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BY THOMAS K. GROSE

Force Multiplier

A "human dynamo" trains the trainers in India.


UP CLOSE image of Krishna Vedula. Quote: There is a lot of raw material.When Krishna Vedula was hired as an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Case Western Reserve University in 1980, he asked his department head how best to succeed. "He was blunt. He just said, 'Bring in money,'" recalls Vedula. So Vedula successfully concentrated on research, developing an expertise in the powder processing of materials. He became a full professor in 1990 and went on to spend four years as head of the materials science and engineering department at Iowa State University, and eight years as dean at University of Massachusetts Lowell (UML), where he is now dean emeritus.

But Vedula always liked teaching, was good at it, and saw the need to ensure his students actually learned what they were supposed to. As both a department head and dean, Vedula stressed to his faculty the importance of teaching.

Now, he's heavily involved in a project that's entirely focused on engineering education - but this time back in his native country, India. He's executive director of the Indo-U.S. Collaboration for Engineering Education (IUCEE), which seeks to improve the teaching skills of Indian engineering instructors.

That's no easy or small task. India is a developing country of 1.2 billion people with a fast-growing tech-based economy. Math and science are revered in Indian culture, and engineering is considered a prestigious career. Hence, India graduates 600,000 engineers a year. While the Indian Institutes of Technology - and a handful of other top tech schools - have earned worldwide renown (Vedula himself is an IIT, Bombay, alumnus), they account for only a small fraction of those graduates. Most of the others are churned out by the country's 2,000 engineering colleges, many of which are hamstrung by poorly trained faculty and less-than-adequate facilities.

The result: too many graduates who, despite their math and science talents, often don't meet the needs of global, knowledge-based industries. "There is a lot of raw material," Vedula says, "but the processing is lacking."

So in 2007, when Vedula was asked by ASEE and the Indian Society for Technical Education to develop an Indo-American project, he quickly decided to focus on training Indian instructors. His big idea: to leverage the know-how of a relative few top U.S. engineering academics to train many Indian teachers. In 2008 and 2009, IUCEE brought over 50 American academics to Mysore, India, to conduct week long workshops. Around 1,100 Indian teachers from 200 colleges attended the tutorials, which used a "train the trainer" concept. The attendees returned to their campuses and trained colleagues in the teaching techniques they had learned, reaching some 6,000 instructors.

While there were some successes with that plan, this year the IUCEE is focusing on just 25 of the schools, but will draw participants from others. Each will host one American professor who will conduct a week long workshop. And each school will pay half the costs. Around 250 top-tier American professors have indicated a willingness to conduct the workshops. That's gratifying, Vedula says. "It's just amazing to see some of the best qualified people wanting to be involved."

That's largely due to Vedula, says Richard Felder, a professor emeritus of chemical engineering at North Carolina State University and a longtime proponent of effective teaching methods. Felder was involved in both Mysore workshops, and he praises Vedula "for having the nerve to conceptualize something so huge," then successfully organizing it and inspiring all involved with his energy and enthusiasm. Adds Felder: "He's a human dynamo."

Although Vedula, 64, is officially semiretired - he teaches two classes at UML - he's raised more than $2.5 million for IUCEE and is kept as busy as ever with its operational and fundraising needs. When he does have free time, he and his wife love to travel. And for fun, Vedula likes to clown around. Seriously. In 2008, he took a course in clowning, and he still occasionally puts on the full makeup to entertain at birthday parties. He always carries a pocketful of balloons for making balloon animals at speaking engagements. Vedula says: "It's a great icebreaker."

Thomas K. Grose is Prism's chief correspondent, based in the United Kingdom.

 

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