ES/HS 200 – an analysis and review

This is the first part of a series in which InsIghT delves into the curriculum, structure, and execution of various courses run across the institute. For this edition, we analyze the ES/HS 200 courses.

Credit to Sanket Dabade. Pic for representation purposes only.

The Supreme Court has mandated a compulsory environmental science course for science and engineering undergraduates. Among students, however, the ES/HS 200 course is not enthusiastically received despite its obvious importance. We decided to find out why, and whether the course actually meets its objectives. InsIghT spoke to Prof. Virendra Sethi (CESE), Prof. Siby George (HSS Department) and Prof. Rangan Banerjee (Dean R&D, Department of Energy Sciences) regarding the course objectives, the way it is currently run, and possible variations to the course.  All three professors were forthcoming with their opinions. (In addition to this article,  Professor Siby K. George of the HSS department who teaches the Philosophy section of the HS 200 course gave us an extensive interview. Please find the opinions shared therein by him on our website here. )

The course at present

The HS/ES 200 course is a compulsory course taught in two half-semester ES and HS courses. Both consist of 3 modules each taught by different professors- each professor has about 7 lectures. The ES module usually covers air pollution, water pollution and toxicity, and water purification. HS comprises of the economical, sociological and philosophical perspectives on the environment. The courses are mostly taught through fact-heavy slides, though some professors use documentaries and newspaper clippings. The ES professors often give assignments, some of which are unusual and interesting.

Student Reaction, Perception and Opinion

In the context of technological contributions to today’s environmental crises, this course has the potential to transform students into becoming the solutions to this problem. Sadly this crucial course faces a huge deal of student apathy, primarily because of  large class sizes and the fact that it is not a “traditional” engineering course. Also, in 7 lectures even the sincerest student can barely comprehend a particular professor’s area of teaching. However a few professors do manage to capture students’ attention, mostly with intriguing assignments and lively interaction. However, without constant feedback on even unusual assignments, students lose interest;  routine assignments are (as in every course) faithfully copied and pasted right at the deadline.

For students who have never been exposed to, or interested in ES and HS, the quickest way to pass the course is to mug – a recipe for an unpopular course. In terms of student expectations from the course, there is dichotomy in opinion. Some believe that it is sufficient to have an awareness course if it is hard-hitting enough to sensitise us, leaving the technical learning to us. Currently, however, most students exit the course unaffected, because, excluding a few modules, the content is mostly dry facts. Others believe that the course should teach us the basic technical information needed to become environmentally responsible engineers and scientists. They would prefer in-depth knowledge applicable to their own departments as opposed to the current awareness-oriented course. Students generally don’t know what to expect of the HSS portion, since we lack a background in these disciplines. This often means that students fail to even realise the importance of a humanities section for the course. HS 200 thus also sees a lot of apathy and a tendency to “mug” slides on the exam day. However, Prof George says, “there is a sizeable minority of very interested students in each batch. They question you in class and even after the class hour. There are some very environmentally conscious and concerned students in the Institute.”

A Dialogue with the Professors

We raised three main concerns with the professors- first,whether an awareness course or a technical course is a better model, secondly, their view on student apathy towards the course, and finally whether the modular version of the course is ideal.

Prof. Rangan Banerjee

The current structure of the ES course is completely awareness based, which in Prof Banerjee’s opinion, is redundant today, with such easily accessible information. On the other hand, Professor Sethi, who has been teaching one-third of the ES course for over a decade points out that seven lectures per professor makes in-depth analysis difficult. In this small time frame, he tailors his course to create enough awareness about general environmental issues — perhaps at the level of newspaper articles. When asked whether he believes this is enough for IIT undergraduates, he replies that currently, anyone interested in specializing can take a minor. We questioned them regarding the necessity of technical understanding for students who don’t wish to specialize in environmental studies, but would like to be responsible within their own fields. Prof. Banerjee felt that it is more important to empower engineers and scientists with the tools to analyze the environmental impact of their work, and that is essentially the material for undergraduate studies. He suggests,a department specific execution of the course to teach specific techniques of analysis applied in the students’ areas of specialization.

Prof. Virendra Sethi

While Professor Sethi agrees that it is department-specific knowledge is important, the current framework sees too many logistical obstacles – the lack of professors, infrastructure, and the inertia of the system towards change. Prof. Banerjee however, is confident that there are enough professors in each department both knowledgeable and concerned about environmental issues and how they relate to their department. Prof Sethi has further ideas on the range that this course can offer- without these time constraints, his primary goal for the course would be to literally change students’ graduate school choices to environmental science! He feels that a broad spectrum course like this is an ideal opportunity for students to discover real-life environmental problems. For example, the course can be combined with an NSS initiative helping villagers purify their polluted water sources.

Prof. Siby K George

Field trips and projects  bring students closer to real problems; they also ensure that student enthusiasm remains high. He thinks the logistical problems of department-specific courses can be combated with department-specific assignments (similar to an institute wide PG course HS 699). But he concludes that such change can only be brought about by student pressure- the ball is now in our court.
This article does not do justice to the extensive interview and the opinions shared therein by Professor Siby K. George of the HSS department, who teaches the Philosophy section of the HS 200 course. In this, he discusses at length what goes behind the structuring of his own course, and also the ideologies of the existence of the course. The transcript can be found on our website here.