Volume 3 No.4                                                                                                                     July 2000

Curriculum Design - A General Perspective

Possession of relevant knowledge, creation of new knowledge, and the capacity for its application have become the determinants in the strength of a nation. Consequently, technical education has come to the centre stage and is today the most important agent for change and development.

Education is a dynamic phenomenon that must recognise the changes in the environment and respond to the growing demands and challenges. Engineering education is a large system and it is almost impossible to predict its behaviour over far too distant future since the system parameters show a high rate of change. In today's scenario, the technology is changing so rapidly that half-life of several disciplines has dwindled down to just a few years. Some of the other disciplines are fast appearing on the surface. Mobility of engineering professionals across the national boundaries has changed the demand-supply perspective and this may eventually force the educational planners to take a global view. Extrapolation of these and other expected inputs may permit us to predict the immediate future behaviour of the engineering education system but predictions over medium or long range are going to be difficult primarily because of the involvement of a large number of fuzzy parameters.

The design of a curriculum for such a dynamic system is a very challenging task. Further difficulties arise when the multifarious nature of engineering functions - each requiring differing skills, abilities and attitudes - are brought into consideration. The requirements for the R & D personnel and engineering teachers are going to be vastly different from those of designers and production engineers, or for those engaged in sales and maintenance. With such conflicting requirements, the options available are (i) design a curriculum which produces only one type of engineering graduates with somewhat common output functions, or (ii) design a curriculum which permits sufficient flexibility to permit choice of adequate number of courses to meet the desired career requirements of the student. Curriculum designers have time and again expressed that the second option is totally unsatisfactory because even with all the skills and expertise no curriculum designer can develop a curriculum which will meet the requirements of R & D, manufacturing as well as maintenance engineers. The need to develop innovative ability for R & D personnel is going to be vastly different from that for sales and maintenance. The country now has 776 AICTE approved degree level engineering and technological institutes with 223 government and 553 private sector institutions. Between them they produce 1,85,000 graduates in engineering and technology. Most of these institutions have played it safe by combining the two options and developing a curriculum which has certain weightage for all types of courses - HSS, Basic Sciences, Engineering Sciences, Design, Computer, Laboratory, Project and specialisation courses. What purpose will be served by such a curriculum?

All curricula require periodic review and institutions must have a permanent mechanism for identifying the curriculum requirements based on national needs and international trends. This is essential for developing a work-force which has gone through education and training to successfully tackle the challenges of technological advancements. Our education system has expanded considerably but we have still not developed a management system capable of incorporating such changes.

The first technical institution of a university rank was Ecole Polytechnic established in 1794 in Paris with the sole purpose of training the students about the technology and industrial practice of their days. This concept continued in most institutions until the beginning of the twentieth century. The approach stemmed from the assumption that during an engineer's life-time the technology would not change appreciably. With the use of computers in increasing range of applications in industry, offices and in homes, engineering has entered a new era of innovation and wealth creation. The social implications of this development are, however, yet beneath the threshold of our consciousness. Computer applications are becoming increasingly complex, especially in areas like artificial intelligence, neural networks, parallel processing etc. which simulate human behaviour and processes over wider ranges. One could speculate that information technology will make it increasingly difficult for Governments to tax citizens. Soon they may start treating citizens as customers rather than captive source of tax. Electronic fraud and electronic espionage may pose other challenges. Imagine dead telephones, blackouts, frozen transport system, disrupted banking, etc. just because of one wrong line of code through skilled intervention or malicious intent. The interface between machines and human beings will perhaps be the most exciting area of research in the years to come, for this will have the largest impact on future society.

In the first half of the twentieth century the engineering education was dominated by the HOW of things which was replaced in the latter half by the WHY. With advances in information processing and computer simulation, engineering education in the twentyfirst century will have to be dominated by WHY NOT and HOW BEST.

One recent expert survey predicts that the future engineers will require the following characteristics:

¨ Problem-solving skills

¨ Innovative and creative abilities

¨ Technical background and understanding of mathematics and basic sciences.

¨ Proficiency in analysis, synthesis, modelling & simulation

¨ Communication skills

¨ Capacity to learn and keep learning

¨ Ability for technological assessment, adaptation, up-gradation and transfer

¨ Capacity to work in interdisciplinary areas

The act of designing a new curriculum to provide at least some of the above characteristics in future engineers will obviously require taking positions on several issues. Some of the issues that are relevant to our kind of set-up are listed below.

¨ New knowledge systems are being created at a very rapid pace. Which of these should be included in the curriculum and what should be phased out ?

¨ Most real life problems are going to be interdisciplinary in nature. Therefore what basic knowledge should be taken as common denominator and imparted to students of all disciplines.

¨ How to develop expertise in the area of specialisation with good understanding of mathematics and basic sciences? Should specialisation be in narrow or broad areas?

¨ An engineer has almost 40 years of professional life and it is impossible to design a curriculum which will see him through his professional life. Therefore there is a need to imbibe the habit of self-learning. How should the curriculum be designed to impart this practice?

¨ Computer literacy and communication skills will be essential features in an engineer's life in the years to come. How can these be developed without putting additional burden on the curriculum?

¨ All engineers deal with human beings throughout their career. How much exposure is required for them in areas such as human relations, environment and society? · Scientists, social scientists and engineers have different approaches to problem-solving. Shouldn't engineers be exposed to these problem solving techniques? · Industry interaction is going to be essential for developing problem-solving skills and creative abilities. How can this interaction be made part of the curriculum?

¨ Our social constraints have forced us to put students of widely varying academic achievements to study together. Should the curriculum design be the same for all irrespective of their academic competence? · How should engineering be introduced to a fresher?

These and many such issues can be raised and each one of these will require taking a definite position before a curriculum can be evolved. Specialists will have widely differing opinions on most of these issues. Therefore the obvious question is how these issues will be decided and who will take the decision.. The only methodology that appears to be available to us is deductive methodology based on consensus. This can be arrived at through feedback from imparters, receivers and users.

Finally, I must add that a curriculum no matter how good it is, will not translate into academic excellence for the institute if the persons implementing it lack a passion for excellence and the infrastructure available is sub-standard.

G. K. Lal

Department of Mechanical Engineering

Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur

Kanpur - 208016

E.mail: gklal@iitk.ac.in