Creating Makers of India Through STEM: In Conversation with Damayanti Bhattacharya, CEO, Maker Bhavan Foundation

17 Nov, 2022 18:58 IST|Sakshi Post
Engineering student at Tinkerers’ Lab. Inset : Damayanti Bhattacharya, CEO & Founder, Maker Bhavan Foundation (Source:MBF)

Nearly 1.5 million engineers from over 4,000 science and engineering colleges pass out every year in India and yet the ⅔ of them find it hard to get a job in the core field. The reason for the unemployability factor seems to be the outdated school and college education which shapes the student’s learning curve. Maker Bhavan Foundation (MBF) is making efforts to avert the looming skill crisis and modernising the STEM education in the country’s Institutes of Higher Education. Mohammed Rayees ur Rahim of Sakshi Post caught up with Damayanti Bhattacharya, CEO & Founder, Maker Bhavan Foundation to know more about its plans to democratise STEM education in India and how it is enabling engineering students to become lifelong learners.

1)     Where does India stand in terms of STEM education?

India is the third largest education system in the world with over 4,000 science and engineering colleges graduating 1.5 million engineers every year. Yet, most colleges are poorly equipped in terms of infrastructure and our education system is still based on lectures and textbooks taught largely still via the ‘chalk and talk’ method. We design examinations to test the retention of knowledge but not how to acquire new knowledge or apply knowledge to real-world problems. It is no wonder that students steeped in such an education system remain limited to rote learning of the “what has been” and seem unable to venture into a deeper understanding of “how” and “what if”.  Hence, 80% of our engineers are unemployable in the new knowledge economy, 95% are incapable of innovation and no higher education institution, not even an IIT features in the top 200 in the global universities ranking. These facts are well-known. What is urgently needed are steps to change the status quo.   

2)    What has the Maker Bhavan Foundation, MBF, done to democratise STEM education in India?

Our focus is first and foremost on modernising STEM education in India. To that end, we work with higher education science and engineering institutions, their faculty, and students, to make STEM education more relevant and responsive to the real-life needs of people and society. We do so by partnering with institutions to build top-notch maker spaces, supporting collaborative classrooms, and providing world-class equipment, resources, knowledge and implementation support of new methods of teaching and learning that can be integrated into existing curricula. Adopting these methods, we believe, will enable students to develop an innovative mindset, become skilled builders, learn to be effective communicators, develop leadership qualities and be constructive team members.

Our focus is on creating a broad-based impact on teachers’ and students’ attitudes, skills and habits, creation of opportunities for experimentation and a foundation on which innovation and entrepreneurship can develop.  We believe these educational methods are critical to developing at this juncture in India’s history as we seek to reap benefits, referred to as the population dividend, for which there is a finite window of a period that we have already entered.

3)    What is being done by MBF to bridge the disconnect between traditional academics and STEM projects?

Our Programmes are organised under 3 tracks --- engineering skills, creative skills and essential cognitive skills --- all with the goal of improving student learning outcomes. Our Interventions address both co-curricular experimental learning activities at our Tinkerers’ Labs as well as curricular interventions at our collaborative classrooms where faculty redesign existing courses by adopting project-based learning methodologies and teaching differently. The creative skills track encourages creativity, inventive mindset and innovation among students. At our Invention factory programme, to cite just one example, students learn how to invent, work with their hands to build and test a prototype, “pitch” it, write and file a U.S. patent application, and finally compete for prizes for the “Best Inventions. Our centre for Essential skills offers 10 world courses on essential cognitive, and soft skills including communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, and applied financial skills to prepare students for a seamless transition from classrooms to careers and set them up for success in work and in life. We focus equally on tier 1 as well as tier II institutions. For instance, our Learning Engineering through Activity Programme    (LEAP) is directed exclusively to Tier II colleges and exposes 1st and 2nd year B Tech students to designing and building prototypes that solve real-world problems.

4)    How well has this new concept of learning been received by the HEIs like IIT Bombay, BITS Pilani etc?

Most colleges have been extremely proactive and supportive. At IIT Bombay for instance, the first Tinkerers’ Lab was set up way back in 2014. Today, it is a basic resource for all student-driven tech activities on campus with 70% of the undergraduate population using the lab. A plethora of makerspaces has sprung up across the campus funded by multiple stakeholders. This is a welcome change and we see this as our ideas taking root and the beginning of a more broad-based change in the culture of teaching and learning within institutions.

5)    Would you like to share a few measurable outcomes from STEM students which got noticed at the national level?

Deep systemic changes take time. Bear in mind that learning outcomes like creativity and inventiveness are also not that easily quantifiable. But the fact that in 3 years notwithstanding the pandemic our student beneficiaries have filed 44 provisional patents both in USA and India should give you an indication. Now imagine if we could create a million makers for India by 2030? What could they do for India’s economy? Make-in-India can only happen with the creation of makers-from-India.

6)    Does MBF’s STEM project support students with ideating to prototype to pitch initiatives?

Yes, be it the Invention Factory Programme or the Viswakarma Award for engineering Innovation. For Vishwakarma Award 2022, the first prize winners were from a regional engineering college from Coimbatore that beat student teams from 3 IITs and two ISERs in the finals. Their innovation -  modifying our existing toilet which reduced the consumption of water by almost 50%!

7)    Does your future plan include introducing STEM to school students?

The government's Atal Tinkering Labs are already focusing on improving the quality of STEM education in schools. But what happens to these students when they reach college? We are currently focused exclusively on higher education as that one single point in the influence scale where we can create the most immediate and greatest impact.

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