Insightful Suggestions by Chancellor and Chief Guest in IIIT-Delhi Convocation

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IIIT-Delhi held its 7th convocation on Sat, Aug 25. This was the last one for me as Director, and the first one we held in the 500 seater auditorium in our new Seminar Complex (a huge building with seminar rooms, class rooms, labs, etc, as well as one full floor of incubation center.) In my address to students, I talked about some lessons that are embedded in the IIIT-D’s decade long journey – the previous post gives a few of these.

IIIT-D’s Chancellor, Hon’ble LG of Delhi, and Chief Guest, Rajan Anandan of Google, gave excellent speeches. One point from each of their speeches really stuck a chord with me. I think they are useful for all – so will like to share them here.

Hit the pause button occasionally in life. Hon’ble Chancellor, in his speech (video of which is here) observed that in the world today everyone is running. All of us want to be in Fast Forward mode for life – achieve everything in a shorter time, cover more ground faster, …. He advised that we should also learn to “hit the pause button” occasionally – and use the pause to reflect, absorb, travel, etc. which can help us grow more and also help us do course correction that may be needed.

Such a wonderful advise. And how true – we are indeed all running to do/achieve more. Even with a noble/higher cause, people are driven to achieve or contribute more. But this speed will normally push the person to continue what he/she is doing – just do it faster and more efficiently. It does not allow for a rethink or reflection to change directions or do something else – and in the long life that most of us have, this lack of ability to change direction or purpose can be actually sub-optimal even for what one can contribute or achieve. And this relentless drive certainly makes the life less enjoyable, and the life journey less happier.

I often advise students to take a semester off (and in IIIT-Delhi we have regulations to do it easily) and explore life, or India or world, or go and work for a company…. Though there are some students who indeed do this, there is a strong desire and a clear pressure on students to finish their BTech in 4 years – parents also have this  expectation. Somehow, students are not able to see that starting the long life of working professional a few months earlier is of no consequence – though taking a semester off (i.e. pause) to explore can make the university life much richer experience.

As it turns out, next year I am also on Sabbatical. And I had decided not to work for any one organisation during this – but instead visit many places and engage with different groups. I hope to read, travel, connect with people, and write during this Sabbatical, without any “job requirement” for doing it. This will be my pause. This advise helped me put my plans for Sabbatical on a more solid principle.

People are remembered for their successes, not their failures. Mr Rajan Anandan gave an excellent speech (video is here) which connected excellently with the students – besides many examples from his life, he also pointed out how speeches given in convocation are forgotten. There is one point he mentioned which I found extremely insightful, and which helped me in clarifying my own thoughts and see things in a better perspective. I am mentioning it here – a small attempt to make sure that it is not forgotten easily.

He made an observation, which is also a lesson, which is so true, yet many of us do not think of it. He said that people are remembered for their successes, not their failures – it is us who remember our failures not others, who remember people by their successes. And he supported it by saying that there are many things he did in his life in which he failed – but no one remembers them – all remember him for the good things he has done or achieved.

This is so true in academics. Students are remembered not by the instructor of the courses in which they got a C or a D, but are remembered by instructors of those classes in which they got an A+ or did excellently, or by faculty with whom they did some exciting project. And it is these faculty members who give strong recommendation letters for the students, often without regards for grades students may have gotten in other courses. But many students, chasing a good CGPA, optimize by getting a decent grade in all courses, rather than excelling in some subjects (which will also make them much stronger in those subjects.)

Similarly, for contributions by researchers and faculty – most faculty are remembered and defined by the good books they may have written that are used widely, or great papers that are cited heavily, or technologies they may have developed that got used by companies, etc. Almost by definition, no one remembers the papers / books the researcher/ faculty member wrote that very few people read, and consequently no researcher or academic is defined by them.

Remembering our failures is done mostly by us. We sometimes let them become bigger that they really are, and feel bad over them or have regrets for a long time. If we realize that in the larger scheme of things, failures do not matter and few people give them much thought (except perhaps nagging relatives or negative colleagues who may be looking for opportunities to pull one down). We are defined by our successes – what we achieved and what we contributed. And others also notice these more (even the envious person gets envious due to successes.)

This perspective I personally found deeply insightful and helped me put some things in better perspective. During the IIIT-Delhi journey, there were setbacks every now and then. I often worried about these and worried endlessly on what I could do to revert them or avoid them…. For example, if a good faculty member left, I will feel really bad and it will pull me down for sometime. I now realize that the better perspective is that as long as the Institute is moving in the positive direction towards its vision and growing at a healthy pace, it does not really matter if some people leave or some setbacks occur – as both are inevitable. We just have to learn from them, and move on…..

I would like to add a personal view on this. The above holds for professional life. In personal life and interactions, it is probably the exact opposite – friends and relatives will often remember the things you did not do or things you did which offended them. They are likely to forget all the good you may have done before that. I.e. personal relationships often, unfortunately, get defined by the negative interactions and experiences, rather than the positive ones.

 

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Some Life Lessons from IIIT-Delhi’s Journey

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Recently I completed my second and final term as Director. In my last last convocation (7th for IIIT-Delhi) speech as Director, I talked about the decade long IIIT-Delhi journey, and some life lessons from it. While they were directed at graduating class, I am sharing some more general ones here. Full text of the speech and video of the report and speech, as well as speeches of the Chancellor, Chairman, and Chief Guest, are available on the convocation webpage. (For information – I continue in IIIT-Delhi as Distinguished Professor, and will soon be on Sabbatical – hope to be able to write more then.)

Focus on creating / generating value. I have always believed that organizations and individuals are valued by society and people based on the value they deliver. At IIIT-Delhi, we maintain a sharp focus on delivering value in whatever we do. In courses, we ensure that there are good conceptual learning as well as actual engineering capability development, in research we focus on publishing in good quality venues and impact, in our infrastructure management we ensure that things like STP are actually working, etc,

It is an easier path to just work without focusing on outcomes, or just manage the perception by talking loudly about whatever one has done or even not done. But in the long run, the focus on value delivery will always pay. For IIIT-Delhi, this focus has already shown good results – our graduates get good opportunities in jobs as well as higher studies, our faculty is highly respected, and now we have been included in BRICS rankings as well.

So, the first life lesson from our journey is that you must always deliver value to the organization you work for, including your own start-up. Never lose sight of this, and more importantly never rely on short cuts for “managing the perception” of value, which are inevitably short lived.

You can achieve a lot. There is no doubt that at IIIT Delhi we have achieved a lot in 10 years. Let me highlight some;

  • From one floor in library building in Dwarka to a campus that Hon’ble CM said is of one of the most beautiful he has seen
  • From an intake of 60 to more than 600 this year overall.
  • From 1 program to 6 programs of Btech, 8 specializations in MTech
  • From 1 faculty to over 75 including visiting
  • A strong Phd program with over 160 scholars, bigger than even the older IITs in CSE

When I look at IIIT Delhi today and what we have, it is quite remarkable actually. If you ask me whether this is what I had imagined – absolutely not. In all honesty, if I was asked that this is what we have to build in 10 years – not clear I would have taken up the challenge. I suppose the same is true for all colleagues who joined in early stages. We all had a vision of creating an institution that is globally respected for research as well as education and some plans, but the actual achievement was done through steady contribution year after year towards the vision.

So, the second life lesson is that you keep chipping away, keep contributing, keep growing, and over the years you can achieve a lot. Actually a lot more than what you can imagine today.

Effort and Support from Colleagues and Family. But to do this – you have to put in the requisite effort, and you also need support from colleagues and family. There is no gain or achievement without effort. Yes, luck matters, but the main determinant which is in your control which influences the outcomes is your effort. You have to put in solid effort on an ongoing basis to achieve success – and you have to seek support from colleagues by leading by example. For the first many years I routinely worked at night from home and over weekends – it is only now that I had started reducing my effort to allow me some time for my innings after the current one as founding Director of IIIT Delhi gets over. And I know many of my faculty colleagues often put in 10 to 15 hour days often. Our team involved with campus construction and running often put in long hours.

Clearly this is not possible without strong support from your family. In my case, it was clear that my mindshare for family matters had reduced considerably. Once when I noted that I am usually home at night, my wife rightfully observed that “while you are physically here, your mind is in IIIT-Delhi”.

The third lesson is, that effort matters hugely. Do not rely on luck – rely on your effort. Hopefully, luck will also come as the famous quote by Jefferson says “The harder I work the more luck I have”. And seek support from your family and colleagues.

Innovate in your sphere – there is always room.  In 2008 perhaps a dozen new Institution started by Govt. At IIIT Delhi we have perhaps innovated the most. Let me give some examples:

  • Admission – while we adopted the common exam JEE, we innovated by recognizing achievements beyond a single exam by having the framework of bonus marks. This has worked very well and is something that I hope can get replicated.
  • In our course design and teaching – we have added post conditions, expected outcomes, etc, to make education learning focused rather than teaching focused.
  • We championed the much needed interdisciplinary programs at BTech level – the only Institute in the country to have some CS+X programs (e.g. CS+Applied Maths, CS+Design, CS+Biosciences, CS+Social Sciences).
  • For faculty we have system of yearly feedback, tenure, etc, to help them achieve their potential
  • We were perhaps the first govt institution to actually hold full faculty selections overseas
  • Our campus management has many innovations – e.g. using FMS, BMS, etc

The point is that we are also within the same overall environment as other institutions – but we have innovated in many aspects. And let me assure you that innovation is badly needed in higher education in our country.

So, the fourth lesson is that regardless of what is your job or the environment, there is always scope for innovation and we must innovate. In this fast changing world, those who will not innovate will not survive long. And individuals who will drive innovation will be valued more and more.

Autonomy in Admissions

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In two earlier posts, we discussed some key aspects of academic autonomy and administrative autonomy in an Higher Education Institution (HEI). Admission is another aspect of academic autonomy, which is very important in India due to the paucity of high quality education opportunities. It deserves a separate discussion, and is the subject of this note.

We will assume that admission to an HEI has to be based on some criteria and is not arbitrary, and that the criteria are transparent and well published. Latter is highly desirable in India, as lack of a transparent criteria can lead to all sorts of abuses. (Please note that this is not an inherent property of admission to an HEI – many US universities do not have a transparent and published criteria for admission.)

Autonomy in admission for an HEI then means that the HEI can have its own (transparent) criteria for admitting students. Clearly, complete autonomy, particularly in publicly funded HEIs is not feasible, as social and other goals of the Government / country (e.g. equity, reservations) will have to be satisfied by such Institutions. However, even after complying with policies for social goals (e.g. reservations), publicly funded HEIs do not have sufficient autonomy to establish their admission criteria. For example, if an IIT wants to have a criteria which will encourage gender diversity it cannot do it on its own. Or if it wants to have a criteria to have diversity in terms of students coming from diverse economic backgrounds, or education backgrounds including commerce and social sciences, it cannot do it. Even if an IIT decides that for its Computer Science programs, it will only consider proficiency in Maths and Physics, but not chemistry, currently there is no way this can be done.

The main cause of lack of autonomy in admitting students by HEIs is that as a nation we have equated national / state tests, which assess the test takers ability in some ways, with admission criteria for HEIs. So much so, that many such tests are called entrance or admission tests. We confuse the goal of test conducting organisations like CBSE, or the newly formed National Testing Service, which is to conduct tests and report normalised scores in tests, with the act of admitting students in a HEI, which is the role and responsibility of the HEI.

To clarify this further, the role of a test conducting body is to conduct tests in a fair manner in different subjects, using questions that reasonably assess the knowledge and understanding of the subject, and then giving proper scores (hopefully normalised) to the test takers in different papers/subjects. This in itself is a huge responsibility in a large country like ours.  Admission to a University, on the other hand, is squarely the responsibility of the university, and not of the test conducting body. It is up to the HEI to decide its criteria and how marks of the tests are used in that criteria. This is indeed how our system works when Board marks are used for admission – the Boards conduct the exams and publish the results, and universities use it in some manner for admission – some will take marks in all subjects, some will take marks only in some subjects, etc.

In exam like JEE, these two very distinct purposes got intermixed. This may have been due to historical reasons –  the original five IITs decided to use the performance in an exam (JEE) which they designed and conducted as the main criteria for admission. They then conducted the exam and used the score – the exam patterns changed as IITs saw fit (e.g. in early days English was also included in JEE, which was later removed).  But now exams like JEE (Mains) are conducted by a separate agency, and hundreds of HEIs use the test – but the old thinking of having tests only in three subjects, and combining them with equal weight to give a rank, still continues. This essentially forces all who use JEE mains to necessarily use the criteria implied in JEE rank, that is, that admission is based on total marks in Physics, Chemistry, and Maths, with each subject getting equal weight. Effectively, an HEI using the JEE exam, does not really have true autonomy – even to have a criteria which, for example, gives more weight to Maths than Physics,  or if it wants to give weight to some other parameters like class XII marks, performance in some other test, etc. is a challenge.

So, national tests like JEE which take the role of admission criteria also, take away the autonomy in admission from the HEI. With such exams and most HEIs using it directly for admission, for an HEI to evolve its own (transparent) criteria is far more challenging. (Though some possibilities exist – IIIT-Delhi, for example, allows for bonus marks for various other achievements  for admission.)

With the coming of National Testing Service, one hopes that the body will conduct exams in various subjects and give normalised scores – as is done by exams like SAT, ACT, GRE, etc, some of which have, besides aptitude,  tests in different subjects.

Each HEI can then evolve and publish its criteria for admission – which can use scores on different subjects in some manner, as well as other parameters (e.g. performance in school Board, awards received, etc), if the HEI wishes. This will allow an HEI to assert its autonomy in admissions, and also encourage development of a range of criteria more suited for the HEI and its programs. E.g. some IIITs may use only Maths score which is more relevant for its programs,  some chemical technology institute may use only Physics and Chemistry, some program (say in Computational Biology) may use Maths, Chemistry, and Biology, etc.

A diversity of criteria, which may use scores from different subjects in the national or board tests, also provides students with more opportunities and flexibility. For example, if a student does not like Chemistry, she can focus on other subjects, and get admission in a good HEI that does not use chemistry performance in its criteria. Also, if a student appears in many subjects but does not do well in some subject, does not loose out completely for admission in all HEIs – currently the impact of doing one test badly is on the rank, and that impacts admission to all HEIs that use the rank.

With each HEI required to evolve and publish its criteria, while in the short term we may see many using the criteria that is currently used for rank, overtime criteria will evolve, and HEIs will be able to tune the criteria to admit students that are most suited for the HEI and the programs it offers.

 

Introducing Engineering Design in First Year of a BTech Program

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The traditional model of engineering education for decades has been that in the first year physics, chemistry, and maths are taught as foundation courses. Then courses on different foundational areas of the discipline and engineering are taught. Only after that a student can try to practice engineering. The overall model has been to teach the foundations in the initial years, and only in final year the students may do full engineering projects in which they may build some systems. (Actually, in most cases, unfortunately even in final years decent engineering projects are not done.)

This model has been under challenge for some time, particularly in the west, as it does not allow students to experience the excitement of engineering, which comes from building useful systems that work, till very late. To address this, many institutions across the world have introduced project-based courses early to provide students some experience of building systems.

In IIIT-Delhi, very early we introduced two courses in the first year whose focus is on “hands on experience”. In the first semester, students do a course called “System Management” in which they work with laptops and mobile phones and their components, and learn what they can do with these machines, how they can manage them well, explore internals by opening them and seeing inside, etc.

In the second semester (by when they have learned programming as well as electronics in their first semester) we introduced an Intro to Engineering Design (IED) course, whose basic goal was to design a working physical system that included hardware and software (so software only projects are not permitted) to solve some problem. In IED the focus is on project – the lectures are to support the projects. So, the lectures provide an overview of the basic components that are widely used in such projects – a cheap but versatile platform like RasPI or Arduino, common sensors for vision, motion, proximity, etc, and some actuators like stepper motors, etc. They also learn a bit about workshop and tools.

Students form teams and start thinking about the project from the start of the semester. Each project team is given a budget to buy the components for their project – this exposes them to the process of buying components and markets, as well as about the basic engineering principle of cost control and delivering the project within budget. The completed projects are then demoed to all in an open house one day at the end of the semester.

This year also I visited the demos and interacted with at least 25 project groups. The course instructor was Alexander Fell, who is himself a fine system builder. I was amazed and highly impressed at the sophistication of the projects students had executed. Many of them were better than the final year projects in many engineering colleges and some of them, with extension and further development, could even be the final year project in IIIT-Delhi or an IIT.

To give a sense of the variety and complexity of projects undertaken, I am giving below a brief description of a few projects (I will keep adding to this list). It is worth remembering that these projects were executed by 2nd semester students (i.e. they have been out of class XII only for a few months), who were doing 4 other courses (at least two of them have their own programming/ lab assignments.)

These type of courses emphasize the fact that engineering is about solving problems of people by building systems and solutions using science, mathematics, and theories. Engineering is clearly not about theoretical understanding only in which problems are only solved on paper and tested in exams, or simple labs with defined experiments that are being repeated by students year after year.

Unfortunately, this is what engineering education in the country has degenerated to – most engineering institutions teach concepts (and that too not too well) with almost no exposure to actual engineering – mostly because the faculty does not have the necessary skills to guide such projects. As a result, we find engineering graduates who don’t have any real engineering or problem solving skills and are therefore not employable. And so a large number of these graduates proceed to do MBA where engineering skills are not important, and only conceptual understanding is needed to solve the problems in entrance tests.

This lacuna in engineering education is also contributing to the immature innovation-led ecosystem in our country to generate businesses offering new products and solutions. It has also led to an underdeveloped engineering industry. Thankfully, one is now seeing some examples of innovation resulting from deep understanding of the problem and technology and delivering solutions that can work to solve problems and scale – these are often led by teams that excel in engineering capabilities. Thankfully also, some leading engineering institutions including some IITs (e.g. IIT Delhi) are introducing project based courses early in their curriculum. These bode well for the future for engineering in the country.

 

Brief Description of Some of the Projects 

  • GardenBot. This bot is essentially a mobile cart with water, mechanical arm, camera, ultrasonic sensor, etc. It moves freely (choses the direction randomly), detects an object and if the object is a plant (done using image recognition library), checks the moisture of the pot, and adds water to the pot plant if the moisture content of the soil is low. It is integrated with the internet to check whether it has rained in the past few days to make a smarter decision for watering. As it moves autonomously, it can water all the pots in a garden – essentially doing the job of a smart gardner.
    • Components. Moisture Sensor, Ultrasonic Sensor, Webcam, five DC motors (four for wheels and one for water pump), One servo motor (for arm), H-Bridge for controlling DC motor
    • Platform and Code. Raspberry Pi, with about 500 LOC of Python.
    • Team. Akshat Singh, Apoorv Khattar, Harshit Chaudhary, Raghav Sood

 

  • SmartMirror. It’s a smart assistant (like siri) which you can put on your wall and it looks like a mirror. It’s powered by a Raspberry PI, and has a monitor with a one-way mirror sheet on it so it looks like a mirror on which things can be superimposed / projected also. User interacts with voice commands to get news, maps, etc., which the mirror intelligently displays by getting the information from internet using API calls.
    • Components: Mic, Camera (presence detection), a flat monitor (with one way mirror sheet posted on it), Speakers; a case was made to hold all components and make the monitor look like a mirror.
    • Platform, Code. Raspberry PI 3B, About 4000 Lines of Python and JavaScript.
    • Team: Peeyush Kushwaha, Madhur Tandon, Mudit Garg, Siddhant Singh

 

  • Faux Arm. A robotic arm that wirelessly mimics the arm movement of the operator. The Faux Arm is a robotic arm with three points of movement, simulating the operator’s elbow joint, wrist joint and two fingers for grabbing and picking things up. We also built the Sensor Sleeve, a sleeve with sensors that can be worn by the operator on his/her arm, serving as a wireless input to the robotic arm.
    • Sensors: ADXL335 x2, accelerometer (to sense the angle of the arm wrt ground);
    • Actuators: MG996R Servo; MG995 Servo; FS90 Servo
    • Microcontroller and code: Arduino Uno (two) with XBee Module (two); Appx  800 Lines of C.
    • Mechanical components used:  Self-designed 3D printed structure of robotic arm; Self-designed aluminum grabber; Elastic, Velcro and a glove for sensor sleeve.
    • Names of the team members: Shivin Dass; Anvit Mangal; Taejas Gupta; Aditya Singh.

 

  • Robotic humanoid hand. In our project we had constructed a robotic humanoid hand. The 3D model of hand was open source and easily available on Inmoov. Our project used 3 types of control functions i.e. glove control using flex sensors for remote control of the robot, voice commands using the voice sensors, and direct muscle controls using the myoware muscle sensors. This hand can be used by amputees and physically challenged (using muscle sensor or voice control), for exploring inhospitable areas (by glove or voice control), etc.
    • Sensors: Myoware muscle sensor V3; Electrohouse Voice recognition sensor; Flex sensors (4×5” and 1×2.5”)
    • Actuators: 5 x mg995 towerpro servo motor.
    • Mechanical Components: 3D – printed human hand and its assembly (we printed it).
    • Platform and Code: Arduino; About 300 lines of C code; open source libraries for Voice recognition module.
    • Team: Shreedhar Govil, Siddharth Dhawan, Tanish Gupta, Vishal Singh Rajput

 

  • ShadowBot. Despite the technology today, large parts of the world remain inaccessible due to the inability of the humans to survive in harsh conditions. This can be changed by using robots. However, AI is not yet developed enough to allow robots to react accurately in delicate situations. Our project aims to improve the ability of a human to control a robot, by allowing it to mimic the user’s actions! Project Demo on YouTube.
    • Sensors: Microsoft Kinect v1.8
    • Actuators: S3003 Futaba Servos (ten for different joints and degrees of freedom);
    • Mechanical Components: Oblique servo brackets; Long U-shaped servo brackets; Short U-shaped servo brackets; L clamps; Nuts and bolts
    • Power Source: Turnigy 2200mAh Lipo Pack
    • Microcontroller: Arduino Mega with HC-05 Bluetooth Module; About 400 Lines of C# code for Kinect, and 150 Lines of C for Arduino.
    • Team: Aditya Chetan, Anant Sharma, Shwetank Shrey, Siddharth Yadav (mentored by PhD student Manoj Gulati)

 

  • Ambhibian BOT:   It is a remotely controlled (through the Ardiuno RC controller, configured for Bluetooth) amphibian robot which has the capability to travel through varied tough terrains, including water bodies (antenna and camera remain outside the water), to provide video feed. It comes with an emergency propeller which can be used in case the directional motors fail. Entire functionality is controlled via Bluetooth connectivity, and a live video feed is given by the camera attached at level height of the robot to the phone.
    • Sensors: Night vision camera, HC05 – Bluetooth chip for Arduino.
      Actuators: Geared DC motors (300 rpm, Quantity-5 (4-wheels + 1-propeller)), Lithium ion batteries (Quantity-2, each battery-3V), L298N motor driver (Quantity-2).
    • Platform and Code: Arduino mega, 50 lines of C code.
    • Mechanical components: 7.5 cm diameter multi-terrain tyres, light weight plastic box, M-seal and hot-glue (insulation purposes)
    • Team: Ashutosh Sharma, Arshan Zaman, Yash Tomar, Vineet Kumar Rana.

 

  • DrawBot. An automated arm that drew pictures given to it with a pen on a paper. The input was an image file. From the grey scale image of the file, we extracted edges and lines (using Sobel edge detection algorithm) in the picture, and then drew these lines using the DrawBot arm. For drawing, movement was controlled by two stepper motors. The Drawbot worked by making use of the nearest salesman algorithm that moved the arm in the direction of nearest pixel, by drawing small segments of lines using the slope and coordinates.
    • Components: Stepper Motor, Voltage Level Shifter, Gear Belts, Channels (to make arms), H-Bridge
    • Platform and Code: Ras Pi 3B, about 200 lines of Python
    • Team: Simran Deol, Navneet Anand Shah, Aditya Tanwar, Naman Kumar

 

  • iDabba. Our​ ​ project,​ ​ named​ ​ “iDabba”​ ​ is​ ​ a​ ​ smart​ ​ container​ ​ which​ ​ identifies​ ​ what​ fruit / vegetable / item​ ​ is kept​ ​ in​ ​ it​ ​ (using computer vision techniques; the​ ​ item​ ​ has​ ​ to​ ​ be​ ​ one​ ​ of​ ​ those​ ​ trained​ ​earlier), ​the​ ​ temperature and humidity​ ​ of​ ​ the​ ​ box,​ ​ and​ ​ the​ ​ weight of the items. All​ ​ this​ ​ information​ ​ is​ ​ visible​ ​ to​ ​ the​ ​ user​ ​ via​ ​ a web​ ​ app. ​ We​ ​ were​ ​ motivated​ ​ to​ ​ design this​ ​ ​ ​ to​ ​ ​ ​ solve​ ​ every day​ ​ hassles​ ​ in​ ​ kitchens​ ​ and​ ​ households​ ​ regarding​ ​ spoilage​ ​ and infestation.​ ​ It​ ​ can​ ​ ​ ​ be​ ​ scaled​ ​to​ ​ meet​ the​ needs​ ​ of​ ​ farmers​ ​ and​ ​ storage companies​ ​ for​ ​ smart​ ​ storing​ ​ options​ ​ and​ ​ act​ ​ as​ ​ a​ ​ small-scale​ ​ sil,. It can be enhanced to add the age of the items kept – then more intelligent decisions can be taken.
    • Sensors​ : Humidity​ ​ Sensor (DHT11​), Temperature​ ​ Sensor DS18B20, ​ Load​ ​ Cell to measure weight, HX711​ ​ ADC​ ​ Module ​ ​ to convert; ​ ​ Wifi​ ​ Module ESP8266​;
    • Platform and code: Arduino​ ​ Duemilanove, Raspberry​ ​ Pi​ ​ 3 (for computer vision); 180 lines of C code for Arduino; Appx 250 Lines of Python​ ​with​ ​ Open CV​, Microsoft​ ​ Vision​ ​ API ​ and​ ​ Flask​ ​ for​ ​ backend​. Front End​ ​ using​ ​ HTML/Javascrip ​ -​ ​ approx​ ​ 150​ ​ lines
    • Team. Viresh​ ​ Gupta​, Brihi​ ​ Joshi, Zoha​ ​ Hamid, Shravika​ ​ Mittal​.

 

  • SmartCart: We made an automated cart which follows the user based on a tag which the user wears. When placing the product in the cart, the product’s barcode is scanned and the bill prepared automatically in the app on the mobile phone. By using such a cart, a store owners can reduce their manpower for checkout, and also reduce the waiting times for customers.
    • Components: Ultrasonic Transmitters and Receivers (made the circuit for using these), 2x 12V DC Motors, 2100mAh Lipo Battery, Wheels.
    • Platform and Code: Arduino, Android phone. About 90 lines of C code, and about 640 lines of Java code (for the App), about 200 LOC of PHP on the server (mimicking the inventory of the store).
    • Team: Aakash Sehrawat, Anmol Prasad, Nilay Sanghvi, Saksham Vohra

 

  • Plant Watering System. This project provides water (which may contain other essential nutrients) to multiple plants based on their respective moisture sensor readings. The frequency to check the moisture reading depends on the temperature and humidity readings given by the temperature sensor. A GSM module timely informs the owner through SMS about the water level of the tank, and when the plants are watered. (A few teams did project of this type).
    • Sensors. YL 69 Soil Moisture Sensor; DHT11 Temperature and humidity Sensor
    • Actuators . Micro (3-6V) Submersible Pumps
    • Mechanical Components.  Piping system to water the plants.
    • Platform and code. Arduino, Appx 200 Lines of C code
    • Team1: Raghav Bhatia, Jai Mahajan, Kanha Srivastav, Shashank Kataria
    • Team2: Ashish Kanojia Dilnawaz Ashraf Dushyant Jangra Rishin Lal

Enhancing Autonomy in our Higher Education Institutions

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This is a somewhat longer version of the article that recently appeared in Times of India Editorial Page – e-paper link, regular TOI link.

Autonomy of higher educational institutions/universities (HEIs) is now widely acknowledged as a necessity for excellence and improvement, particularly for those HEIs that engage in research as well as education.  In India we hear about the need for more autonomy in newspapers and debates. Most discussions and articles talk about autonomy as a broad concept and its desirability or how it can help improve the level of education and research.  What specifically needs to be done to improve autonomy is rarely discussed. This note discusses a few issues, which I believe are most important for autonomy of our HEIs, and without which  autonomy, and therefore aspiration for excellence, will not come about.

Recognizing the importance of autonomy in HEIs, the EU had started an autonomy scorecard for its member countries. The framework for autonomy had these four key dimensions:

  • Academic
  • Organizational
  • Financial
  • Staffing

Academic autonomy has been sometimes in the news, largely due to the requirements imposed by key regulators (UGC and AICTE) on the HEIs. While it is important, I believe, that many Act created HEIs (e.g. IITs, IIMs, IIITs, many Universities etc.) can exercise due control in this sphere. In any case, it is a topic for discussion on its own. (Perhaps a future note will discuss this.) in this note I will focus on two fundamental issues in Organizational and Financial dimensions.

First issue relates to the organizational dimension. Organizational autonomy starts with how autonomous are the HEIs in appointing their Chief Executive – i.e. the Director or the Vice Chancellor. This is the most important aspect of Organizational autonomy, as it impacts all other organizational issues. In most western countries, this selection is generally done by the bodies of the university – the Board, Senate, a Board of Trustees appointed search committee, etc. (though the selection may sometimes be subject to approval, which is usually a formality).

In our country, the Chief Executive is selected by the Government or the Ministry, though there is generally a selection committee to recommend a set of names from which the final choice is made. If the final decision of the Head of the Institution is left to the Government, the same person(s) will be doing the selection for all the HEIs of the state/center. Hence, it may be perceived by potential candidates that being in the “good books” of the person(s) is important. This creates distortions – from some good candidates not applying to some lobbying for posts. This has created a general perception that factors other than merit influence these decisions.

Suppose each HEI was to select its own Chief Executive through a documented and transparent process that involves the stakeholders from the HEI, as is done in many countries. With selections/appointments distributed, there is no single authority that needs to be convinced, thereby giving candidates multiple opportunities of assessment by committees of different HEIS. Furthermore, in selection by a single authority, the selected person is more indebted to that authority rather than the HEI for selection. If the HEI was to select the Chief Executive using its stakeholders, then the answerability of the Chief Executive is naturally to the HEI and its stakeholders.

This single change of having each HEI select its own Head through an approved and open process can bring about a great deal of autonomy in our HEIs. Thankfully, the authorities seem to appreciate this and there are signs that this is beginning to happen – one hears that in the IIM Bill, this autonomy has been granted. Hopefully, as a next step, this change will be made for institutions like IITs, and reputed Central Universities.

The second main area in need for autonomy is financial. As long as there is financial dependence of HEIs on the government, autonomy will always be compromised. Yet, public HEIs need support from the government, to provide affordable education to citizens. So, how can one achieve autonomy while still seeking public funds. A simple method, which now many countries use, is to have the funding be based on some parameters by applying some formula. E.g. funding may depend on the total number of students, faculty, R&D projects, consultancy, etc, and the support level is decided through a defined formula. Given that different HEIs have evolved in different manner and may have different needs, the formula need not be same for all types of HEIs. For example, a business school may be given little or no support for education, while an Engineering Institution may be provided limited support per student for education, and a humanities oriented institution may be provided a higher level of support per student.

A formula based funding makes the HEI “independent” of its equations with the Government of the day. The formula provides predictability of funding, and the HEI can count on it and focus its energies on its academics and more efficient use of this public funding. This enhances the autonomy of HEI autonomous, while still retaining the public character.

While these can improve the autonomy of HEIs substantially, there is a need to also ensure that HEIs, particularly those who are taking public funds, are discharging their responsibilities to the society properly.

How does one ensure accountability? This is important as without this, autonomy can lead to inward looking HEIs which are not responsive to societal needs. The responsibility of an HEI is mostly around expanding its educational opportunities, and to align its research towards national goals or needs. (Responsibility in terms of access is already built-in through reservation laws.) Both of these can be easily achieved through financial models. E.g. if funding is tied to the number of students studying (as is the case in Australia), then there is an incentive for the HEI to increase its student strength. Similarly, research direction is often influenced by providing research projects and grants in specific areas/types of work – an approach taken by most countries, including India.

With organizational autonomy, there is also a need for internal systems of the HEI to have proper checks and balances. For this, it is imperative that the system being followed is where the approving authority is different than the recommending authority. This is most important in faculty appointments –  if these appointments are not done properly and with rigorous processes, it can lead to substandard faculty, which takes an HEI down a path from which it takes decades to recover, as faculty stay in the system for even three decades. For this, the system followed in institutions like IITs is very sound – the recommendation for faculty selection is made by a selection committee which is chaired by the Director. But the recommendations are accepted by the Chairman of the Board on behalf of the Board of Governors. However, an alternate method, which is seriously flawed, is also followed in many universities in India, in which the Vice Chancellor chairs the selection committee, as well as the Board of the University, thereby making the recommending and approving authority as the same. This must be corrected to ensure that the autonomy does not get misused.

There are many factors that impact autonomy, many of them not covered in this note. This note focused on two most important issues for autonomy: (1) the selection of the Chief Executive should be done by the HEI itself through transparent and well defined process that takes inputs from the stakeholders of HEI, and  (ii) funding of each HEI should be formula-based dependent on some important parameters like R&D output, number of students, etc. so the HEI is clear about what level of support to expect. If these two can be done, we can possibly see an unleashing of trapped energy in some of the HEIs which can take them to path of excellence and global ranking/standing.

 

Widen the Entrance Criteria in Higher Education Institutions

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It is well established that good quality higher education is the best way to open doors to a variety of opportunities – that is why world over students vie to get into the best universities and colleges. Due to this, while school education is meant to lay the foundation for a broad development of the individual, the single most important goal of school education becomes getting admission in a high quality higher education institutions (HEI).

Admission to our HEIs is based almost exclusively on performance in exams – class XII or entrance test. Most engineering institutes admit students through entrance test, though now class XII marks are also given weight, and most universities like Delhi University give admission based on class XII marks (though have some seats for sports etc). So, regardless of what educationists may like to see, students, parents, and teachers all eventually align to a single goal as outcome of school education – doing well in class XII exams and competitive entrance tests. As nothing else matters for achieving the important goal of getting into a high quality HEI, other aspects of development that the school education is supposed to provide, are mostly ignored.

As a result of  this exclusive focus on exams, a student who does innovative projects in schools demonstrating innate talent and interest for engineering is precisely the one who may not make it to the best engineering institutions as he/she “wasted” time doing these projects – time which could have been more optimally used in coaching classes. Similarly, a student who does internship in some company and writes a report on the economics of a sector – perhaps the ideal candidate for an economics program – may not be able to get into a good economics program as others who spent all the time preparing for exams get higher marks. Similarly, students who engage in school debates, participate in social work, sports, or other activities that can broaden their development and horizons, are often at a disadvantage for getting admitted to HEIs as compared to those who spend their time preparing for tests. This uni-focus on attaining high test scores also inevitably leads to shallow learning styles which maximize performance in tests but prevent deep understanding of subjects.

This focus on exams cannot be changed just by exhortation or changing the pattern of the exam or bemoaning the state of affairs. We have to squarely accept the fact that the most important goal for a student is indeed getting admission into best colleges, and if we want students to have wider development in schools, we have to widen the criteria for admission to include achievements and efforts outside tests.

One direct approach can be to assign some marks (say 20 out of 100) for achievement in other spheres while the remaining 80 can remain based on results of class XII and entrance test. With this, the problem reduces to developing sound procedures for assigning marks out of 20 for achievement in other spheres. This will be a challenge but not one that is unsurmountable – PG/MBA programs or public service exams routinely do this, by having an interview and assigning some weight to it.

IIIT-Delhi has been following another approach for the last few years for this. In IIIT-Delhi, for admission in BTech program, up to 10 bonus marks (on a base of 100) are given for achievements in various spheres, through a published criteria. For example, bonus marks are given to students who reach final stages of various Olympiads, participate in national school games, have Chess FIDE rating, get an award in the INSPIRE or IGNITE program, win prize in programming contests, have ministry of culture’s scholarship for talent, etc. The program was slow to start, but in the previous two batches, over 10% of the students admitted are ones who have received bonus marks.

We have also done some analysis of how these students perform in our Institute. As we had anticipated, the first year performance in the Institute of the students who had received bonus marks was significantly better than the performance of students without bonus marks (the average CGPA was higher by more than 1.) This clearly demonstrated that students with broader base are likely to be better prepared for higher education.

Most US universities, while giving a considerable weight to SAT scores and performance in high school, consider a host of other factors and achievements for admission. In fact, in top universities it is now known that just good grades and SAT scores are not sufficient, and students must show other achievements. This hugely motivates families to develop other aspects of a students’ personality – sports, culture, social work, volunteering, etc. If we start incorporating achievements and contributions in other spheres in admission to most of our top HEIs, we may also see an increase in motivation and drive to undertake such activities in school – this can only be good for our students and their development.

First Year of College may be Critical for Success

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Many faculty have observed that often performance of students in later years of a 4-year program is similar to the performance achieved in the first year. At IIIT-Delhi we did some analysis of student performance in the Institute in various years and relationship between them. IIIT-Delhi has a rigorous and demanding education program, as good as the best in the country, and taught by faculty with qualifications similar to those of faculty in established IITs. Its program, though somewhat different and more innovative than in older institutions, is similar to the programs in IITs and top universities across the world – it has a common first year program, core courses for the discipline done in a few semesters after the first year, and mostly electives in final few semesters. Therefore, I suspect the trends in our analysis may hold for other similar autonomous institutions which have high quality education.  Some interesting findings are:

  • Correlation between performance in first semester and second semester is over 0.8. In other words, for most students, performance in second semester is similar to the performance in the first semester.
  • The performance in an academic year is very strongly correlated with performance in the previous academic year – again correlation of more than 0.8. In other words, performance in 2nd year has a strong correlation with performance in 1st ,  3rd year performance is highly correlated with 2nd, and 4th year performance is highly correlated with the 3rd.

Before discussing what these correlations may mean, it should be emphasised that these are statistics – they apply in a general sense and not to an individual. An individual student’s record may not follow the above pattern at all – someone may have had a bad 1st semester/year (due to illness, lack of seriousness,…) who can do much better later. And someone who takes first year seriously and then slacks off, will find performance falling.

What do these mean for students in a general sense.   The data seems to suggest that the first semester and year can often be the most defining year of a students’ college education, and the performance in first year often reflects the level at which the student is likely to perform academically in the rest of his/her program. First year of the program is when the students are settling in their new life at a university/college with the freedom and responsibility that comes with it – a life very different from that in school which is far more structured and defined by the teachers, school discipline, uniform, parental oversight, etc. It seems that the students define their approach to college life and academics in the first year and often develop habits, discipline, and balance (or lack of it) which is likely to stay with them for the rest of the program.

As mentioned, while the data suggests this for most student, it need not apply to all students. If a student misses building the discipline and balance in the first year, but realises the folly of his/her ways later (say after a semester or a year), this data should be treated as a statistic that can be overcome – by putting the due effort for making up for the lack of effort in the first sem/year, or by repeating the first year, if the university allows. (In IIIT-Delhi students who do not pass some number of courses in the first year have to repeat the first year. In the past we have seen that there are some cases of students who have changed their behavior after repeating the year and have successfully completed the program with good CGPA.)

What does the data mean for academic institutions and administrators? One clear insight is that first semester (and the first year) can be extremely critical to a student’s success in the program. Therefore, to help students succeed in the program, it is important to provide good support to them in their first semester (year) – not just for academics but also for developing good habits and discipline. This implies that the systems we have for later year students, may not be well suited for students in their first year, who require closer monitoring and more support and counselling.

To conclude, data suggests that incoming students should be extra cautious and alert when starting their higher education program – while a student must explore new ideas, build new bonds, try new activities, pursue non-academic interests, engage in deep discussions in the canteen, etc, he/she must not lose sight of academics, as that is the primary purpose of entering a university. Students must develop sound habits and a good discipline and balance in their first year – the habits and discipline developed in first year is likely to persist through the rest of their program; laxity in the first year may make it harder to make up in later years.

And for Institutions the data clearly suggests that special measures must be taken to handle students in their first year – they are just transitioning from school to college and support must be provided so they can develop a proper balance and discipline to handle college life. (At IIIT-Delhi, a few years ago we started a one-week induction program for the new students where issues like this are discussed with them by counselors, senior students, and other professionals. And we have started a program of monitoring first year students more carefully in the key courses and provide extra support where needed.)

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