Visit to IIT Gandhinagar and Sudhair Jain

During my visit to Ahmedabad, I was able to visit the visionary Vice Chancellor of IIT Gandhinagar, Sudhair Jain, and learn more about his very interesting campus and its programs. Sudhair was incredibly friendly to me – as I had just arrived without an appointment. Despite the sudden appearance, he warmly welcomed me and my colleague Alicia Contractor, and we discussed many of his new programs in detail in his office over tea.

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Sudhair has implemented a wonderful “Foundation Program” for incoming IIT students. The foundation program takes students fresh from their high-pressure high schools, and helps them both unlearn the frantic test-taking mentality that is endemic with IIT admissions, and to learn more about themselves, their context within the society of India, and the larger dimensions of knowledge – including arts, culture and sports.

I first learned about this program from my friends Brian Brophy (a theatre professor from Caltech) and Srini Reddy ( a music professor at IIT Gh). They together taught in the program a couple of years ago, and had students performing music, acting, and exploring the region around the IIT Gh campus.  As Srini described it, he would ask his students – “what do you think?” and “what do you feel about this?” and often would receive blank stares back. He joked that students often are under the impression that they are not supposed to think and feel – and the Foundations Program helps them do both.

The goals for the Foundations Program according to the web site include:

  • Values and Ethics: Focus on fostering a strong sense of ethical judgment and moral fortitude.
  • Creativity: Provide channels to exhibit and develop individual creativity by expressing themselves through art, craft, music, singing, media, dramatics, and other creative activities.
  • Leadership, Communication and Teamwork: Develop a culture of teamwork and group communication.
  • Social Awareness: Nurture a deeper understanding of the local and global world and our place in at as concerned citizens of the world.
  • Physical Activities & Sports: Engage students in sports and physical activity to ensure healthy physical and mental growth.

Sudhair described some new programs he is introducing that go beyond the Foundation program. This includes an IIT Gh Explorers Fellowship program, which gives students a small grant to visit at least “6 states in 6 weeks” – traveling inexpensively, using non-AC trains and busses to see the country of India in depth. Some of the students are able to visit many more states, and in the process they are able to become more aware of life across India to help them become more effective as leaders and as engineers.  In a blog posting from Manaal Bhombal, Sudhair Jain describes the goals of the program:

“The fellowship is not just to give students a taste of adventure, it is to engulf them with ground level realities of our country.” When asked about how would it help students in their engineering career, he said, “As an engineer, students should model their innovations around simplifying the travails of the less privileged.”

To provide further experiences for students, Sudhair is also working on a program where they would live in a village for the summer – not to be “saviours” but to just live and learn with the people in the village to understand their concerns and life. This is also helpful, according to Sudhair, for developing graduates who can then take their education and give back to India and understand the human dimensions of science and technology.

I noticed that the blue skies above IIT Gandhinagar portended good astronomy, and I suggested to Sudhair that he should consider developing his astronomy capabilities at IIT Gh – a project I might be interested in helping with!