Saturday, April 14, 2012

Teaching Research

Professor Balaram writes on teaching research,

Brushing aside the temptation to tread familiar ground I decided to address two issues that are matters of concern to many young researchers, beginning careers as independent investigators in India – research facilities and teaching. Everyone I have met (or almost everyone) seems to want more of the former and less of the latter. For those with an insatiable desire to accumulate sophisticated research facilities. I turned to Richard Hamming: ‘It is a poor workman who blames his tools. The good man gets on with the job, given what he has got and gets the best answer he can.’
Science, as taught today, can hardly enthuse a new generation, which is fortunate enough to encounter an ever expanding range of career options. The excitement of science and the pleasures of research can only be communicated by exposing students at the earliest opportunity to laboratory work, in which outcomes are not always anticipated.

Professor Balaram's point is valid and important. However, in a system where tap water is scarce in university laboratories and getting a simple chemical involves an arduous procedure, how can the joys of a laboratory be communicated? This has resulted in undue importance given to theoretical research, especially in engineering, even in premier institutions. Workshops have been replaced by Acad; distillation columns have been replaced by Aspen. Both the researchers and administrators (Professor Balaram is an exception to this) feel that theoretical research is better and certainly less stressful. The institute represented by both researchers and researchers-turned-administrators do not have to worry about infrastructure (space, power, water etc) and maintenance. This has led to the situation that 70% of the doctoral thesis produced in engineering in IISc (and possibly in other IITs) are based on theory/simulation.


Digbijoy Nath said...

I am certainly not an authority to give expert comments on it since I lack experience... what my personal opinion is that - experimental research forms a vital component of developing a real, practically useful and applicable technology. It is not about simulation only where we try to understand 'how' a certain thing will work, but we really, as in literally, make something in the lab, which when fine polished, can go into production that serves the human society... and contributes to technological growth...

I always give examples in my area, which is solid state electronics... we (our experimental community at large) try to make, or ARE making electronic devices in university cleanroom which ARE going into wireless technology market, high power applications, LASER/LEDs and solar cells, etc... so I think India, to catch up with China and USA, should give increasing emphasis on experimental research parallel to theory/simulation... again, my personal opinion.. I may be wrong.

Anonymous said...

Two observations:

1. Good machining facility (i.e. workshop) is absolutely essential for experimental science (or engineering) research. During my time in IISc (mid 90s) the dept. workshops went from bad to worse. IISc admin was not interested in improving the state of the workshops. I do hope that the situation in IISc is different now...

2. I think the penchant for doing only theoretical work is also reflected in the industrial sector in India. For example, we produce a huge number of software engineers, but how come no multinational company sets up a manufacturing unit here? Instead they always migrate towards the far east.

Ashwin Rao said...

I agree that more and more research is theoretical. But I would like to comment on a slightly orthogonal topic on the practical experience during undergrad studies.

Here you are talking about the research work done. If you look at the undergrad (BE/BTech/BSc) then the fraction of students who have any practical experience on the things taught is virtually 0. That is the reason why companies like Infosys have a training program which at times is close to one year. The reason is that the students coming out of the engineering schools do not have any practical experience.

When I was a student at Delhi then I came across masters students who could not write a program in *any* programming language, but they could clear GATE, and pass the interviews, but when the practical assignments came they simply could not write a program.

Sangeeth Simon said...

The joy of science is in experimenting. From initial "thought experiment" of how a concept can be tested to finally doing it, the illustrious curve of learning is addictive. Luckily, in my Undergrad, i was fortunate to have been mentored by my professor who always stressed that "experiments are the experiences from nature" and that any simulation can/should only corroborate it. But, on the other hand, experiments are time consuming, costly and prone to human errors compared to a simulation. Thus, my suggestion would be, a decision based on availability of resources and need for actually investing time and effort must be taken.