(S)elective System?

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It is fairly common knowledge that branches at IIT Bombay are more a function of JEE ranks than genuine student interest. Keeping this key factor in mind, and recognizing the need for an undergraduate education to impart one with a broad academic experience, a robust electives system is quite essential.

These were the basic principles that the Biswas committee had in mind when redesigning the curriculum in 2007. Back then, the BTech curriculum for most departments in the institute was fairly rigid and strait-jacketed. Most of the features of the system we have in place today, from compulsory institute electives, department electives and the dedicated minor slot (Slot 5) were introduced by this committee. New courses were introduced, and it was made easier for students to take up extra courses in departments they weren’t enrolled in.

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The next change came in 2013, when a fresh committee was instituted under Prof. Karandikar, tasked with suggesting further improvements to the system. Unlike the previous instance, the changes instituted were mostly cosmetic. The core nature of the elective systems was left unchanged, and a couple of courses were added to the curriculum. Biology was one of these. Making Data Interpretation a Department Core Course was another. Some reshuffling of the courses, such as moving Economics to the second year, was also done.

While the changes instituted by the Biswas committee were welcomed as important steps towards creating a more broad and flexible education curriculum, there are more nuances to be looked at. As mentioned above, it has been over 9 years since the changes were introduced, and further changes have been largely superficial. The curriculum is something that will and should naturally be dynamic – changing and adapting to the current requirements. Also important to gauge is the student sentiment.

Is the increased flexibility something that students actually use to broaden their horizons? Or are elective choices simply governed by grading statistics? We conducted a survey to get answers to some of these questions.

A sneak peek into department electives

Since the elective system is different from each department with respect to number of courses offered and their breadth, we also invited department specific feedback and suggestions. Here is a summary of this analysis :

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Aerospace: Two institute electives and four department electives. Flexible scheme – department electives can be chosen from a predefined bucket of department and relevant non-department courses.
Students speak: The core curriculum should be reduced while introducing a choice for more electives.
Instead of having ‘Dept’ and ‘Institute’ electives, just have ‘Electives’ which can be taken from any dept.

Civil: This department is comparatively flexible with six department electives which they have to choose from a common list of courses specified by the department.
Students speak: From this year onwards, civil department has increased credits by making some electives compulsory. These courses should be improved or removed from the core curriculum.

Chemical: Students are supposed to complete three department and two institute electives as a prerequisite to get their respective degrees, thus placing it almost in the middle in a chart containing departments with flexible academic curriculums.
Students speak: Students should be encouraged to take up institute electives in the second year (most of us aren’t aware of the electives till the third year), so that they can further do a research/study the course in detail if interested.

Chemistry: The new B.Sc curriculum includes three compulsory department electives and two institute electives and another HSS elective. For a dual M.Sc + B.Sc degree, four more department electives are to be covered in the fifth year.
Students speak: Too rigid a system. We should be allowed to take up relevant courses from other departments as department electives since the list offered to us is not enough.

Computer Science: Students need to do six department electives and two institute electives. Since professors feel that students should have the freedom to do a wide variety of courses as electives, students are free to take three of six department from any department they wish (including CS), while the other three may be chosen as any course offered by the department, or a course from a predefined whitelist.
Students speak: There should be more electives, lesser core curriculum while institute electives should be replaceable by dept electives. Taking electives in the second sem (institute electives) and in the second year could be a good idea, when you do not really know much about your department.

Electrical: Elec B. Tech students need to complete two Institute Electives, two Department Electives, and two Open Electives. However, there is even more flexibility. Students have the choice of doing BTP-II (12 credits) or two Department Electives (12 credits) in place of BTP-II. These Department Electives must be in addition to those listed above. And among the two dual degree specializations, CSP students don’t have any compulsory course that they’re supposed to do as a part of their dual degree, whereas microelectronics people are prescribed to do four such courses.
Students speak: The electives should be better grouped into specific sub-disciplines. There must be better guidance towards choosing electives from FacAds. Electives for DD should only be started after they have figured out a core area to work on, ie after their third year when most of their UG coursework is completed. One more possibility can be to altogether get rid of the core courses system.

Energy: Even after being a relatively new department, the electives system for ESE is among the most flexible ones in the whole UG curriculum, with nine department, two institute and two open electives respectively.
Students speak: Need more variety in the dept electives. Not enough choice in the present list of courses.

Engineering Physics: Students are allowed only one institute elective. The other one is replaced by an engineering elective which comprises of courses only from core engineering departments. Apart from these, there are four department electives and one Open elective. But, the number of courses available for electives for the dual degree students is so scarce that the name ‘elective’ remains quite titular only.
Students speak: The number of compulsory department electives for DDs should be decreased. More flexibility needed.

Mechanical: For the B.Tech degree, six department electives are prescribed from among a list of courses spanning mainly Mech, SysCon, IEOR and Energy departments. Apart from this, there are two institute electives that you can take from any department. Among the specialisations, CADA is the most flexible with a long list of courses to choose fifteen department electives from. CIM and TFE on the other hand are pretty rigid, CIM having thirteen department electives and TFE having ten with one institute elective.
Students speak: Most of the courses provided by the curriculum have stopped running and are not offered anymore. It would be helpful if these courses, such as the ones on Robotics, etc are encouraged more since the courses in mechanical right now, are pretty conventional and outdated. It would help if more courses on controls, robotics, mechatronics, etc are offered. More courses from the Systems and Controls department should also be allowed to be taken up as department electives.

MEMS: Among the most rigid electives systems in the institute when compared to other departments. Meta only offers their BTech students a single department elective, along with two institute electives. But the situation is even worse for dual degree students as they aren’t prescribed to complete even a single department elective as a part of their UG curriculum.
Students speak: MEMS requires a complete overhaul. The amount of electives offered is way too low, leading to an incredibly rigid curriculum.

MTechs/ MScs/PhDs

For postgraduate students, approximately 40-50% of credits consist of compulsory core courses and 40-60% are electives with about one-fourth of them comprising of institute electives. Now also within core, a few specialisations have choices and it varies across departments. But, conclusively it can be said that the academic curriculum for UGs may follow suit from the their PG counterparts as far as flexibility of the system is concerned.

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Comparison with electives systems in other IITs

To gauge whether there were interesting alternatives available to the system in place at IIT Bombay, we looked at the other IITs and their curriculum design.
While the basic structure in most of the top IITs is similar, some interesting differences do exist. The number of compulsory Humanities Courses required is generally higher than the usual 3 in IIT-B. Another variation is within the Minor system. While the system in IIT-B seems more robust and popular (in terms of no. of students availing it), several departments in other IITs have begun offering specialized minors. So for example, a student can pursue highly specific courses in a subfield within a department, and complete a minor in say Machine Learning, or Data Analysis, instead of Computer Science. This enables the student to build a more definite skillset, and could be a good option for those looking to build a particular profile.

One of the more radical concepts was that of the Dual Major. Unlike other IITs, IIT Kanpur allows students to convert to a Dual Major program at the end of their fourth semester. Under this, the student completes the compulsory requirements of two departments, and can then graduate with a B.Tech in both of them. While this is understandably hard due to the increased course load, certain changes like relaxing the credit requirement and allowing students to use elective courses for the other department courses help to make it more feasible. IIT Kharagpur is also trying to make interdisciplinary learning easier, and students can now pursue an MTech. in fields like Financial Engineering, Energy Engineering, Entrepreneurship.
Some IITs have also taken steps to ensure that students develop a more holistic approach towards learning. In order to improve learning beyond the classroom, IIT Delhi has now made it compulsory for students to complete an additional 15 non graded units for a BTech. These units can be completed by doing courses and seminars on topics such as Ethics, Communication and Language. A further 5 units need to be completed by doing design and practical exercises that include taking up research projects under professors, specialized courses dealing with practical engineering and design, and/or courses with an additional design component. The idea behind this component is to allow students to better develop practical skills.

Conclusion

While it’s easy to adopt a sceptical approach towards the electives system, it is pretty clear that the changes made in 2007 have had a largely positive impact. The general perception that students choose electives purely on grading statistics is something that may not be completely true, as the survey shows. Moreover, the institute seems to be working towards this – with the introduction of the W grade on transcripts last year (check). By their very nature though, the curriculum is something that demands constant reform, and 9 years on from the last major overhaul, it might be time to consider alternate systems such as those elucidated above.

Even though your plate may already be full with department and institute core courses, but one must keep in mind that elective courses form an integral part of the curriculum. Choosing some courses of interest to you may provide the needed panacea to complete those less interesting, but “required” courses. These electives help colleges and employers to learn more about your interests, abilities, and so forth. You can also use elective courses to give yourself samplings of various careers to consider as well.