Studying engineering without physics and maths is like a building without foundation
S.S. MANTHA and ASHOK THAKUR/The Print
There has been a plethora of arguments put forward by those wanting to make mathematics and physics optional to study engineering, the chief reason being that it offers choice and flexibility to students. This may sound reasonable, but the trade-offs are huge and ominous. Engineering is a combination of applied mathematics, applied physics, applied chemistry, as well as the application of social, liberal, and other sciences. Any applied terminology needs a sound base. Removing the first two — mathematics and physics — which constitute the core, at the qualifying level itself is like building an edifice without a foundation.
An engineer is a professional who invents, designs, analyses, and builds complex systems, gadgets, and tests materials to fulfil functional objectives while recognising limitations imposed by practicality, regulation, safety, and cost. This is irrespective of his specialisation. There is a foundation on which all this is built. Can we dismantle it in the name of “choice and flexibility”? Or be attacked as stereotypes who are not willing to change? In fact, all the options, besides the core, that are being proposed are the ones engineers pursue later in their career based on their interest. The difference, however, is that they do so after acquiring a good degree that is strong on fundamentals. Innovations need strong fundamentals. Ideation to product development can happen, provided the right mix exists. What does choice mean when one does not even understand its dynamics?
The New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 is committed to breaking rigid silos between different streams and allowing students to pick subjects based on their liking, inclination, and aptitude — a welcome step. However, this only acquires real meaning when a student has a sound foundation and matured wisdom to understand the difference between ‘essential’ and ‘add ons’. The NEP also lays great emphasis on learning physics and mathematics even at pre-primary levels. If the issue is about breaking the silos, it can be achieved more effectively through building stronger, more collaborative relationships between departments and learning through project-mode. India’s earliest universities, be it Nalanda or Takshashila of ancient times, or Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and University of Madras in more recent times, had varied departments such as liberal arts, social sciences, physical sciences, engineering, medicine, fine arts, and many others, on the same campus.
Students and faculty collaborated across disciplines to produce inter and multi-disciplinary research. In the name of breaking silos, we cannot weaken the very core of engineering education.
The other argument put forward is that this is also being followed elsewhere. University of California (UC) Berkley, US may offer an engineering program to non-engineering graduates, and the University of Sussex, UK may offer a similar programme to its students. For a start, there is a mountain of difference between the regular engineering undergraduate and postgraduate degrees of UC Berkley, or even University of Sussex, compared to the degrees that they offer to students from other backgrounds. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Columbia, University of Michigan, Penn State, or Cornell University have a history that span more than 100 years of producing robust engineering graduates. Their experimentation with other disciplines is highly measured and rigorous. Even then, the numbers of those who opt for such programs are at best very small. It is another matter that most of them seek new programs as a matter of interest and business opportunity, rather than to claim equivalence to their more endowed compatriots. In contrast, the changed AICTE position applies to all of its 4,000-odd institutes and a million students to boot.
Can such profound changes, that affect masses, be made in such a ham-handed manner without consultation? Are these comparisons to foreign universities offering flexible programmes then not odious? A better comparison would be contrasting Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) in India to a UC Berkley. Do we have an example of an IIT in India doing what UC Berkley does? Taking it one step further, can medical education also be opened up to students without biology in the spirit of this new found flexibility? Can a student study French literature without knowing the French language? The difference between core and electives is completely lost in the maze.