every student complained about the lack of options for food. It is not surprising that they find it difficult to adapt to the mess food. In fact, one student mentioned that he ends up spending more than half his stipend on ordering food online. A solution that can be found in many other universities is a common kitchen for every dormitory. Now that groceries can be delivered at our doorsteps, this basic amenity can go a long way in alleviating this universal issue. The institute can also consider tying up with a caterer for providing meals that are palatable for the international students at a subsidized rate.
As far as their social lives are concerned, very few were able to make a close-knit group of friends (the COVID-19 pandemic has also aggravated this issue.) All international students are assigned H12 or H13. Since many international students are here for a short stay, bonding with Indian students is also essential. One student suggested that their wings should have a healthy mix of international and Indian students, so as to encourage a more inclusive group. The IR office should also organise multiple events in order to integrate the international community.
A student who visited the campus in the summer of 2019 for an internship mentioned that he felt lonely for the first few weeks, before discovering that there were a few other international students on campus. Organising trips on weekends would go a long way in increasing the bonding. Currently, ISCP allots buddies to Masters students for helping them adapt to the new environment, but PhD students have no option but to figure things out all by themselves.
Although the hostel rooms are not very spacious, they could adapt in no time.
A student who wished to remain anonymous said that dealing with the authorities was extremely frustrating - something we all can relate to. The authorities need to be much more receptive and helpful regarding even logistical issues as these students have not been through the ‘babu’ system that we are all used to. We strongly believe that an introductory session with all the major student representatives will be helpful.
When it comes to academics, many found it difficult to cope up with the system in the first semester. This could be attributed to a lack of open communication between professors and students, differences in the teaching style, problems with understanding the accent and lack of a supportive peer group. One PhD student was unhappy with the way some courses were conducted; he believed that professors taught mainly for the sake of it and gave away credits for free without proper evaluation. The authorities should conduct an introductory session that explains the credit system, effectiveness and anonymity of course feedback, etc.
The core issue we identified was one of trust. To build trust among the international community, we need to work hard to project a good image.
The first step towards that is a well-designed website. Our current website is poorly designed, especially when compared to other top-notch universities. The design is not sharp or appealing, and the layout is disorganised. Even though the very front page is not passable, the links and other pages it redirects to are not terribly designed. Another big issue is that it is not easy to access the research being done at IIT Bombay. In most universities’ websites, the faculties’ research, as well as excellent research facilities, are front and centre. Most of the departments (except arguably the IDC School of Design) have ill-organised resources, which is a big factor driving away prospective students, especially international students. Thus, we feel an institute-wide drive to revamp websites and information dissemination portals - perhaps even with student volunteers - needs to be undertaken.
Another essential need is good marketing. Most students would be extremely hesitant to come to a place they have not heard much about, especially officially from their own institute. One aspect of marketing is making sure our website is well-developed. Another very important facet is to “advertise” the research facilities and faculties at IIT Bombay that are exceptional. Several research facilities in the institute are arguably world-class and among the best in Asia. It is paramount to promote such outstanding facilities via targeted marketing. Some examples we gathered via interviews were the IEOR (a niche department which is not present everywhere and is very useful to industry), NanoFab facility (nanofabrication facilities are extremely expensive and rare, especially those having world-class electrical engineers such as the professors at EE IITB) or the recently launched innovative Koita Centre for Digital Health. We should highlight departments like MEMS with high international rankings (41).
Research breakthroughs need to be disseminated widely. Regular updates on the main website (perhaps even a dedicated blog on it), through social and traditional media (trying and getting coverage in international media as well) needs to be the norm. Homepages of faculty, as well as research groups, need to be regularly updated and well maintained. A simplified portal could be made for the same - and also promote uniformity in such pages, through predetermined formats perhaps. In addition, we have a truly excellent entrepreneurship culture in our institute, at every level. From excellent technical and business faculty to strong alumni networks to funding to SINE to the peer group to the general environment - it is rare to find such an encouraging culture for innovation. Many students would find this quite attractive. We understand that money is tight in IIT Bombay, but we feel that this is definitely an investment that will reap a lot of benefits in terms of improved research quality, a better international image, more collaboration, and perhaps even more funding for research and entrepreneurship.
In order to make the most of alliances and to spread awareness about our institute, getting our best students abroad needs to be highly encouraged. Making students more aware of opportunities made available by the International Relations Office would be the first step. We feel that replacing the current system - of forwarding vetted emails with an IR blog and attaching summaries to such forwarded emails - would generate more interest, and making such opportunities more accessible should be a priority. Reviewing the curriculum in general as well as the distribution of courses (especially lab courses) through the semesters - so students are allowed a lot more academic flexibility - should be an institute level policy. Arranging visits of international faculty, encouraging visiting faculty positions and streamlining procedures to allow students to have external co-supervisors of projects at all levels of academic study in the institute needs to be seriously pursued.
A major consideration of students, especially in pursuing higher studies in an institution, is the peer group and alumni profile of that institution. While advertising the opportunities available to international students at IITB, we must also leverage the distinguished alumni of our institute, as well as sister institutes. The peer group here is among our greatest strengths.
Most Europeans and North Americans, or for that matter, anyone outside South Asia, form their opinion of India from documentaries by NGOs and others about poverty, malnutrition etc. Even if they talk about the post-liberalisation economic boom, they never fail to mention deep perceived inequalities and these, in turn, colour the little pop culture representation India gets. From an exotic “land of snake charmers” portrayed in the Bond film Octopussy(1983), we have become a synonym for poverty and our major cultural exports - yoga and spicy “Indian” food - have become decoupled from the national identity of India. For a lot of students from other countries, especially from Europe and North America, the perceived hardship in living conditions discourage them from considering any academic engagement in India. To dispel this false notion, we can conduct campus tours by volunteering seniors - which, in fact, most campuses worldwide do - virtually, to begin with. We can have professionally produced showreels of all the interesting activities and vibrant student life on campus, like for instance, the “This is MIT” video that has had more than a million views. While that is a start, the end goal must be to have a well-curated and frequently updated social media presence that attracts prospective students and researchers and properly leverages the strengths of IIT Bombay at par with other global universities. Alongside, student reviews, videos and vlogs - especially those of foreign students - can be displayed on a Campus Life/Student Life section on the main website and department websites as well - a common feature in universities abroad, but currently lacking in ours.
Many prospective students would rather have a taste of the university in the form of a summer or winter research internship before committing to pursuing a degree there. Encouraging professors to take up more interns in summers and winters and broadcasting flyers in partner universities would help. A portal to streamline and somewhat automate the process, on the lines of the existing SURP - and perhaps with the participation of other IITs and IISc, somewhat like MITACS - could be a game-changer, with the requisite publicity disseminated worldwide.
We also identify a need to creatively leverage the current opportunities that came about through MoUs, partnerships with universities abroad, alliances et al. Consortiums and alliances facilitate the exchange of students and staff. Both short-term and long-term collaborations should be heavily encouraged. As mentioned by Alexandre, a former summer intern, most students at his university haven’t even heard of IIT Bombay despite there being an MoU with them to facilitate internships and research.
Currently, professors are constrained by funding; to attract more doctoral and post-doctoral researchers from abroad, funding opportunities need to be introduced and programmes instituted, perhaps even in partnership with other universities here or abroad. However, it’s indispensable to attract good research talent at the Masters’ stage itself, and for doing that, more scholarships seem the only option. As Prof Maryam insisted, even a limited number of scholarships to bring in international students(which currently IIT Bombay doesn’t fund) can lead to them converting to PhD and bringing in other international students through word of mouth.
In conclusion, we feel that several steps need to be taken to improve the visibility of IIT among foreign students at every level. This would engender trust, and foster long-lasting research collaborations which would benefit not only us but them as well. It would positively impact the prospects of IIT Bombay students as well as faculty. IIT Bombay has the opportunities and the leverage to truly become a globally recognized research powerhouse, and with some investments, we feel that our institute can take big strides toward this goal.
By Jaydeep Sharma, Pranav Kasat and Soham Purohit
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Chaitanya Johari and Shaunak Natarajan
|Abir Mehta||Jaydeep Sharma||Sanya Jayee|
|Achintya Kunj Goyal||Lokesh V||Shashank S K|
|Aman Mishra||Mithilesh Vaidya||Shaswat Gupta|
|Ark Modi||Muskaan Chandra||Shubham Kanojia|
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|Dhananjay Bhardwaj||Pranav Kasat||Sreyashi Saha|
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