Extracurricular Technical Activities at IIT Bombay

The purpose of this article is to highlight the history of the technical activities going on in the institute and to offer the reader a perspective on the growth of these activities. The name of the body overlooking such activities has been changing. For want of a better word we use `Student Body for Technical Activities (SBTA) ‘ for them. There is a second group of technical activities which involve completion of large student projects, such as for instance the `satellite’ project, working under the guidance of expert faculty . These too have come into their own during the last decade. The two groups are loosely linked and have some common members. Very often people involved in technical activities organised by the SBTA go on to work for these projects. We confine our attention mainly to the former. The underlying philosophy for both is of course the same, which is for students to learn from interaction with peers, seniors, in addition to faculty and to make the process of learning enjoyable.

Why was SBTA started?

SBTA was started keeping in mind the following:
For a university to be great, there must be a strong component of learning that must be from peers; knowledge, specialized expertise etc. must be available in a distributed form outside faculty and therefore there must be strong and stable `interest groups’. Finally, the student population must, to a large extent, look after itself as far as intellectual
development is concerned.

Science and Play
Creative activity in science (here science is used generically to include maths) is driven by passion but is usually backed by a lot more effort and tedious preparation than cultural activities. It also has a harsher criterion of correctness than say, poetry. However, aesthetics for science is similar to that for arts.

Great work in science does not arise without strong preparation and equally importantly, without the scientist `playing’ in the sense of forgetting himself/herself and letting the unconscious processes of the mind take over. A fact generally not appreciated is that one can learn science through an iterative process, beginning only with a very imperfect knowledge of fundamentals, moving on to building mental models which are continually corrected while encountering contradictions. This is similar to language learning by a child, where the alphabet and grammar come last. Such a method can be used, for instance, to teach calculus to middle school students. Ofcourse, there would be a loss of rigour but there would also be the gain of insight and sophistication in terms of building analogies when the student encounters science subjects formally later in the standard school or college curriculum. The advantage of this approach is that the student finds the process of learning extremely interesting and can develop a lifelong passion for the subject. However, it is very difficult to do this through class room teaching. There is too little time and there are too few resources to handle individual student needs. Further, teaching science in the mass usually requires evaluation of students to prevent their skill level from falling to unacceptable levels. This requirement misleads the student into thinking that academics is about doing well in examinations and disturbs serious learning. Therefore we have to experiment with other techniques for inducing students to learn and to enjoy the process of learning.
The situation is much more optimistic if we look at the scenario outside classroom, particularly if students live in hostels or are stronglyconnected through, say, a `net group’. We have here a very large number of teachers, namely friends of a higher skill level than the particular student, who are approachable both physically and psychologically because he/she can identify with them and imitate them easily. If the skill is not associated with exams, speed and accuracy of computing etc., but more with involvement in an activity, it becomes attractive to acquire. It is the author’s belief, which has become firm during the last couple of decades but which is not shared by the student community, that practically every IIT student can be a good scientist if he/she has the motivation. Somehow passion for the subject should overcome the negative connotation of evaluation. But first the student has to be involved, spend a
lot of time getting familiar with the relevant material, and his/her mind must not treat this activity as `work’ but as play.

How is SBTA being run?

Over the years, faculty have encouraged participatory extracurricular technical activities in various ways. There is usually an ebb and flow and over a few years the activity falls to an unsustainably low level unless fresh efforts are put in by faculty. It is, on the other hand, relatively easy to sustain large sponsorship driven, carnival like events. The managerial talent is available and the event itself is a climactic peak towards which one strives. Such can be sustained without serious technical participation from students of the institute and also without faculty initiative.

Past failures compelled us to recognize the following:

1. For stability of the programme, the hostel must encourage such activities.
2. Students must run the programme. Faculty mentor’s role is primarily to advise during disagreements between groups of students. Further, the governing body must NOT be composed of`corporate type’ managers but by those who have been seriously involved in technical activities. These latter type of managers often are not very articulate and perhaps not very efficient. But they are themselves skilled and therefore are good role models. They are also taken seriously when they make suggestions about future directions.
3. Success should be measured NOT by how visible the activity is but by the number of students who ultimately regard involvement in technical activities as its own reward.

SBTA started informally in the late 90′s with seminars by first and second year students. Problem solving and sharing informally was encouraged. Excessive emphasis on attractive display was discouraged. (For instance, in the beginning, exposition contests would permit only chalk and board.) Then competitions began. Students naturally find competitions
attractive. The hope of course was that they would go beyond them after being involved for sometime. Winning competitions earned points for the hostel. This had the consequence that hostels did not look upon these efforts as self centred but as oriented towards community well being.

How is SBTA doing?

In spite of all precautions, SBTA nearly died a few years ago. One of the past Deans of Student Affairs cancelled all General Championships (GC) during his tenure but the next incumbent, upon request from the respective General Secretaries, allowed Cultural and Sports GCs to be revived. Because of the imbalance created, for a year technical extracurricular activites languished before Technical GC was revived. Happily, SBTA is certainly thriving now according to the `figure of merit’ of grassroot level student involvement. Last year, during summer, 35 student projects were completed by about 140 first year students. In every case, the project was under the supervision of a senior student. Details are available at http://stab-iitb.org/wiki/ECSP_Home , http://stab-iitb.org/wiki/WnCCSP_Home. Science and other technical club events now attract good crowds. The number of students who have mini labs in their rooms is probably twenty or thirty rather than a handful in the past (note that most rooms are shared now!). The group of students who are winning major awards even from outside bodies includes quite a few without a high (>8) CPI.

During the nearly four decades that the author has been associated with IITB as a faculty member, this is the first time that technical extracurricular activity in an organized way has survived continuously and has grown for more than three or four years. There is no doubt room for improvement. But the core of our manner of functioning appears to be
right. It is suggested that changes, which of course are inevitable, be made gradually. Otherwise it is far more likely that we will lose what we have, as indeed five years ago we nearly did.

Prof. H.Narayanan,
EE Dept,
Faculty Mentor for Student Body for Technical Activities