Hyderabad: It’s a hot June afternoon. Eight “scientists” frantically take readings on their satellite payload. Anxiety levels are running high as team members check and recheck the descent mechanism and ground control system. The countdown has already begun.
66 acres: IIIT-H campus is home to many inter-disciplinary research efforts. Bharath Sai / Mint
No, this is not the scene of a satellite launch by the Indian Space Research Organization. The “scientists” are students of the International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad, or IIIT-H. And they are working on a trial launch of Mission Gaganyaan, which in 2009 became the first and only Indian entry to CanSat—a prestigious competition that allows student teams to design, build and launch a miniature satellite.
The IIIT-H satellite eventually took off from Amarillo, Texas, US, on 13 June. The launch and landing were smooth. But something went wrong with the satellite’s communication system, and IIIT-H had to be content with the eighth position among 25 teams in the competition, sponsored by the US space agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or Nasa.
Team member Sudhir Gupta acknowledges IIIT-H’s role in the achievement. “It is the freedom and flexibility to opt for coursework and inter-disciplinary research right from undergraduate level that has helped us form a strong team from different engineering streams to participate in such an exciting international programme,” he says.
IIIT-H started in 1998 as an autonomous, self-supporting institute with initial backing from the Andhra Pradesh government. The institute aims to combine the “highest quality education with pioneering research that can make a significant difference to industry and society”, according to its website.
Key matters: Students at a computer laboratory in IIIT-H. Bharath Sai / Mint
IIIT-H’s curriculum offers students the flexibility to select courses and undertake projects. The curriculum consists of a diverse set of courses in information technology (IT), interdisciplinary IT research projects, day-to-day interaction with industry and even personality development courses.
“Every course has project works, and the first three semesters of our undergraduate programme have courses like computer and electronics workshops,” says P.J. Narayanan, dean (research and development) at IIIT-H.
“Here, students build software packages or small robots even before they learn about software or electronics. This gives the students the thrill of having built something. When they learn the theory later, they will have (a) better understanding,” Narayanan explains.
Focus on research
But what makes the faculty and students take up such projects?
“Empowerment of faculty and research centre heads with freedom to evolve innovative coursework and encourage innovative interdisciplinary research are some key factors that make IIIT-H attract not only talented faculty from across the globe, but also bright students from across the country,” says Amit Jain, head of the Power Systems Research Center at IIIT-H.
“This is what brought me to IIIT-H, leaving the stable and lucrative overseas academic positions that I was enjoying,” Jain says.
The research focus of the institute is not confined just to the labs. The institute encourages research from the prototype to a commercially viable scale in several areas in collaboration with industry, according to Jain. “Several leading industry players are attracted by the kind of research that is being taken up at our institute.”
The Power Systems Research Center, for instance, tied up with leading companies that include ABB, the world’s largest builder of electric grids, US conglomerate General Electric Co., Indian electric equipment maker Crompton Greaves Ltd, and the Electrical Research and Development Association.
Top company executives are also attracted by the innovative and interdisciplinary research activities at the institute and several of them have joined to pursue research at IIIT-H. The institute has also attracted some experienced faculty from leading technical institutes and engineering colleges to take up research.
Surrounded by many academic and research institutes such as the Hyderabad Central University, Indian School of Business and Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Development Banking, IIIT-H is spread over 66 acres on the outskirts of Hyderabad.
It is the only technical institute in the country under a not-for-profit public-private partnership between the Andhra Pradesh government, India’s main software industry lobby, the National Association of Software and Services Companies, or Nasscom, and some Indian IT companies.
“We have no management. We have just a governing council. The ultimate decision-making authority consists of 16 members, with Raj Reddy of Carnegie Mellon University, US, as its chairman. The council consists of distinguished academicians, industrialists and a couple of representatives of the Andhra Pradesh government,” says Narayanan.
Running its own show
Some of the members on the council include Tata Consultancy Services Ltd managing director S. Ramadorai, president of Nasscom Som Mittal, director of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras M.S. Ananth, associate director of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore, N. Balakrishnan, and managing director of I-Labs Ltd C. Srini Raju.
“We are not getting any government grants on an annual basis. We are not on the budget item on any government. We have to run our own show. However, apart from allotting the land and buildings, the Andhra Pradesh government did help this institute with some funds during the initial years and ensured that private firms came in to associate with us,” says Narayanan.
But not getting funds from the government or the private sector also turned in favour of the institute, says Jain.
Unlike the IITs, which are “literally micro-managed” by the ministry of human resource development, IIIT-H is completely free to do what it wants. That enables the institute to offer freedom and flexibility to faculty and students to take up innovative courses and research, he says.
Then how does the institute get funds?
“We work with several Central government agencies and ministries such as the ministry of HRD and ministry of communications and information technology on several research projects and we get funds for such projects,” says Narayanan.
The institute lays emphasis on research, whether it is at the undergraduate or the postgraduate level. In the engineering field in India, very few students stay back for postgraduation and research, Narayanan says.
The country produces some 300,000 engineering graduates every year in IT-related areas, but the number of doctoral graduates at India’s top 20 institutes does not exceed 125, according to Narayanan.
“This is going to be a major bottleneck in the growth of the country going forward in its ambitious journey towards becoming a real superpower. We are just doing the low-end service work. And we will be counted seriously only when we start providing solutions for others. For that, we badly need research-oriented courses in our technical institutes,” he says.
IIIT-H has designed a curriculum with a focus on research right from the undergraduate level, which the dean calls the institute’s unique selling proposition.
“Even our bachelor’s programme has a slightly different structure from comparable bachelor’s programmes in the country at IITs,” Narayanan says. “The goal is that even if one student wants to do research, he or she should be enabled to do it.”
Though the institute offers conventional bachelor of technology (BTech) programmes as well, it ensures that interested students can join research-oriented programmes after completing the first half of their four-year course.
For the last two years of the course, they will be working with a professor or a group on projects and emerge with expertise in areas such as databases, computer vision, language processing, digital and wireless communication and algorithms.
Nearly one-third of the undergraduates prefer to do research, Narayanan says.
IIIT-H has recently started a dual degree programme, which has turned out to be “the most sought-after premium course at the undergraduate level of our institute”, says Narayanan.
The dual degree programme is a five-year course consisting of four years of BTech and one year of research, after which students are awarded a master’s in science (CHK). The research thesis they submit is almost a mini doctoral work.
“Today morning, I have received an application from a conventional BTech second year student who wanted to switch over to the five-year dual degree programme,” he says. “This is the kind of flexibility that we offer to our students at the institute, which I don’t think is offered in any other institute in the country.”
According to Narayanan, companies that recruit from IIIT-H find the hires independent and able to find solutions when they come across problems.
The intake of IIIT-H is about 200 students in two programmes a year—computer science and engineering (CSE), and electronics and communication engineering (ECE).
Graduating with confidence
Typically, the intake of students in CSE is 150 and in ECE, 50. The institute has several postgraduate programmes, including a totally research-oriented master’s programme called MS by research, modelled after a similar programme offered at IIT Madras and IISc. IIIT-H also offers a conventional PhD programme, with seats for 65 students.
“The real strength of our institute today is that we have some 225 students currently doing MS by research, and we are going to have 225 research papers,” says Narayanan. Altogether, IIIT-H now has 275-300 research students.
Students are not in a hurry to leave the campus and seek jobs when they graduate, Narayanan says. They prefer to spend more time on research and have their thesis published in a publication with a global reputation.
“Today, we have the largest research groups in the country working in several areas of computer science such as human language technologies, machine translation, information extraction, natural language processing, speech recognition and computer vision,” Narayanan says.
Administrative expenses of IIIT-H are covered through tuition fees paid by students. It charges Rs70,000 a year from BTech students and some Rs1.25 lakh a year from MTech students. At least two-thirds of its total costs are met through tuition fees and the rest from research funding.
Besides a degree, students graduate with confidence. Few are bothered by the thought of finding jobs, says Avi Dullu, a third-year computer science student.
“This institute has given us the confidence levels that make us think of coming up with our own companies and offering employment opportunities to many,” Dullu says.