Holistic and multi-disciplinary engineering education: why and how

Viraj Kumar, Guest Lecturer, Department of CSA, IISc Bengaluru

The National Education Policy (NEP 2020) states the following (pg. 36, emphasis added):

11.3 A holistic and multidisciplinary education would aim to develop all capacities of human beings - intellectual, aesthetic, social, physical, emotional, and moral, in an integrated manner. Such an education will help develop well-rounded individuals that possess critical 21st century capacities in fields across the arts, humanities, languages, sciences, social sciences, and professional, technical, and vocational fields; an ethic of social engagement; soft skills, such as communication, discussion and debate; and rigorous specialization in a chosen field or fields. Such a holistic education shall be, in the long term, the approach
of all undergraduate programmes, including those in professional, technical, and vocational disciplines.

11.4 … Even engineering institutions, such as IITs, will move towards more holistic and multidisciplinary education with more arts and humanities.

These points succinctly describe what the Policy framers mean by “holistic and multidisciplinary education”. This article attempts to dispel the substantial confusion surrounding this term by examining NEP2020’s conception of and rationale for “holistic and multidisciplinary education”, taking the perspective of engineering education. At first glance, this policy point appears to be simultaneously seeking a substantial increase in breadth (“more arts and humanities”) while making no concessions in depth (“rigorous specialization in a chosen field”). This is clearly impossible, and hence must be understood as a call for greater breadth at some expense of depth.

This stance taken by NEP2020 is surprising and provokes the why question, because it is at odds with the prevailing trend in most institutions where there is an increasing emphasis on “day one job readiness”. In practical terms, this trend often entails trimming breadth in the curriculum for enhanced depth in the chosen specialization via an array of technical electives (including MOOCs), as well as additional time for projects and internships. One could argue that this trend is aligned with the demands of key stakeholders: industry recruiters, students and their parents, and the management of institutions. To understand the reason for NEP2020’s contradictory stance, it is worth making a finer distinction in one stakeholder category: (a) students at the time they are graduating, and (b) those same individuals a few years hence. Clearly, immediate job readiness is of great importance to individuals in category (a), but NEP2020 recognises that overfitting graduates to today’s jobs exposes them to great risks when they migrate to category (b), because it is clear that the nature of work is being rapidly disrupted by technological advances.

The members of the NEP Committee were by no means the first to recognise this risk and call for a greater emphasis on breadth. The 1964 Kothari Commission Report asks, “some study of science should become a part of all courses in the humanities and social sciences at the university stage, even as the teaching of science can be enriched by the inclusion of some elements of the humanities and social sciences”. In 1968, Dr Vikram Sarabhai delivered a Convocation Address at IIT Madras in which he presciently noted that “as the rate of innovation, of discovery and of everything else in the world gets faster and faster, so does the obsolescence of people and things become ever more acute” (emphasis added). More recently, the historian Yuval Noah Harari has discussed the possible rise of a “useless class” – a deliberately thought-and-action provoking term to highlight the plight of individuals whose carefully honed skill-sets suddenly lose their economic value as technology advances.

Thus, the appeal for greater breadth in NEP2020 is an appeal to provide graduates with greater exposure to diverse ways of thinking, which can in turn provide them with greater flexibility to adapt. While discussing these policy points, one of the members of the NEP Committee recalled the anecdote of Steve Jobs auditing a calligraphy class, which not only sensitized him more broadly to aesthetics (a dimension along which his company’s products would later stand out), but to the power of multiple perspectives.

Equally, NEP2020’s stance echoes the view taken in Yash Pal’s Report of “The Committee to Advise on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education” (2009), which recognizes the importance of breadth in advancing the state of human knowledge:

We have overlooked that new knowledge and new insights have often originated at the boundaries of disciplines ... Most instrumentalities of our education harm the potential of [the] human mind for creating and constructing new knowledge ... [O]ne could almost say that most serious problems of the world today arise from the fact that we are dominated by striations of expertise with deep chasms in between.

Most employers, too, recognise that graduates with a demonstrably wide range of skills are more likely to be better prepared to tackle complex problems while also understanding the needs, desires, and motivations of co-workers, clients, and the wider society. A holistic and multidisciplinary education seeks precisely these outcomes – strong written and oral communication skills, teamwork skills, ethical decision making, critical thinking, and the ability to apply knowledge in real world settings.

Historically, a broad-based education has been accessible primarily to elite members of society, while everyone else has either received no formal education, or education of an overtly utilitarian nature. For the present generation, our education system fails to provide even foundational literacy and numeracy – NEP2020 terms this a “learning crisis”. This crisis has only deepened in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even when education does provide the necessary foundations, it does not prepare graduates for an uncertain world buffeted by pandemics, climate change, and AI. Knowing that every graduate entering the job market today will look forward not only to several jobs, but also several careers during their working life, the need for a wider range of skills is evident.

A holistic and multidisciplinary education has the potential to provide graduates with a combination of transferable and uniquely human skills, to help them adapt and continuously learn to work in this challenging environment, but it is important to ask the critical question: how? Prof Yash Pal is obviously not suggesting that the goal of school and undergraduate education is to train young minds to solve problems that challenge professionals. Instead, we recognize that there are key elements of the process that professionals follow which young students can (and must) be exposed to. It is challenging to achieve this without blurring rigid “subject boundaries”. Perhaps such a view is surprising or even nonsensical to many of us with a strong discipline-specific education, but it is endorsed by erudite academicians in India and all over the world.

Let us turn our attention more specifically to Engineering education. Designing holistic and multidisciplinary Engineering education programmes is obviously not a simple matter of offering a set of unrelated courses, or even courses where some lectures examine a central theme from the perspective of one discipline and other lectures examine the same theme from the perspectives of other disciplines. Instead, we have several excellent previously-tried approaches that we can examine and learn from. Before discussing these, let us first articulate some key discipline-agnostic elements that seem absolutely necessary.

The first key element is fostering the ability to communicate clearly. Engineering graduates are increasingly tasked with solving broad, complex problems in teams, where each member brings certain expertise to the table. Each of these members must be able to communicate effectively not only with experts within their own discipline (using a rich and shared discipline-specific vocabulary), but with others on the team who do not possess this vocabulary. Language fluency is obviously an important sub-element, but so too are critical and analytic reasoning, partly because these skills can help individuals rapidly expand an initially narrow shared vocabulary and thereby communicate more effectively. Effective communication between humans
goes well beyond vocabulary, of course. It includes an understanding of diverse cultures, perceptiveness, and sensitivity to different perspectives. Thus, these are also key elements. Naturally, cooperation and collaboration are also key elements for effective teamwork.

Let us now discuss an approach that lies on the pathway towards holistic and multidisciplinary education and has an established pedigree in engineering education in India: the practice of integrated education in the IITs. It is worth pointing out that these institutions enjoy far greater resources and regulatory advantages than the vast majority of engineering institutions. Several policies of NEP 2020 seek to level the playing field in the latter category. The lack of resources will always be a challenge, and it will be necessary to find creative ways to maximize the resources that can be brought to bear to implement the approaches that we will discuss next.

In Breaking the Silo: Integrated Science Education in India, Anup Dhar, Tejaswini Niranjana, and K. Sridhar propose two models to ensure the necessary degree of integration for going beyond multidisciplinarity: the “soft integration model” and the “strong integration model”. We will expand on the core ideas of these two models. The “soft integration model” is an evolution of the traditional disciplinary-based structure that most institutions follow today, where students typically “major” in one discipline but are free to choose additional courses in other disciplines (possibly leading to a “minor”). The crucial difference is that a certain proportion of the curriculum – at the course-level or at the programme-level – must be reserved for “dialogue” between multiple disciplines and their respective methodologies. In the spirit of a true dialogue, the purpose must not be to overtly challenge multiple viewpoints and choose a “correct” one, but to help students recognise the promise and the value in
considering more than one viewpoint. These dialogues must include experts from each represented domain, and they can take several familiar forms – classroom discussions, seminars, workshops, etc. – but these cannot be isolated events. While this model is “pedagogy heavy”, it can be implemented with interdisciplinary projects of similar complexity to traditional engineering projects at the undergraduate level.

In contrast, the “strong integration model” is a substantial departure from the traditional disciplinary-based programme structure. Instead, programmes are defined by critical but sufficiently broad problem areas with a significant engineering component such as clean energy, or digital transformation, or smart cities. The fidelity is to the problem, not to one or a handful of disciplines. Indeed, relevant elements from any discipline that can help to understand and address the problem are fair game for inclusion in such programmes. Thus, a clean energy programme will probably include core courses in physics, renewable energy technologies, energy economics, as well as a host of electives that could be attuned to specific research and consultancy projects that the institution has strength in. Throughout, the search is for a solution, or a “better” solution according to a relevant metric, recognising that breakthroughs will often be interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary in nature. In contrast to the “pedagogy heavy” soft integration model, the strong integration model will tend to be more “research/ consultancy heavy”.

NEP2020 rejects a “one size fits all” approach by recognising the importance of institutional autonomy.

It does not even compel institutions to immediately develop and implement an approach to holistic and multidisciplinary education. Indeed, it is clear that among the vast majority of institutions that are presently operating within a discipline-specific framework, a substantial number lack the resources to develop a broader education model de novo. It therefore falls to leading institutions to experiment with feasible approaches that can be adopted by other institutions, and then refined over time as per
their specific institutional development plans.

Such feasible approaches models must include an aspect that NEP 2020 does not explicitly detail, but one that is extremely important: the need to train faculty for holistic and multidisciplinary education. An immediate challenge is the shortage of master faculty with sufficient expertise to adequately train other faculty. A greater concern is a substantial shift that is necessary in the present academic culture where interactions between faculty, between students and faculty, and between students is generally poor. It is immediately clear that both the “soft” and “strong” integration models discussed earlier are
unworkable in such an environment. We must recognize that changing this culture is likely to require conscious and sustained effort.

In conclusion, holistic and multidisciplinary education is a key pillar of NEP 2020. This article has provided answers to the questions of why and how. It now falls on leading Engineering institutions to attempt faithful implementations of these ideas, and to create models for other Engineering institutions to adopt. In the absence of such models, some institutions may pay mere lip-service to the idea, or they may develop flawed implementations based on a misunderstanding of the principles we have tried to articulate here. This concern is the key motivation behind the article.