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Research - My Passage to India

- By Gordon K. Lee    

As engineering professor Gordon Lee found out on a recent recruiting trip abroad, the world has a lot to offer.

I decided to travel to India this past winter—more for the international flavor of R&D than any particular craving for curry. I visited several engineering schools during my journey so that I could recruit potential graduate students and discuss possible collaborations with the faculty. Advances in engineering, science, and technology are no longer exclusively American endeavors. And serious overseas recruiting trips like mine have become a necessity as we face an increasing demand for skilled engineers and the pending flood of retiring Sputnik-era engineers. Professors have to consider international students in order to remain on the cutting edge of technology.

But why India? While I visited just one of India's 28 states—Tamil Nadu—there are approximately 250 engineering colleges and universities in this region alone. These institutions graduate over 75,000 engineering students each year—a number that is comparable with the total engineering graduates in all of the United States. And while the number of engineering degrees conferred stateside continues to stagnate, they're growing at a healthy pace in India.

India is a land of contrasts. On the one hand, local regions remain impoverished and there are many challenges to improving the infrastructure of the country: Some of the streets and rivers are cluttered with litter; many people live in shacks and must carry water to their homes and bathe in the local rivers. On the other, the country is making large strides in research and academics. Manufacturing activities continue to grow in engineering, cotton, textiles, rayon, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, metals, rubber, sugar, plastics, paper, and steel. Software engineering is a major industry. New manufacturing plants and engineering laboratory buildings continue to rise. One engineering college I came across while driving through farmland, appeared to have sprouted surrealistically in the fields.

High technology and engineering is valued in India. Many of the engineering colleges I visited were building new laboratories, library facilities, and classrooms. And even though some of the equipment appears to be outdated—particularly the laboratories associated with large machinery—the students seem to find them adequate. Computer facilities contained the latest PCs, microcontroller hardware, and software support.

All the students and faculty that I met during my stay were optimistic about their country and its technical leap into the 21st century. Still, many students expressed interest in coming to the U.S. While this was exciting from a recruiting perspective, it is also an area of concern. Unlike many foreign countries where the majority of students return home after studying abroad, about 80 percent of the students who leave India for graduate school don't go back.

I left feeling that there is a lot to do. I continue to look for excellent international graduate students to work on research projects and fill our classrooms. But I've become more aware of the need to look for ways to help our international students build the economy and infrastructure of their native countries. As educators and mentors, sometimes we forget that we have a responsibility to be involved with more than just presenting course material or overseeing research projects. We must get to know our grad students, and encourage them to give back to their native land.

The multicultural history of the U.S.—which is the basis, in part, for our country's success—has worked itself into our national psyche. International collaborations support the U.S., and our success emanates from a core of multiculturalism. The same is true for India. The country's diversity makes it a resonant partner to our own success.

 

Gordon K. Lee is an associate dean and professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at San Diego State University. He is also a member of the ASEE Engineering Research Council. He may be reached at glee@asee.org.


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