Coming Out of the Past: Time for Engineers to Work Alongside with Social Scientists

[To appear in May-June 2018 issue of IETE Technical Review]

Who is a good engineer? An engineer is trained to analyze, design, produce and maintain systems. What about leadership qualities, ability to effectively communicate and willingness to work in teams? These features also are what makes engineering profession. An engineering graduate is expected to have an integrated view of both scientific and engineering disciplines since most engineering programs are science based. When engineering graduates join in a management program, perhaps they further gain a holistic view of science, engineering and management opening up greater opportunities. A growing number of educationists acknowledge that having expertise in multiple disciplines, therefore, is a desirable trait but the actual practice belies this.

You will agree, I’m sure with the following fact. In today’s world, most of us tend to work in isolated domains with no cross-disciplinary awareness. We unwittingly enjoy innovating in our own specialized areas because of the sheer thrill we derive from such innovations. But what does it mean to be working in silos with utter disregard to other disciplines, exactly? Let us see.

It is common knowledge that the economies of major countries in the world are interwoven and are driven by research and innovations in materials science, genetics, computing, communications and other technologies. Technologies are a result of scientific innovations. As the new technologies are adopted by the populations, the social, cultural, economical, environmental and political implications on human societies are immense. Even foreign policy issues and international relations are critically influenced as we grapple with trade barriers, climate change, job creation, security and a host of other complex issues which are truly global in nature. To ensure that these developments do not negatively impact the human societies, we formulate policies and regulations. However, who are competent to make these policies and regulations?

It shouldn’t be surprising to know that scientists and technologists are barely exposed to humanities, social and legal sciences. And alas, it turns out unsurprisingly that policy makers, who are generally social scientists and legal experts, are often stupefied by the rapid technological advances which have become ubiquitous in our lives. So in reality here we are, in a closed world of our own domains of expertise. Writ large, this problem emanates from our inadequate educational system. The consequences of having experts with no holistic understanding are obvious – seemingly ill-formed policies and regulations that could seriously impact us in critical areas such as our work environments, personal and social lives.

The fundamental question experts in education need to examine is how to make technologists understand the issues that the policy makers grapple with? Can we design our engineering degree programs to provide more exposure to social sciences and humanities to the interested students? It is no accident that today we are living in a world where human societies are expecting the experts to provide solutions to the problems they face. If technologists are ignorant of social issues, if they cannot effectively communicate with the policy makers, we are bound to have bad policies and regulations to live with. Put simply, the need for intervention cannot be underplayed.

How, then, do we approach this problem? How can we develop the ability to look beyond the existing order? It appears that for breaking these barriers, higher educational institutes with a focus on training engineers and developing technologies should have stronger teaching and research activities in social sciences and humanities. Similarly, universities where there is a greater emphasis on social sciences and humanities should start science and engineering programs. This framework, promisingly, has a two-fold influential and durable impact. First, it will bring a synergy between technologists and social scientists. What’s more, it will lead us to the ultimate goal of producing scientists and engineers who are socially aware and work for the good of the society.

As hard as it may seem, but higher educational institutes should themselves take a lead here. For example, more recently, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) which is a top ranking university in India has announced a five year dual degree program where students study their core engineering in the first four years and in the final year specialize for their Master’s degree in one of the areas of social sciences and humanities such as sociology, foreign languages, computational linguistics, law and governance, economics, science policy, political science, media studies, regional development, international relations and so on. This experiment may look provocative because it runs counterintuitive to the way we predictably think about engineering education.

Our instinctive and undesirable myth is that social sciences and humanities need not be taught to engineering students. This inherent feature of our thinking is a result of pure cognitive bias. But yet I am optimistic that engineering education together with training in social sciences and humanities can bring into being graduates as competent in the engineering discipline as in the social science and humanities domain. This holistic approach has the potential to become the bellwether of future education as higher educational institutes cannot survive if they are averse to change and novelty. Hopefully, trained young scholars with such a broader outlook may eventually play a key role in good governance and policy making. We just need to give ourselves the chance to create a better future.

And now, do you agree with me? What are your thoughts?

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Abstracts are windows to your research article: What makes them good?

[To appear in Jan-Feb 2018 issue of IETE Technical Review]

With the proliferation of journals and the increasing number of research articles they publish in a given research area, getting researchers to read your journal article may pose a unique challenge to you as an author. We live in a world dominated by information content. Your article has to compete against many other articles which clutter the ability of the reader to pick up your article. It is more like window shopping. In a short span of time, the reader will make a quick decision either to read or disregard your article.

In one of my earlier editorials [1], I mentioned that the first contact that a reader makes with a research paper is through its title. Busy researchers often skim through only article titles. Writing good titles is, therefore, the first step to draw the attention of the reader. But what next ? How will you entice the reader to go through your full article? Here comes another important component of an article – the abstract.

Research papers in a good journal always carry an abstract because they are so invaluable to the reader to get a “feel” for the contents of the article even without reading it fully. Authors, therefore, have to pay special attention while writing the abstract of an article by including the most appropriate and relevant information.

When a reader scans through the abstract, what they are looking for is whether the work presented in the article will meet their need.  The reader will read the rest of the article only if this condition is fulfilled.  A poorly written abstract may arouse negative feelings about your article which can act as a stimulus forcing the reader to determine that the contents of the article are less aligned to her needs. Therefore, an abstract should effectively summarize the work presented in the article and provide the conclusive remarks to heighten the interest of the reader. Abstracts are certainly not like movie trailers whose purpose is to entice the viewers to buy a ticket and go to a movie. Unlike an abstract, movie trailers neither summarize the movie nor give away the ending.

Before your article is published, it invariably undergoes peer review. When a reviewer gets an email from the editor to review a manuscript, initially all that the reviewer can get access to is the abstract of the paper. A poorly written abstract may dissuade a good reviewer from accepting to review your paper. Getting critical and detailed reviews from active peer reviewers is essential for improving the quality of the article. Therefore, be aware of the potential negative consequences of a poorly written abstract.

A well written abstract shapes the perception of value a reader attaches to your article and the consequent decision to read. If you consider the following simple steps while preparing an abstract, it may enhance the chances of your paper being picked up for a serious reading.

  • State the objective clearly.
  • Indicate the scope and procedures briefly.
  • Include concise and principal conclusions.
  • Mention practical application of your findings if appropriate.
  • Be economical in the number of words you use in an abstract.
  • Do not cross the word limit set by the journal.
  • Always use simple English.
  • Do not cite references.
  • Include information based on only what is presented in the article.
  • When abbreviations are used, expand them at their first occurrence.
  • More importantly, prepare the abstract only after writing the entire article.

Happy writing and reading.

 

Reference:

  1. M.J. Kumar, “Making Your Research Paper Discoverable: Title Plays the Winning Trick”, IETE Technical Review, Vol.30 (5), pp.361-363, September-October 2013.

 

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Happiness and Technological Advances: Where are we heading?

(To appear in IETE Technical Review, Nov-Dec 2017 issue.)

Advances in technology have reinforced our belief that being comfortable, secure and rich make us happy which in turn means seeking as much pleasure with as little pain. The craving for pleasure and the aversion against pain is what makes matters worse. Let us look at some examples.

Today many think that the misery in the world is due to imperfect people i.e. some people are hardworking, healthy, law-abiding and virtuous and the others are the opposite and create problems in human societies. Instead of rectifying the flawed societal structures created by these inferior men, some might argue why not we replace the imperfect men by better ones with “desirable” traits, using for example genetic engineering. This perhaps will address the root cause of the problems to establish a better world.

As most of you know, what makes life precious for us is the reality that we are all mortals. However, new medical advances may let us live for longer than what we can do now. Audacious it may sound but a day is not too far off when artificial intelligence enabled robots do experiments, analyse the results and write a research paper. The cup you use for drinking coffee may record your taste and time preferences and store in a cloud computer. Our brain functions through electrical signals. With progress in neuroengineering, if we can tap these signals, our thoughts can control external devices with dexterity and delicate control. Outsourcing our intellectual and physical activities to an intelligent machine may just be a thought away.

We are too well aware that many technological tools, which are part of our lives, are software driven. Only less than one per-cent of global population can write software programs. More important, only a small fraction of human population develops different technologies with a profound effect on the rest of human society. The pace at which a few experts develop these new technologies and thrust into our lives hardly provides any opportunity for us to decide whether it is a desirable technology or not. This fast-paced technology driven life may lead us to a sense of well-being since it satisfies our bodily needs and leads to good feelings even if it is transitory.

In my childhood, I used to hear from my grandmother how difficult it was to travel from her village in Andhra Pradesh to Varanasi for a dip in holy Ganga. The family members were not sure if the person heading to Varanasi would ever return. The journey was treacherous and months long. If flying from a distant place to Varanasi was an available option, they would have been very happy. But today, we take all means of modern commuting for granted. It does not give us the same happiness and excitement that a person few centuries ago would have felt. This may not be all that surprising – after all, the thrill of possessing a telephone few decades ago has vanished now. Soon we get used to this new comfort zone and our excitement of being subjectively well decays exponentially driving us to look for another technological innovation to make us happy. Will this never-ending chase for newness and to master the world around us through technological advances lead us to happiness?

As newer technologies evolve, it seems that we are overemphasizing personal autonomy and control i.e. our ability to decide and pursue a course of action without any consideration for how it affects people and world around us. As our modern lives increasingly become too self-centered and selfish so does our sole focus on fulfilling our personal desires even if it is at odds with the well-being of others. This self-centeredness often leads to unhappiness since persistent thoughts of competition, aggression, envy, rage and hostility burden our minds. But how to get around it?  What will encourage people to improve their quality of life and be happy while their standard of living is subjectively better off as they sop up contemporary technologies?

Let us look at some alternative views on happiness. In India and in many other eastern cultures, people worship nature and they abhor the idea of conquering nature because they believe that humans are only a speck in the cosmos. Indian philosophers believed that one finds happiness within oneself when the individual is unattached to the external world. Hindu world view is that human actions should not alter the universal cosmic order. Hinduism assumes this world to be a harmonious system of living and non-living beings and it is essential to maintain this harmony. Buddhism advocates that our inability to integrate self with non-self is the cause of personal desires and selfishness. Sufi thinkers have pointed to the need of bringing a balance between the individual’s existence and the whole cosmos. To attain happiness, Confucianism exhorts on the need to include others such as family members, friends and beyond by dismantling the boundary of individuated self through self-discipline. Aristotle, too, argued that happiness arises through reason and not by an influence of external factors. It seems pretty straightforward from these philosophies that self-lessness and harmony alone will give us a meaning for our existence and the ultimate happiness.

Finally, at a time when there is a pressing need for building peaceful, sustainable and inclusive human societies, perhaps it is time for us in universities and higher educational institutes to remind and relook into the notions of happiness. It all begs the question: does happiness come through an emphasis on personal autonomy and technological innovations to master and control nature? Or is it a result of focussing on achieving a balance between self and the rest of the world so that we do not turn into pleasure seeking human animals but into those with a sense of sharing, love, compassion, empathy, relational care and respect to others.

Let me end by citing what Dalai Lama has said: ‘‘The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of happiness becomes’’.

Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar is a Professor (on-lien) at the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, India. He is the Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. He is the Editor-in-Chief of IETE Technical Review and an Editor of IEEE Journal of the Electron Devices Society.  He was an Editor of IEEE Transactions on Electron Devices from 2006 to 2015. He is a member of University Grants Commission and member (PT) of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. He has widely published in the area of Micro/Nanoelectronics and is known for his excellence in teaching.  More details about Dr. Kumar can be found at http://web.iitd.ac.in/~mamidala

Happiness-Technology- A pdf file of above article can be downloaded from clicking this link

 

 

 

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‘Learning is lifelong’

Click here to read this article in PDF format

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DD News Candid Conversation – Technology in Higher Education.

Candid Conversation with Prof. M. Jagadesh Kumar, Vice Chancellor, Jawaharlal Nehru University on Technology in Higher Education.

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‘Everything at JNU becomes news. Universities must be left alone… Let them do their work’

http://epaper.indianexpress.com/c/20402682
or
http://indianexpress.com/article/india/everything-at-jnu-becomes-news-universities-must-be-left-alone-let-them-do-their-work-4742097/

Indian-express-July-09-2017-page-13

Indian-express-July-09-2017-page-13

 

 

 

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Watch: Off Centre With Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar(JNU VC) CNN-News18

 

Off-center

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