30 March, 2013

Student and Industry Collaboration to Solve Unsolved Problems

Back in January 2010, punetech.com had a simple contest : How can we improve students and industry collaboration on innovative projects?. For a long time now I have been passionate about quality of education and research done in colleges in India, to solve real world problems. So I submitted by ideas and my entry won a prize (along with 4 others). Following was the content of my entry:

Contest problem :
Assuming all statements in the blog post are correct, propose a plan to positively affect innovation.

My Proposal :
My proposal is simple and it involves :
+ Students : Students studying (voluntarily, not forced by parents) in any year of science and engineering.
+ Mr. Innovator : Engineer working in Industry who have deep expertize on a particular topic, have list of unsolved problems, innovative ideas, good communication skills.
+ Mrs. Academia : Professor teaching at the college, interested in more interaction with Industry.
+ Companies : Mr. Innovator’s employer. This company has lots of money and believes that applied research is one of way to increase profits.
+ Colleges : Colleges where students are studying. This college is believes that collaboration with Industry is good. 

Initially, companies and colleges non-critical role in this plan. So plan can be executed even without them. Following are the stages of the plan : 

1. Guest Lectures
Most important part of the proposal is great technical lectures by Mr. Innovator. Arrange guest lectures by Mr. Innovator at the college. Mr. Innovator will conduct this lectures, show demos, talk about interesting problems and ideas not found in the books.

2. Forming Team and Bonding
After one or more lectures, interested students and Mrs. Academia will meet Mr. Innovator. They will form a team, Mr. Innovator can pick best students and team will continue meeting for further discussions. Team will decide how they can work together.

For example : In case of a software program, Mr. Innovator may set up the project website and arrange infrastructure for students.
3. Funding (Optional)
Mr. Innovator’s employer (or Mr. Innovator himself) will pay decent remuneration to (Mr. Innovator), students and Mrs. Academia after producing useful output.
For example :
+ In case of innovative mechanical design, Mr. Innovator/company (whoever funds) will own the design and file for patent.
+ In case of software, copyright etc.

For achieving the scale, i.e. to encourage students to work hard, funding (financial incentive) will be important factor.

Ironically, the proposed plan to increase innovation is not at all innovative or ground breaking, because there is no silver bullet or ready made recipe to increase innovation (See reference). To increase industry-academia collaboration, people in academia and industry must become pro-active, collaborate, create win-win situations at different levels.

So this plan is combination is internship programs (like TechStart), summer project (Google SoC), industry sponsors contests, consultancy services offered by academia to industry. 

The plan has one new aspect i.e. Mr. Innovator spending time at campus, giving great lectures about things not covered in the books and forming a team.

Why do I mention this entry now in a blog post?. It is because recently I got an opportunity to play a role of Mr. Innovator at MIT Pune. On a mailing list I volunteered for conducting a workshop on OpenGL and Professor at MIT, CS department agreed.

It was my first time at MIT, Kothrud Campus and they are really good campus (grandiose architecture of some of the buildings and lots of trees) and hills in the backdrop. As expected it was exciting and challenging to talk in front of very bright students. I managed to explain most important concepts of OpenGL and wrote sample programs using GLUT.

If I guess the feedback from students, I think they were excited about the power of OpenGL concepts and 3D animations that could be created with it by them. Due to time constraints I could not cover light, colour and animation, but hope students will explore on their own.

Finally I challenged students to solve one of unsolved problems that I know of involving 3D animation and that is "Road modelling and traffic Simulation for Pune". Can we full to the scale 3D full model some Pune locality and simulate vehicle traffic on the roads etc.? Solving such real problems is likely to bring out lot of innovative application of existing technology.

Here is a nice letter I got from the department. Thank you very much.

I strongly recommend to all engineers, domain experts to get in touch with various engineering colleges in Pune region. Check with them if they are willing to participate in a collaborative effort, starting with guest lectures of topics of your expertize.
It is a fun and satisfying experience to share your knowledge with next generation of young engineers who hopefully will dare to solve difficult problems around us !