Tuesday, 25 November 2014

When Engineering Isn't Just Engineering

Perhaps this is purely an Indian problem, because it frequently crops up in Indian forums. It has to do with the high social premium placed on an engineering education, and the subsequent pressure on many young students to choose this specialisation regardless of what they really feel about it.

The argument against this cultural pressure takes many forms, but the core idea is the same:

  • One must only do an engineering degree if one is genuinely interested in engineering as a career
  • No one should be forced into doing an engineering degree if their passion is something else
  • It's sad that students are lured into engineering because of monetary considerations
  • It's sad that engineering graduates go on to work in unrelated professions later on

I confess I myself chose engineering at the university level by elimination, because I was not at all interested in medicine, commerce or law. I further confess I did not practise as an engineer even for a day. I went on to do an MBA, then turned my back on the management profession as well, to end up as an IT professional.

The movie "3 Idiots" explores some of the above ideas in detail. The main protagonist is genuinely interested in science and technology, and he then goes on to win over 400 patents - entirely as a by-product of his passion. A classmate of his who is really more interested in wildlife photography plucks up the courage to give up engineering for his passion. A brilliant student is so frustrated by the heartless "system" that he takes his own life. So does another sensitive person who would rather have been a writer. These messages should not be controversial, but I do have some bones to pick with the movie's characterisation of an engineering college, especially the IITs on which it is modelled.

For example, there is something very wrong with this scene.

"Provide a descriptive answer rather than the quantitative result of a mathematical calculation", said no IIT professor ever

But we digress. Let's return to the core issue of cultural pressure to study engineering, especially at one of the prestigious IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology). I had a batchmate who dropped out of IIT to become a writer. Opinion was divided within his batch about the wisdom of his decision. Many of us thought he should at least have completed his degree before pursuing his passion. After all, one does not sneeze at an IIT degree, considering how hard it is to gain admission to one of the IITs. Fortunately for him, he did turn out to be an award-winning writer.

Now, another IIT student has written in harsh terms about his "mistake", and the article has prompted an outpouring of similar sentiment, judging by the comments following it. 

[...] there are many students like me and the system failed all of them

The system failed them!? From what I can gather, he is disappointed that he doesn't remember any of the subjects that he studies for his exams. Once the exams are over, he forgets whatever he learnt. He therefore believes he has learnt nothing and his entire education has been a waste. Along the way, he blames the poor teaching skills of most of the faculty, and the coaching classes that churn out "to-be engineers".

While no one should be coerced into a field of study they are not interested in, I think the author of this piece, and many others who criticise the "blind" pursuit of an engineering degree, are missing a critical aspect of the situation.

It is a fallacy to believe that the sole purpose of an engineering degree is to equip a person to work as an engineer in one particular discipline. Lamenting that one does not remember a subject after the exam betrays this fallacy. We need to understand that engineering as a generic set of skills has far wider application than in the engineering profession. Additionally, it's impossible to forget such skills after an exam, because they are really about learning better ways of thinking. One can't regress to less sophisticated ways of thinking.

The set of what can be called "engineering skills" include:

Mathematical ability of a high order. An engineering graduate is not afraid of maths. They can readily tackle problems requiring a knowledge of trigonometry, calculus, differential equations, Fourier transforms and the like. More importantly, they know they can pick up the concepts to tackle virtually any mathematical problem. This feeling of confidence is a wonderful one to have. Needless to say, advanced mathematics is useful in more fields than just engineering, and confident mathematicians are an asset in any such field. Finance is a case in point.

Systems thinking. An important part of problem-solving deals with isolating the relevant parts of a system from the irrelevant ones and considering only the relevant subset, which makes the problem much simpler and more tractable. The judgement required to draw an appropriate "system boundary" around some entities, such that interactions across the system boundary are reduced to a very simple set, goes a long way towards making a problem solvable. Systems thinking can be applied to anything from biology to geopolitics.

Mathematical modelling. This is related to both systems thinking and raw mathematical ability but is not quite the same thing. Systems thinking deals with isolation and with interfaces. Mathematical modelling deals with describing in precise quantitative terms how an entity behaves, and the entity in question could have been isolated in a previous step through an appropriate system boundary. By the "behaviour" of the entity, we refer to the quantifiable outputs that result from equally quantifiable inputs. Mathematical ability is then used to actually solve the relevant equations, but modelling describes the problem in the first place. Mathematical modelling is a general-purpose skill that can be applied to any field of study requiring quantitative answers, not just engineering.

Logical reasoning. Problems cannot be solved with sloppy reasoning. There may be more than one way to arrive at a solution to a given problem, but all of them need to obey a system of logic and to be justifiable. Logical thinking should be a universal skill, but unfortunately isn't.

I can't speak for all engineering colleges, but an IIT education provides exactly this set of skills. No question paper at IIT would ask a student to describe in words how an induction motor starts or how it functions. It would more likely contain a simplified diagram of such a motor with the relevant dimensions marked. Some values of parameters would be supplied, and the student would be asked to calculate the torque developed by the motor, or some such thing. Unless the student understands the concepts behind how the motor works, they will be unable to construct the mathematical model that represents the motor. Unless they have the math skills to solve the equations that comprise that model, they will be unable to arrive at the required answer. And of course, without systems thinking and logical reasoning, they will be unable to even tell if they are on the right track. If they can't do all of the above, they score a zero. The system is therefore ruthless, but effective in teaching engineers how to think.

A student of engineering who has been through four years of rigorous training in this kind of thinking can be a very valuable knowledge worker indeed. I would go so far as to say that it would be a waste of human capital for such a person to seek employment as an entry-level engineer. I think that for every engineering job available, the world needs to produce at least seven engineering graduates. One of them will fill the engineering job. The rest will take their skills to other professions that are equally hungry for them.

I graduated as a Civil Engineer but have never laid a brick in my life. Yet the years I spent studying engineering at IIT have profoundly influenced my thinking. Indeed, I owe what I am to this education. I hope the understanding that engineering (as a generic set of skills) is more than just engineering (as a profession) will help to convert some of the angst I see into a sense of acceptance and even satisfaction.

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