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Thursday, April 15, 2021

Calculated to backfire: Maths and physics can’t be optional for engineering entrance

The AICTE decision reflects misplaced concept of flexibility and deals a heavy blow to the engineering education system.

Written by S S Mantha , Ashok Thakur |
Updated: March 26, 2021 9:08:05 am
The writ of the AICTE does not run in the institutions of national importance like IITs, NITs and IISERs as they are created under separate “acts” of Parliament. (File)

The Approval Process Handbook released by the All India Council for Technical Education for the forthcoming year wherein it announced that physics and mathematics will no longer be compulsory subjects in classes X and XII for entry to engineering and other technical education programmes was a bombshell for academics and scientists all over the country and outside.

National Education Policy 2020 states that the highest priority must be given to mathematics at the pre-primary level and in some ways speaks of making mathematics mandatory at that level to achieve foundational literacy and numeracy skills. Mathematics develops our reasoning capability, helps us to cultivate analytical thinking, quickens our mind, and can be applied in day-to-day life. But what has actually happened is the reverse.

The provision of multiple choices of courses in the NEP has been perversely interpreted to mean and include core subjects like physics, mathematics, chemistry and other sciences, whereas it was only to be within electives — a complete misplaced concept of flexibility. A section of students may benefit from this but for the country as a whole it could prove to be the proverbial trojan horse.

Mathematics is one of the most distinguished disciplines which has a “continuum” of applications, from “zero to infinite”. At times, it “differentiates” between “chaos” and “stability” and sometimes it “integrates” different disciplines of knowledge. From basics to advanced concepts, mathematics finds use in all. If engineering is the body, mathematics and physics are its “atma”. There cannot be engineering without physics, chemistry and mathematics. No amount of “bridge” programmes that the Handbook talks about can fill the gap, if the student does not have sufficient mathematics or sciences background.

Ancient India made several important contributions through scholars like Aryabhata, Brahmagupta, Bhaskaracharya and Varahamihira. The decimal number system and the concept of zero was a gift to the world by Indian mathematicians. Trigonometry and modern definitions of sine and cosine were advanced in India. Mathematical marvels like the “Jantar Mantar” located in Jaipur, Ujjain, Mathura and Varanasi and the Konark temple are our heritage. The intermix of astronomy and mathematics in these is amazing. Could the engineers of those times have constructed them if they did not learn mathematics? Throughout the ages, emphasis on mathematics and sciences has been enormous in our society. Why do we want to junk this rare legacy and clear advantage?

Mathematics is indeed the mother of all science. In electrical engineering, circuit equations cannot be solved without the differential equations. Electromagnetic theory cannot be understood without calculus, triple integrals and integration over closed surfaces. Linear algebra is the heart of learning circuit theory and signal processing. In electronics engineering, one needs to understand the various mathematical concepts based on differential, integral calculus and complex numbers. In order to use the right material for a project, civil engineers measure the strength of the materials and apply chemical equations to judge strength. Engineering thermodynamics and heat transfer involve concepts of heat waves and gradients as explained by the Laplacian operator.

Divergence, geometrical concepts are needed for analysing shape factors. Logarithm of heat is used to determine the temperature driving force for heat transfer in flow systems like heat exchangers. Can forces and velocities be ever calculated without mathematics? Mechanical engineering uses geometry and algebra for CAD/CAM and rapid prototyping. If programmers are working on high-end technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence or blockchain technologies, they should have a strong foundation in mathematics and subjects such as statistics, calculus and probability besides computer science fundamentals.

What impact would this decision have on the quality of engineering education in general and on the JEE exam in particular? Students may stop studying maths and physics in schools since they will be assured an engineering education anyway. The importance of subjects themselves would plummet, for if the students of engineering do not study them who else would in future. It will reduce the pool of future scientists and engineers in the country, thereby adversely affecting research organisations like the DRDO, ISRO, BARC, TIFR.

Internationally, the credibility of Indian scientists and engineers will take a serious beating.

Fortunately, the writ of the AICTE does not run in the institutions of national importance like IITs, NITs and IISERs as they are created under separate “acts” of Parliament. Their respective councils must be on an overdrive to find ways and means to cushion themselves from the fallout of this disastrous decision, especially the IITs, which will never allow the JEE’s brand equity to be diluted in this fashion.

The reason behind making these subjects optional is not far to seek and seems to be more about commerce than education. Due to the shrinking of the economy, jobs have become few and far between, with the result that the number of seats in engineering colleges that are not getting filled in the last five years has been almost 40 per cent. During the academic year 2020-21 nearly 180 professional colleges, including engineering institutes, were shut down, probably the highest number of closures of technical institutions in the last nine years.

Considering the cost of setting up a typical engineering college at Rs 50 crore without the cost of land, the total amount of investment by these “edupreneurs” put together is a staggering amount and commensurate to that is their clout. An expanded base of intake will surely benefit them as also those aspiring to become doctors but could not, and who can now have a shot at engineering as well. Whereas this may ensure that the tills of the low-end engineering colleges are kept ringing, it is a sure way of tossing the nation’s age-old advantage in a robust scientific and engineering education system out of the window for ever.

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 26, 2021 under the title ‘An act of diminution’. SS Mantha is former chairman AICTE. Ashok Thakur is former secretary MHRD, GoI.

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