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Engineering education in India has been plagued with the quantity v/s quality battle in recent years. The widening gap between the quality of education at the IIT’s, India’s premier engineering institution, which only produces a handful of the total number of engineers we see every year and other colleges is considered to be beyond doubt. Dr Swami Manohar and Dr V. Vinay, both engineers and academicians turned entrepreneurs, have decided to tackle this issue with their initiative, JED-i. JED-i offers a supplemental programme which works in tandem with college education and conducts the annual engineering project challenge, which gives final year students the opportunity to showcase their innovative engineering projects.
Acknowledging the relevance of the initiative and the efforts of the two academicians, Accel Partners made an investment into JED-i in 2012.
We caught up with Dr Swami Manohar and Dr Vishwanathan Vinay to understand how and where it all started. Excerpts:
YS: Hello, Dr Manohar and Dr Vinay. It's a pleasure talking to you about JED-i. Lets start from the beginning. Can you tell us about your impetus to start this programme?
Dr Manohar: Our own background was the impetus. Being teachers, it was most apparent to us that the quality of engineers in our country is deteriorating. The problem is with our education system, where all the focus is on the grades. And colleges don’t have the autonomy to decide for themselves, they merely follow the university. Engineering is about solving problems, building products. In the academic context, this joy is completely lost and we wanted to address that.
Dr Vinay: Few months into engineering colleges, most students loose interest in the subject. We want JED-i to be the answer to those students, whose passion for the subject and ability is often crumpled by the system which university imposes.
YS: Can you tell me a little about the college programme?
Dr Manohar: The programme is targeted at first year students. In the first year, the energy level and enthusiasm of the students is very high. That is when they are not yet colored by ‘specializations’ or afflicted by fatigue and dejection of the education system. The scope of engineering is very vast and it can’t be cramped in 4 years, which the current education system does. In that method, emphasis can never be understanding the concepts. That is what we are targeting to change. With our programme, we want students to discover the ‘joy of engineering’. And with concepts being at the centerstage, we are hoping to teach students to ‘think like an engineer’ so they can apply the knowledge they gain, innovatively and in any situation.
YS: Why was it important to collaborate with colleges?
Dr Manohar: Like I mentioned, the whole education system is corrupted. It is difficult to change the system without being part of it. Approaching colleges to introduce the programme was important for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was the best way to create awareness about the the programme and easy to gain traction. The students would also value a programme more when it comes recommended by the management of their colleges. Besides, it also gives us access to the college infrastructure.
YS: An efficient programme like JED-i would glorify the problems with the education system. How easy has it been then to find willing partners in colleges?
Dr Manohar: Yes, that is a challenge. But we have found colleges and management who are inclined to academics and facing the same constraints that we did as teachers. Colleges who aspire to do better are open to the programme. Besides, good quality of engineers from a college reflects well on their credentials. Colleges bank on success rate of their engineers for admissions.
The students may not, but the management has to appreciate the fact that colleges cater to majority of the students and realize that they owe more to the 10% odd minority who are not challenged enough by traditional educational methods. The programme is targeted at those students.
YS: How are the modules taught?
Dr Manohar: We teach engineering concepts through our technology innovation, thodios, a combination of thought and audio. Every concept is taught through multiple thodios and includes question to test the understanding of the concept. The thodios are available online, so the students can learn the concepts at their own pace and time.
And then we have the facilitators, about 2-3 per college, who are young enthusiastic engineers who we believe will have an ease of interacting with the students. We recruit and train them to conduct the physical sessions where students practice application of concepts.
We are also building a network of engineers, for enhanced interaction among peers, with participation by the facilitators, the Jed-i masters and industry experts.
YS: Lets talk about the engineering project competition. How did that come about?
Dr Vinay: The engineering project competition is also an extension of the same thought - share the joy of engineering. The competition is an opportunity for final year students to showcase their innovative and challenging projects. The thought stems from the same problem, the system. Most students get placed by their third year, making them lacklustre about their final year projects. We let the colleges decide which entries to submit, among which we shortlist about 50-60 to compete on the day of the event. Our competition is judged by industry experts and it is a great opportunity for students to get noticed. We are in the third year now, and we’ve seen tremendous response to this initiative.
YS: Lastly, Can we have some thoughts on your vision for JED-i?
JED-i: Currently, we offer our programme as supplemental to college curriculum. But in the next couple of years, we hope to penetrate deep into the system, enough to make a dent in the way engineering is taught in colleges. We are also offering it so far only to a few colleges in Bangalore. But we’re in talks with other colleges to expand the reach of our programme. Over time, we want to make our methods of teaching, a part of the curriculum, across engineering colleges in the country. And we want to continue to be involved in developing the content, so we are assured of the quality that we provide.
Passion and perseverance, seem to be the most necessary ingredients to accomplish the task undertaken by JED-i, both of which we see in them, in abundance. Together, with the support of Accel, JED-i can definitely dream about big changes they are hoping to bring about in engineering education in India. However, the mammoth task of fighting the entire education system, changing the rules of the game (where learning takes precedence over grades) and making the programme relevant to more and more students poses a huge challenge.
To know more about the challenges of a startup in the education space, you can read the YS research report here.
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