India vs. USA
The K12 Engineering Education Podcast
India vs. USA
[Pius Wong] This is The K12 Engineering Education Podcast for September 26, 2016.
[Pius] I’m Pius Wong, your host today, together again with mechanical engineer Sadhan Sathyaseelan, who also develops engineering curricula for high school. Sadhan was educated in both India and the USA, and I wanted to ask him: How do you think engineering education in the US compares to the experience in India?
[Pius] What was your background in engineering education? How did you become an engineer?
[Sadhan] Hm, OK good question. I’m a science enthusiastic. I love science. Physics was my go-to. That’s what I loved.
[Pius] Even as a kid.
[Sadhan] Yeah. Since like early childhood to today. I loved physics, hands-on practical things. And I joined mechanical engineering, because that seemed to be the most related to physics, and then I joined Masters in Mechanical Engineering. But the education part did not actually come from engineering. It kind of came from other background that I have. Mostly it has to do with training people on, let’s say, teambuilding work. So I just love teaching people, and science is a passion for me. So I kind of came into engineering education.
[Pius] As a kid, did something draw you to mechanical engineering specifically, or was it just like, that’s a connection to physics, and that was it?
[Sadhan] Well, yeah, I mean, when you’re a kid you don’t know what mechanical engineering is. I didn’t know what engineering was until I finished…
[Pius] That sounds very similar to the US. So that’s something in common.
[Sadhan] Yeah. All engineers share, I guess.
[Pius] Would you say that’s true for other engineers in India?
[Sadhan] Yes. I wouldn’t generalize to everyone, but I would definitely generalize it to most of the population, yeah.
Part of the reason why I wanted to speak to you about this topic was that we know from a lot of research, as you know, a lot of the STEM graduates, or a lot of the STEM professionals who came out of the US education system, half od them come from outside the US. There are a lot of foreign-born engineers here.
[Sadhan] That I totally agree.
[Pius] Yeah, in fact most of them are Chinese or India, and I happen to be Chinese American, and you happen to be Indian.
[Sadhan] Indian, yeah.
[Pius] Indian Indian. It’s very interesting that you would say that even in India not all young people would know what engineering is.
[Sadhan] But you got to consider that for both these places, the population – you have to take the population into account. They both have more than a billion people in each country, and also one of the main setups for jobs, career is engineering. So it makes sense why so many people are in engineering even without knowing what it is, because it’s kind of just a way forward.
[Pius] So it sounded like even though you didn’t know what mechanical engineering was or maybe even what engineering was, specifically, you still knew that it was a way to make money. It was a way to…
[Pius] …progress in life.
[Pius] And I think, at least for me, I think that American kids kind of have that general sense, as well, but they don’t go pursue that education, and yet lots of Indians and Chinese and other people do. So in my head I’m wondering, what’s the difference?
[Sadhan] OK, so, this is the difference that I see. So when I started my Masters degree here, there were – during the orientation part, there was a huge hall, and more than seventy percent of the people there were Asians, from the East.
[Pius] Right. This was grad school.
[Sadhan] This was grad school, engineering grad school. And when I started grad school, we had our first meeting, when we had our get together, when you first start them, you see there’s very, very, very less number of Americans, themselves. And this is the reason why, I found out, the reason being: There’s a huge difference in the pay scale between jobs in the East and jobs in the US or any other Western region. There’s a huge difference in the pay scale, when it comes to engineering.
[Sadhan] Roughly, and Indian with his undergrad would make one tenth of what an engineer here would make as an undergrad.
[Sadhan] So one of the main reasons why most people from Asia that I think – India, at least – come here, is for better opportunity, you know, for a better career. And also they have much better schools here, grad school, and also undergrad to some extent. Here, an undergrad makes as much money, and if you have a Masters degree you pretty much make the same money, so there’s not much incentive in terms of monetary-wise for undergrads here to go for a Masters degree, unless you’re actually very passionate about the subject.
[Pius] So you’re specifically talking about grad school, by the way.
[Pius] So that’s interesting because the research says, at least for Indians studying in the US for STEM degrees, there are very, very few undergrads from India coming here, but there are lots and lots of grad students, and so what you say matches that fact.
[Sadhan] Yes. Yes.
[Pius] It’s a little bit different for Chinese people apparently, because now there’s this surge in Chinese undergraduates, not just in STEM, but all over. Part of that is because, I guess, China’s also – money’s a factor. China’s middle class is growing, and so they want to go out and get outside the pressure of going to Chinese universities.
[Pius] The US is an option. But it sounds like money is a driving factor in both those countries.
[Sadhan] Economy, yeah. I would say so.
[Pius] I would say here I saw exactly what you saw. You go to grad school and, yes, half my colleagues, or more than half, are definitely international students, and even in industry, you see a lot of people who were foreign-born. And they’re perfectly capable, great engineers, but you wonder why there are so few Americans around.
[Pius] But maybe money’s the issue. Would you say that if we paid Americans even more money as an engineer, that would attract more Americans to study engineering?
[Sadhan] I think for Americans specifically, the money that they make as an undergrad is more than enough compared to the rest of society, so I think the only drive from that point would be – It cannot be monetary alone. It has to be something more.
[Pius] What do you think some of those things are?
[Sadhan] Well the passion for the subject. That would be a huge incentive, and also I think a little more emphasis on entrepreneurship, where they’re not forced to a job that they do not like, like oil or anything.
[Pius] Right, right.
[Sadhan] That they do not what to do, but they’re forced to do it because that’s where the money is. If you give them a different choice, OK you don’t have to do that, spend a couple more years, get a Masters degree, and you can do these huge, open up something else – would be an amazing…
[Pius] So what’s interesting is you used to TA a class for the university for undergraduate engineering students.
[Pius] And you saw first-hand…
[Sadhan] Yup. That’s where this is coming from.
[Pius] …that a lot of students were just studying engineering in some field that maybe they maybe didn’t want to go because it made money.
[Sadhan] I mean, that’s the job they could get, and they took it.
[Pius] What parts of your education in India do you think would translate well to the US?
[Sadhan] That wouldn’t be in engineering. That wouldn’t be in engineering schools.
[Sadhan] That would be in the middle school, high school level.
[Sadhan] That’s where it would be.
[Pius] What did you experience in your middle school levels that…
[Sadhan] Education’s just a lot more intense there, compared to what I see here. Here I know people who chose not to do physics when they were like in high school.
[Pius] Yeah, in some states, like in Texas the subjects are not required.
[Sadhan] I personally think that’s ridiculous. That’s one reason maybe why we don’t have enough engineers here.
[Sadhan] But I don’t see why they should have a choice at least until finish high school, and then they can choose what they want. Because some subjects need to be taught in a composite education.
[Pius] And you would say that’s true even if you don’t become an engineer.
[Sadhan] Yes. I personally think that everyone should learn physics until they finish high school. Physics, chemistry, math. Biology or computer science, any of that. A combination of that. That’s being scientifically literate, pretty much.
[Pius] And I know you have a lot of friends who are still in India, and they are engineers. They work in IT now. You had told me before.
[Pius] Is that the trend? I mean where do Indian engineers end up working?
[Sadhan] Mostly IT. Very similar to here, there is, like, a hierarchy of school. There’s like the top hierarchy universities, and then there’s middle universities, and there’s bad universities. Except the bad ones are really, really, really, really bad, and the good ones are really, really, really good. The gap is huge, unlike American universities. Here I don’t see that much of a gap in the quality of education. There is a gap, definitely, but not as much as Indian universities. There’s at least ten times the magnitude in terms of the quality of education.
[Pius] And what do you mean by that? The people who graduate at these top tier schools, they get better jobs, they know more? Like what does that mean?
[Sadhan] They just have a more holistic education, because they have access to better teachers, that is the first point. Teachers who are actually professors, who actually are into engineering, versus professors or teachers who are teaching engineering because it’s a job for them. So it’s a juge difference between that.
[Sadhan] So there are literally professors – I’m doing double-quotes with my hands –
[Pius] Yeah. [laughs]
[Sadhan] Under no certain sense would I ever consider them professor when it comes to what they know, except the title.
[Pius] And then what aspects of the US education system that you’ve seen – because you’ve been in grad school here – what aspects of the US system are great?
[Sadhan] OK, this is like a great point, and this is one of the main reasons why a lot of people come here for higher education.
[Sadhan] Because here, professors treat you as an equal. It’s a huge deal. And they know what they’re talking about. They have been in the field, they learn it. It’s not just they’re – Maybe some people do it as a job, but for the most part it’s not just a job for them. They’re passionate about the subject, and they’re always at the edge of what’s happening in terms of research. They’re always researching new things. They’re always looking to expand their knowledge that they have, and also impart it on them.
[Pius] That is interesting, because since the US system is how it is, and money isn’t necessarily driving everything, the people who make it to the top of their schools and the professors – they really love what they do or they wouldn’t be there.
[Sadhan] Yes, it’s a cultural phenomenon compared to India.
[Pius] And I’m sure there are those professors in India as well…
[Pius] …but you’re saying there are probably a lot of lower-tier schools where it’s just a job.
[Sadhan] Yes. Where if you have an undergrad and you get your Masters degree in any Indian university, you can become a lecturer like [clap] that’s a job option you have.
[Pius] Then what other aspects of the Indian education system for engineering could be improved?
[Sadhan] So one thing I’m certain about is, you cannot completely change the education system, because there’s a lot of external factors that come into play, and one of the reasons why IT is such a huge industry is because of the economy it brings us, and also manufacturing. So you cannot just take them away, because when IT people employ engineers in India, they’re not really employing us for what engineering you know. It’s just about: can you learn programming? Pretty much that’s what it comes down to. So they have their own six to ten months of training before they put you on a project in the big IT companies. So that’s where you learn all the programming, so everything you have learned to that point is irrelevant.
[Pius] That’s interesting, because I’ve heard that being said about the engineering degree in the US, as well, that the engineering degree is becoming the new liberal arts degree.
[Pius] Because how the liberal arts degree used to be the generic degree that you would get to prove that you could learn, now engineering’s going to be that – I wonder if engineering is just going to be a badge of knowledge know.
[Sadhan] I think that’s what it is now. I mean that’s also the reason why people come here to do their Masters.
[Sadhan] So, yeah, I don’t think twenty minutes is enough to actually sit and discuss…
[Pius] No, no, of course not.
[Sadhan] …what’s different between -- these completely different cultures with different histories. What I do believe is usually the trend of Indian mindset is: They tend to follow – They’re being more Westernized. So in a way, the Western culture is leading the world, because people follow this, follow them. So I think it is the responsibility for the West to improve in anything that they can do, so that everyone can follow that. They need to be role models. That would be the perspective where I’m coming from.
[Pius] OK. That’s totally fair. One of the basic things that we teach in our own engineering curriculum that we put out to high schools is that benchmarking is super important.
[Sadhan] There you go. [laughs]
[Pius] And I think that today’s talk is kind of related to that.
[Pius] We want to see how everyone else teaches engineering, and we can hopefully pull the best stuff from everyone. Thanks, Sadhan.
[Sadhan] Thanks, Pius.
[Pius] We’ll talk again soon.
[Sadhan] Will do.
[Pius] So what do you think? If you’ve experienced engineering inside and outside the US, let us know your perspectives on all this. You can connect to this podcast on Facebook, iTunes, SoundCloud, and other media to send us a message. Check out the podcast website for all the links: www.k12engineering.net. If you’re on iTunes, I would love it if you rated and reviewed the podcast. Shoutout to Zack for giving the first one I saw. And if you’re on Reddit, check out the new subreddit, /engineeringeducation. Finally, if your colleagues would like these episodes, too, please let them know about the show.
[Pius] The views expressed in this podcast are our own, and they’re not necessarily the opinions of any schools, companies, or other groups with which we might be connected. Our opening music comes from “School Zone” by The Honorable Sleaze, and our closing music is from “Late for School” by Bleeptor. Both are used under Creative Commons Attribution Licenses. Thanks for listening, and please tune in again.