OPINION | What we don’t teach in engineering college but ought to: Part 1

Sustainability has been a way of life in India for thousands of years. But in the engineering curriculum of today, we have stopped asking the right questions. Here’s what we aren’t teaching right.

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We do not do enough in our engineering curriculum to educate our students on sustainable engineering, writes Prof. Mahesh Panchagnula.

Growing up as a child, we would monthly ‘sell’ our used newspapers and old books into a system that recycles them into usable products paper bags, paper mache dolls, books for reuse, etc. A colleague of mine talks of his father riding a bicycle all his life, long after they had bought a home in Adyar.

These acts are not signs of lack of affluence where the added income was needed for the family’s subsistence -- but a way of life. Imagine a world where one is measured by the footprints left behind and not by the wealth left behind.

In such a world, the relevant questions would be, “Did I live my day, so I have added net value to the environment and not just depleted it for my use?”, “Should I go to a restaurant and dine out or should I get it delivered home which one is less harmful to the environment?” and more importantly, “Is this lifestyle sustainable for generations to come?”

These questions have become foreign to our thinking, where we seem to increasingly embrace the use-and-throw culture encouraged by mass-manufactured low-cost products.

SUSTAINABILITY AS A WAY OF LIFE

Sustainability has been a way of life in India for thousands of years. A sustainable way of life looks at not just generational closure on resource use, but also over several centuries.

Our systems were built taking this extreme long-term view of society where the benefits of the collective were placed before the individuals.

A classic example is the Kallanai dam on the Kaveri near Thanjavur.[1] This dam was built to prevent normal flooding from annual rainfall, but also to actually encourage once-in-a-decade flooding which brought fresh silt into the fields, at the cost of one crop. The silt then yielded dividends over the next several years.

Chitra Krishnan, who analysed this as part of her PhD dissertation at IIT Delhi, has suggested that this deliberate thinking was not beyond the capabilities of the Chola era engineers, since this thinking is and has always been central to our culture.

We need to bring this long-term view back into our engineering thinking and there is no better place to start than our curricula. We do not do enough in our engineering curriculum to educate our students on sustainable engineering or encourage sustainable living.

For example, how many of our students would know what happens to a plastic wrapper that they discarded in a dust bin? What is its fate for centuries?

Formal education about the long-term costs of our actions is crucial. The honourable Supreme Court[2] required that every curriculum include a mandatory course in Ecology and Environment, consuming about one or two credit hours.

This is not enough and not all good things need to be mandated by the highest court of the land. We can collectively identify the needs of an evolving society and include them in our curriculum. There is no more a crying need than a course (including a lab) on sustainable living and sustainable engineering.

WHY SUSTAINABILITY EDUCATION IS ESSENTIAL

Every engineering course taught should include some discussion on sustainable practices pertaining to that material. At the very least, a full-credit course discussing sustainable living and sustainable engineering is absolutely essential in every curriculum.

I would like to leave you with my thoughts on the core contents of this course.

In fact, firstly, the idea of ‘footprints left behind’ (FLB) needs to be taught and methodologies to quantify them need to be introduced.

Every student should, on his or her own, be able to assess the FLB cost of every simple act. For example, one should be able to quantify the greenhouse gas emitted as a result of driving a two-wheeler to go to a movie.

Secondly, the idea of circular economies economies that value end-to-end costing of goods and services needs to be (re-)introduced to our students. This thinking should permeate every discipline of engineering.

Thirdly and most importantly, a ‘lab’ component needs to be integrated into the curriculum where students are encouraged to live life sustainably for a day.

Credit and evaluation should be based on creating a record of their experience for posterity. These records of ‘a day lived sustainably’ (ADLS) should be shared across the country, so this becomes a national mass movement.

AICTE, UGC and other organizations have a key role to play in creating the platforms for sharing these experiences as well as to encourage students to participate.

Programmes like the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan can only be successful when we realize the costs of creating waste and living life sustainably! As teachers and guardians of a generation, let us become positive examples by first educating ourselves and then living life sustainably.

(This article is authored byProf. Mahesh Panchagnula, Dean (Alumni and Corporate Relations), IIT Madras. All views are personal.)

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