Volume 3 No.5 September-November 2000

Cover Story

Engineering Education in a Flux : The IIT Kanpur Story


India launched a massive program for planned development soon after becoming independent. Apart from shortage of material resources, the country faced acute shortage of technicians and graduate engineers. An ambitious program of expansion of technical education was undertaken to overcome this problem.

In 1947 when India became independent, there were 36 institutions for first degree engineering education, with an annual intake of about 2500 students [1]. In contrast, there were 416 institutions for undergraduate (UG) education in engineering in 1997 with an annual intake of 1,30,946 students [2]. These figures are indicative of the large expansion that has taken place in engineering education over the 50 years since gaining independence.

Expansion in higher technical education started in a major way during the second five-year plan (1956-1961). Of the 17 Regional Engineering Colleges in the country, 11 were established during 1959-1961 and 3 during 1963-1964. Another significant development during this period was the establishment of 5 Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) through an act of Parliament and declaring them to be institutions of national importance. The first IIT at Kharagpur was established earlier, in 1950. IITs at Kanpur, Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai were opened during 1959-1960. In addition, during the 1950s and 1960s many new engineering colleges were established and the premier institutions of pre-1947 period underwent major expansion.

Before 1947 engineering education in India trained students for basic and traditional industries of the time and for such government run organizations as those dealing with irrigation and power, public works, railways and roads. Engineering education was know-how oriented. It dealt a great deal with procedures and practices. The curriculum was by and large static. It fulfilled its objectives well.

This scenario changed with the ending of World War II. Great advances in Science and Technology (S&T) with far reaching consequences were initiated during the war period. After the war, global activity in S&T research and development took on unprecedented proportions. It was imperative for engineering education to change its orientation and adapt to the rapid changes taking place. Continual changes became a standard feature of engineering curricula. A change in emphasis from engineering practice to engineering science gradually set in. The developments in UG curriculum at IIT Kanpur (IIT-K) during its early years set the trend for developments in engineering education in the country.

The first UG batch of IIT Kanpur was admitted in 1960. Upto 1963 there was an ‘ad-hoc’ syllabus. The decade long Kanpur Indo-American Program (KIAP) of assistance and collaboration of 9 leading American institutions with IIT Kanpur started in 1962. In 1963, several faculty committees deliberated on the structure and details of a new UG curriculum, especially for the core years. The KIAP faculty participated in this exercise. The core program was designed over a period of about 6 months. It was implemented in the academic year 1963-1964. In 1964 the whole program was finalized and approved.

Significant Features of the IIT-K B.Tech Program

The following significant features of the B.Tech program designed in 1963-1964 were unique in India at that time:
1. A strong base in basic and engineering sciences and mathematics
2. A large humanities and social sciences content
3. Semester system of education
4. Continuous evaluation of students by their instructor
5. Evaluation in terms of grades rather than marks
6. Course-wise promotion
7. Early introduction of computer education

UG education was, perhaps, given the highest priority among all the academic activities of the institute. The quality of instruction was very high. The fact that all departments had strong post-graduate and research programs further added to the quality of UG education.

ASEE (1955) Report [3]

It appears that a document, which inspired the development of the unique IIT-K UG program, was the Report on Evaluation of Engineering Education, 1952-1955, of a committee appointed by the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE), [3]. We will refer to this report as ASEE Report from now on. We will briefly discuss the major recommendations of the report and note its impact on IIT-K curriculum. The ASEE Report states the following in its summary:

"Engineering education must contribute to the development of men who can face new and difficult engineering situations with imagination and competence. Meeting such situations invariably involves both professional and social responsibilities. The Committee considers that scientifically oriented engineering curricula are essential to achieve these ends and recommends the following means of implementation:

  1. A strengthening of work in the basic sciences, including mathematics, chemistry, and physics.

  2. The identification and inclusion of six engineering sciences, taught with full use of the basic sciences, as a common core of engineering curricula, although not necessarily composed of common courses.

  3. An integrated study of engineering analysis, design, and engineering systems for professional background, planned and carried out to stimulate creative and imaginative thinking, and making full use of the basic and engineering sciences.

  4. The inclusion of elective subjects to develop the special talents of individual students, to serve the varied needs of society, and to provide flexibility of opportunity for gifted students.

  5. A continuing, concentrated effort to strengthen and integrate work in the humanistic and social sciences into engineering programs.

  6. An insistence upon the development of a high level of performance in the oral, written and graphical communication of ideas.

  7. The encouragement of experiments in all areas of engineering education."

The ASEE Report recommended the following relative contents of different groups of subjects in the curriculum:

  1. Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS): about 20 percent.

  2. Mathematics and Basic Sciences: about 25 percent.

  3. Engineering Sciences (ESc): about 25 percent.

  4. Engineering Analysis, Design and Engineering Systems: about 25 percent.

  5. Electives in a) HSS, b) Basic Science, c) ESc, d) Research or Thesis, e) Engineering Analysis and Design, and f) Management: about 10 percent.

The emphasis in the ASEE Report on science based engineering curriculum and on humanities and social sciences is clear. The same emphasis is found in IIT-K curricula. The report emphasizes the importance of engineering graphics. It also says, "Shop courses and all other courses emphasizing practical work that tend to displace engineering science in the curriculum should be carefully scrutinized critically in the light of the instructional goals already discussed." It is worth noting that the ASEE Report identified the following six engineering sciences in which it recommended offering of courses.

  1. Mechanics of Solids (statics, dynamics and strength of materials)

  2. Fluid Mechanics

  3. Thermodynamics

  4. Transfer and Rate Mechanisms (heat, mass and momentum transfer)

  5. Electrical Theory (fields, circuits, and electronics)

  6. Nature and Properties of Materials (relating to particle and aggregate structure and properties)

The ASEE Report was followed by the report of a follow-up committee of ASEE. This committee came up with a detailed set of recommendations on the engineering sciences [7]. The first IIT- UG curriculum drew heavily from these recommendations.

The First IIT-K UG Curriculum (1964-1973) for B.Tech Degree

The B.Tech program was of 5 years duration. Admission to the program was after 11 years of school. Table 1 gives the number of courses in the program under different categories. Table 2 lists the ESc and TA courses in the program.

Table 1. Courses under different categories in the 1964 B.Tech program

Course type Phy Chm Math ESc TA** HSS Dept Total
No. of Courses 4 4 5 9 5 9 16-18 52-54
Approx. %* 7.5 7.5 9.4 17 9.4 17 30-34 100

(* Assuming equal weightage for courses, ** TA=Technical Arts)


Table 2. ESc and TA courses in the 1964 B.Tech syllabus

ESc Courses TA Courses
1. Mechanics of Solids
2. Thermodynamics
3. Theory and Design of Structures
4. Mechanics of Fluids
5. System Dynamics
6. Rate Processes
7. Nature and Properties of Materials
8. Electrical Science I
9. Electrical Science II
1. Graphics
2. Workshop Practice I
3. Workshop Practice II
4. Workshop Practice III
5. Measurements
6. Analog and Digital Computation


In 1965, the number of chemistry courses was reduced to 3. The number of ESc courses was reduced to 7 by replacing the courses on Mechanics of Fluids and Rate Processes by a new course called Rate Processes and Fluids, and by dropping the course on Theory and Design of Structures (which was not actually an ESc course). The three TA courses in Workshop Practice were replaced by two courses called Manufacturing Processes I and II. A new TA course called Introduction to Design was introduced. Furthermore the number of HSS courses was increased to 10.The ESc and TA courses in the stabilized (1965) program are given in Table 3. Table 4 gives the number of courses in different categories. B.Tech project was explicitly mentioned.

Table 3. ESc and TA courses in the 1965 B.Tech syllabus
ESc Courses TA Courses
1. Mechanics of Solids
2. Thermodynamics
3. Rate Processes and Fluids
4. System Dynamics
5. Nature and Properties of Materials
6. Electrical Science I
7. Electrical Science II
1. Graphics
2. Manufacturing Processes I
3. Manufacturing Processes II
4. Measurements
5. Analog & Digital Computation
6. Introduction to Design


Table 4. Courses under different categories in the 1965 B.Tech program

Course type Phy Chm Math ESc TA HSS Dept Total
No. of courses 4 3 5 7 6 10 16 + project 51 + project
Approx. %* 7.5 5.7 9.4 13.2 11.3 18.7 30.2+3.8 100

(* Assuming equal weightage for courses)
(Project weightage assumed to be equal to weightage of 2 courses)

The common core program and departmental program spanned 3 and 2 years, respectively. The common core comprised all the courses in Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Engineering Sciences and Technical Arts. HSS courses were, by and large, elective courses.

It is observed that, whereas content of Mathematics and Basic Sciences, and of HSS in the 1965 syllabus are in close agreement with ASEE Report, the Engineering Science content is significantly less than what ASEE Report prescribed. Furthermore the TA and professional course content is significantly higher than the 25 percent recommended in the Report. It should, however, be noted that the ASEE Report pertains to 4-year degree programs whereas the IIT-K program was a 5-year one. The number of ESc courses is, indeed, more than recommended in the ASEE Report though its percentage is only about 13. A point that becomes clear in this analysis is that the 5-year degree program had a distinct advantage over the 4-year program, in that adequate ESc and professional content could both be accommodated in it. We feel that a mere 25 percent content of professional courses in an engineering degree program, as prescribed in the ASEE Report is unsatisfactory. Another feature, which can be seen in the IIT-K program (as well as in the ASEE Report, but to a slightly lesser degree), is lack of flexibility. The common core is long. The courses in it, except for HSS courses, are compulsory. The only place where a student can exercise his choice is in professional offerings. Even here, most departments confined this freedom only to the final year of a student’s normal study. This inflexibility would be unacceptable today.

The 1964 and 1965 curricula recognized the importance of analog and digital computation by including a common core course in this area.

We also note the inclusion of a course on design principles, "Introduction to Engineering Design", in the common core part. This was an interesting course. It gave a broad idea of what engineering is about. There was scope for expression of creativity and innovative skills of students. It, however, was given up a decade or so later mainly because of the difficulty in finding faculty for it.

A comment on a course in measurements, both in the original (1964) and modified (1965) programs, is in order. It dealt with basic measurements of importance in electrical, mechanical, and civil engineering disciplines. The course lacked a common focus and was given up several years later. Even today, IIT-K syllabus does not have a basic, common core course in the science of measurements, data analysis and measurement techniques in different areas.

Integrated Master of Science Program

In 1971 IIT-K introduced a 5-year integrated Master of Science program in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics. Selection of students was through the Joint Entrance Examination as that for B.Tech programs. These students went through the common core program along with B.Tech students. Integrated M.Sc program still continues. Because of the unique curriculum, the graduates of these programs are highly valued. Since this article is limited to the UG engineering curriculum, we will not dwell on this program any further.

Reviews of IIT-K B.Tech Program

Three reviews of IIT-K B.Tech programs have taken place up till now. Presently the fourth review is under way. Table 5 gives the years in which the reviews took place and the names of the conveners of the review committees.

Table 5. Reviews of IIT-K B.Tech Programs

Convener of Review Committee Years Review No.
Prof. B. Prasada
(EE Dept)
1970-1972 1
Prof. H. S. Mani
(Phy. Dept)
1979-1981 2
Prof. V. Sundararajan
(ME Dept)
1990-1992 3
Prof. A. K. Mallik
(ME Dept)
1999-2000 4 (Ongoing)

The First Review (1970-1972)

A major problem addressed by the first review committee was the lack of flexibility in the existing curriculum. To overcome this problem a set of 3 elective courses at the core level, called core electives, and a further set of 4 elective courses, called open electives, were recommended. Core electives were to be chosen from the offerings under two categories, namely, engineering sciences (Group A courses) and basic sciences and mathematics (Group B courses). Open electives could be from any discipline, including HSS, the only requirement being that they should be from the declared list.

Another feature proposed was the so-called Pass-Credit Option. Courses credited under this category had to be passed for satisfying degree requirements. However, no grades would be awarded for passing; the grade sheet would merely list the courses taken under this option and indicate the pass/fail status. Since performance in these courses would not count in the calculation of the Cumulative Point Index (CPI) of the students, it was felt that to that extent this provision would reduce pressure on them. A total of five such courses could be taken. There were constraints on the types of courses admissible under this option.

The committee decided to preserve the earlier emphasis on HSS content.

Table 6. Number of courses under different categories
in the B. Tech program adopted in 1973

  Phy Chm Math ESc TA Core Elect Open Elect HSS Dept Total
Number 3 3 4 5 5 2** 4 8 16 50
Approx. %* 6 6 8 10 10 4 8 16 32 100

(* Assuming equal weightage of courses)
(** At least one core elective to be taken from Group B courses)

Table 6 gives the course content under different categories of the final accepted program. Table 7 lists the compulsory ESc and TA courses in the program. Table 8 lists the Group A and B courses.

Table 7. ESc and TA courses in the B.Tech Program
adopted in 1973 following the First Review
ESc Courses TA Courses
1. Thermodynamics
2. Mechanics of Solids
3. Electrical Science I
4. Electrical Science II
5. Material Science
1. Graphics
2. Introduction to Design
3. Manufacturing Processes I
4. Manufacturing Processes II
5. Principles of Computation


Table 8. Group A and B courses in the B.Tech program
adopted in 1973 following the First Review
Group A
(Engineering Sciences)
Group B
(Basic Sciences & Mathematics)
1. Analysis of Dynamic Systems
2. Chemical Processes
3. Computer Science
4. Dynamics
5. Transport Phenomena
1. Biochemistry
2. Perspectives in Earth Sciences
3. Perspectives in Life Sciences
4. Offerings in Chemistry
5. Offerings in Mathematics
6. Offerings in Physics

It is clear that the proposal had the right emphasis on different categories of courses, provided a reasonable amount of choice to the students and reduced pressure on them by the Pass Credit Option. These recommendations were accepted by the academic senate and became the curriculum for the period 1973-1981. An important development during this period was the starting, in 1976, of a ‘slow paced’ program for students with deficiency in background.

The Second Review (1979-1981)

The work of the Second Review Committee was, perhaps, the most difficult. This was because from 1981 the length of the B.Tech program became 4 years. This was as per the national policy for school and university education. Admission to the 4-year B.Tech program was after 12 years of school education. In the new curriculum after the second review, the length of the professional part remained more or less the same as earlier. The basic sciences and mathematics content was reduced by nearly 40 percent. HSS content came down by about 37 percent. The existing Pass Credit Option of up to 5 courses was retained.

There were three new initiatives taken by this committee. The first was introduction of a core elective course. The second was introduction of a ‘soft core’ consisting of two courses from a set of ‘soft core electives’, to be chosen by the students on the advice of their departments. The third was introduction of ‘streamed electives’. These were a set of 3 courses specified under any one of 4 streams, called streams a, b, c and d, representing, respectively, professional, management, liberal education and science orientations. Table 9 gives the number of courses under different categories in the approved program. Table 10 lists the ESc, TA, Core Elective and Soft Core Elective courses in the program.

Table 9. Number of courses in different categories in the B.Tech program
adopted in 1981 following the Second Review

  Phy Chm Math ESc TA CE* SCE* HSS SE* Dept. Total
Number 2 1 3 7 3 1 2 5 3 19 46
Approx.** 4.3 2.1 6.5 15.2 6.5 2.1 4.3 10.9 6.5 41.3 100

(* CE= Core Elective, SCE= Soft Core Elective, SE=Streamed Elective)
(** Assuming equal weightage of courses)


Table 10. ESc, TA, core and soft core electives in the B.Tech program
adopted in 1981 following the Second Review

ESc Courses (Compulsory) TA Courses (Compulsory)
1. Thermodynamics 2. Mechanics of Solids 3. Nature & Properties of Materials
4. Programming & Numerical Methods 5. Electrical Science I
6. Electrical Science II
7. Fluid Mechanics & Rate Processes
1. Graphics
2. Manufacturing Processes I
3. Manufacturing Processes II


Core Elective Courses Soft Core Courses
1. Energy 2. Ecology, Environment & Habitat 3. Principles of Lasers & Their Applications
4. Introducation to Atmoshperic Science 5. Physics of the Universe
6. Ordre & Chaos in the Universe 7. Modern Optics
8. History, Culture & Excitement & Relevance of Mathematics
9. Energy from the Wind 10. Photons, Molecules & Chemical Dynamics
11. Introduction to Engineering Design 12. Bio Systems 13. Similitude,
Modelling & Approximation 14. Basic Structures of Mathematics
15. History of Scientific ideas 16. History of Technolgy
1. Introduction to Modern Physics
2. Organic Chemistry
3. Linear Algebra & its Applications
4. Earth Science
5. Physical Chemistry
6. Probability & Statistics
7. Dynamics


In the operation of the new program it came to be realized that, though the idea of streamed electives was good, departments faced difficulty in assuring availability of faculty to teach the courses in the streams to which they had committed. Because of the same reason, the number of core electives that could be offered also got limited. Another problem was the rather high load on students. These problems were addressed in the next review.

The Third Review (1990-1992)

The Third Review gave some freedom to departments in defining their core programs. This was a radical departure from earlier curricula.This enabled reduction not only in the common compulsory core but also in the load on students in the core years. Furthermore, the maximum number of courses and units per semester were specified to ensure reasonable load. It is interesting to note that the reduction in load achieved was six courses, about the load of a normal semester!

It was realized that, with reduction in load, there was no reason to continue with the Pass Credit Option. It was, therefore, abolished.

Two sets of optional courses, one called Engineering Science Options (ESO) and the other Basic Science Options (BSO) were formulated. Students chose 4 courses from these sets as advised by their departments.

There were also 5 elective courses to be chosen by the students from any of the UG and PG courses, up to 2 of which would be as advised by their departments. The earlier ‘streamed elective’ scheme was abolished. In its place, with the aim of giving students a good introduction to a sub-discipline, the concept of ‘minor’ was introduced. As per this, the students were provided the facility to take a sequence of 3 courses, forming their minor, from a department outside their own, as their elective courses. There was no compulsion on departments to offer minors or for students to opt for a minor. It was totally voluntary. The earlier constraint on assured faculty availability for teaching courses in streamed electives was thus removed. However, the experience of the past several years has not been entirely satisfactory, both in terms of the number of available courses under this category and of the enthusiasm of students for such courses.

The number of TA courses was reduced to 2. This was achieved by replacing the earlier two courses in Manufacturing Processes by a single course, with a heavier weightage, and with almost the same practical content as in the earlier two courses combined, but with a significantly reduced lecture content. Table 11 gives the number of courses under different categories in the approved program. Table 12 lists the ESc, TA, ESO and BSO courses.

Table 11. Number of courses in different categories in the B.Tech program adopted in
1992 following the Third Reivew

  Phy Chem Math ESc TA ESO/BSO EC** HSS Dept Total
No. 2 1 3 2 2 4 5 4 17 40
Approx. %* 5 2.5 7.5 5 5 10 12.5 10 42.5 100
(* Assuming equal weightage of courses. ** EC = Elective Course)


Table 12. ESc, TA, ESO and BSO courses in the B.Tech program adopted in 1992
following the Third Review

ESc Courses (Compulsory) TA Courses (Compulsory)
1. Electrical Science
2. Fundamentals of Computing
1. Engineering Graphics
2. Introduction to Manufacturing Processes
ESO Courses BSO Courses
1. Thermodynamics
2. Mechanics of Solids
3. Dynamics
4. Earth Science
5. Introduction to Electrical Engineering
6. Fluid Mechanics and Rate Processes
7. Nature and Properties of Materials
8. Introduction to Manufacturing Science
9. Computational Methods in Engineering
1. Linear Algebra
2. Quantum Physics
3. Industrial Organic Chemistry
4. Physical Chemistry
5. Mathematical Statistics

Concluding Remarks

An attempt has been made here to give an overview of the development of undergraduate engineering curriculum at IIT-K over the past 40 years. An important feature of the curriculum has been its emphasis on engineering sciences. This feature has sustained over the years. In surveys IIT alumni have said that their careers have greatly benefitted from the ‘science based engineering base’ of the IIT curriculum [4]. Another unique feature of it was the importance given to humanities and social sciences. In the 5-year B.Tech program of the period 1964-1980, there were 8 to 10 HSS courses forming about 16 to19 per-cent of the curriculum. In the 4-year B.Tech program of the period 1981-2000, there were 4 to 5 HSS courses, forming about 10 to 11 percent of the curriculum. Additional HSS courses could, however, be taken under the elective course category. Among educators there is, by and large, a strong consensus that a good HSS content in the curriculum is necessary for a well-rounded engineering education [6]. We feel that the HSS content in the present curriculum is on the lower side.

The pressure on retaining the large part of the curriculum pertaining to professional (i.e., departmental) courses has been great. When the changeover took place from the 5-year to the 4-year program, there was hardly any reduction in the professional part. Thus, whereas the 5-year programs during 1964-1980 had 14 to 16 depart-mental courses, forming about 30 percent of the program, the current one has 15 depart- mental courses, not counting the project. Further, a few more, at least 2 or 3, depart-mental courses are taken by most under the elective course category. Consequently, the relative size of the professional part has gone up in the 4-year program. This has affected the broad-based nature of the program, which was its hall-mark.

Flexibility in the curriculum has increased and the choice available to students has broadened over the years. Though these are steps in the right direction, there have been problems in realizing the full potential of the curricula designed.

A question of interest is the overall lecture, tutorial, laboratory and project content in the B.Tech program. Though there are variations from one department to another, they are mainly confined to the laboratory content in the professional part. Table 13 gives reasonably representative data for most departments. It is seen that, in terms of time spent, lectures form 56.3 percent of the curriculum, whereas, considering relative weightage of time spent, lectures form 72 percent of the curriculum and laboratory only 12.2 percent. We feel that lecture (i.e., theory) content is on the higher and laboratory content on the lower sides.

Table 13. Lecture, tutorial, laboratory and project content in the
current B.Tech program

  Lec Tut Lab** Proj+ Total
Hrs of instruction/work 1568 518 532 168 2786
Appr % time 56.3 18.6 19.1 6.00 100
Appr % relative weightage * 72 11.9 12.2 3.9 100
* Assuming relative weightages of 1 hour spent in lecture, tutorial, lab and project to be, respectively, 1, 0.5, 0.5 and 0.5.
** Includes practical work in workshops, etc.
+ Estimated minimum. Actual work may be significantly higher than indicated.

Presently, the Fourth Review is under way. A preliminary report has been submitted to the academic senate. There are some new features in it such as a course in the second semester called Introduction to Profession and a course in Communication Skills. The science component is emphasized as earlier, though the sequencing of courses has been changed somewhat. HSS component remains more or less unchanged. The report has noted the earlier weakness in laboratory/practical work content and has taken steps to rectify the problem. Lecture/theory content is still as high as in the current program. It is premature to say what the final program will be.

Engineering education is passing through critical times. Most of the jobs at the present time in India are in the Information Technology area. This has resulted in a waning of interest in hardware related work among students. Attracting them to ‘hard-core engineering’ is proving to be difficult. At the same time, changes taking place in technology are so rapid that keeping pace with them through curricular changes has become challenging. There is a far greater emphasis now, on imparting to students, skills for life-long learning and on the need to make the curriculum broad and flexible to meet the greatly increased diversity of needs in the job market [5]. IIT-K is aware of the problems and has been striving to find solutions to them through its continual curricular changes.


  1. "Report of the University Education Commission (Dec. ’48 – Aug ’49), Vol. I. Second Reprint Edition 1983. Publication No. 1396, Ministry of Education and Culture, Government of India, New Delhi, 1983.

  2. "Technical Education in Independent India: 1947-1997". All India Council for Technical Education, New Delhi, 1999.

  3. "Report on Evaluation of Engineering Education, 1952-1955". American Society for Engineering Education, 1955."

  4. The IITs – As the Alumni View Them". Alka P. Srivastava and Naresh C. Mathur. Project Report: DST/EE/9139/PR-3, Department of Electrical Engineering, IIT Kanpur, Nov. 1994.

  5. Report on National Science Foundation Workshop: "Restructuring Engineering Education: A Focus on Change", Aug. 16, 1995. Division of Undergraduate Education, National Science Foundation, Arlington, USA.

  6. "The Humanities and Their Effect on Engineering Education". J. Ben O’Niel, Jr. IEEE Communications Magazine, Vol. 98, No. 12, pp. 30-35, 1990.

  7. "Report on Engineering Sciences, 1956-1958". Follow-up Committee (Adhoc) on evaluation of Engineering Education, American Society for Engineering Education, 1958.    

Department of Electrical Engineering

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