NITR's Guiding Lamp : Prof. Alok Satapathy

NITR's Guiding Lamp : Prof. Alok Satapathy

As said by Daniel C.Dennet

There is no such thing as philosophy-free science, just science that has been conducted without any consideration of its underlying philosophical assumptions.

This was brought to life when Team Monday Morning caught up with Prof. Alok Satapathy, Professor of the Department of Mechanical Engineering of NIT Rourkela; Alok sir as compassionately called by his students over years. It was no wonder when he was adjudged as the Best Teacher owing to the affection of his students, which is proportional with the amount of warmth he reciprocates! Team MM congratulates him for getting the Best Teacher Award as well as for being the first Associate Dean (Academics) in NITR’s history. 

MM: Congratulations, Sir on receiving the Best Teacher Award! What was your immediate response on hearing the news?

AS: I knew that the Best Teacher award will be conferred on someone but I never thought that I will be on the list. My students love me a lot; however, getting the best teacher award was unexpected. I got phone calls while I was at home. As usual, I didn’t pick up the call from unknown numbers. Then on returning back to the institute, especially the younger professors were over-whelmed and came to congratulate me. So my immediate feeling was like that of receiving a Nobel Prize! My promotion to the post of a professor also did not give me as much happiness as receiving this award did.

However, according to me, the selection of best teacher should be based on one’s work, projects, research, teaching procedure, and outreach. But the way the selection was done this year, I feel ‘Most Popular Teacher’ might be the appropraite word for it.

This selection was primarily based on students’ feedback and that also matters a lot because when other positions such as the post of Deans or Professors are declared, students’ feedback is never taken into consideration.

MM: Many teachers fail to make students who lack interest secure good marks. However, it has been observed that you have been successful in influencing them to do well. What sets you apart from others? How do you manage to connect with a variety of students?

AS: Usually, to enhance the importance of the subjects and to make sure that students study seriously, professors tend to say that their particular subjects are tough and students need to be careful. On the other hand, I say that my subject is the easiest one in the entire curriculum, so everyone has the potential to get an ‘Ex’ grade. I keep saying that my subject is interesting and try to narrate stories and examples that students can relate to and remember well. There are many theorems and laws, and its very difficult for a student to remember them but if you connect it with a story or an anecdote, they comprehend it and remember for a longer time. 

MM: What is your ideal way of taking a class?

AS: As soon as I enter into the class, I don’t start teaching. I wait for 3-4 minutes and make eye-contact with almost every student in the classroom. Actually, this is called as open-eyed meditation. I think this practice should be followed by every professor and this will ensure that the class runs smoothly. I never teach for an hour in one go because I believe that one hour is a pretty long duration for students to concentrate! Even psychology says that no matter how interesting the topic or the speech is, average attention span is of only around 20 minutes. Hence, I keep adding humour and stories in between. I emphasize on students understanding the concepts and while I set the paper, I do it in such a way that if a student has listened in the class, he will be able to reproduce it in the paper. I never believe in difficult questions because tough questions are not going to help students in future, but understanding the basic concepts will. Basically, I believe in spirituality and apply them in my day-to-day life and in my class as well.

MM: What are the collective innovative methods of teaching and learning that you would like to be inculcated in the education system?

AS: Education system is perfectly fine. I think we, as professors are giving enough inputs to the students. But what we are not giving them is a dose of spirituality. Please don’t mix spirituality with religion. What is missing in our education system is an inter-personal relationship, soul to soul connection, student-teacher personal interaction. Humanitarian touch is missing from the education system, hence, we had to come up with the counselling services. We teach the students how to write papers, how to crack GRE, how to write good SOPs, how to get good recommendations and how to build vehicles, but what we are not teaching them is how to create healthy relationship among each other despite the competition. These things certainly won’t be there in books and that is the reason why teachers should teach them in the class.

MM: Is your approach towards Engineering more theoretical or research and industry based?

AS: It depends on the subjects. For example, when I teach Surface Engineering to the students, I use slides because the subject is descriptive in nature and there are so many pictures to be displayed. Mostly, my approach is research-based. The undergraduate students are learning only the basics of engineering. No one knows which industry, in particular, they are going to join but since our students have the finest brains, it will be easy for them as compared to others to cope up with the industrial needs. Yes, I understand that not everybody would be having a hardcore interest in research, but if they are exposed to the basic methods of research here, they will at least know how to prepare a proposal, or write an abstract, or present a research paper, and these things will help them even if they join an industry.

MM: What changes would you like to see in the teaching-learning process at NITR?

AS:  I think teachers should choose the approach of teaching depending on the type of subject. I don’t think powerpoint presentation can be used in subjects like Mathematics and Thermodynamics. I also believe that there should be a link between the practical and the theory sessions and we are slowly pouring that into the system. I think instead of doing final year projects, some students should get involved in making training kits. This will increase the laboratory strength and there will be a number of options to do experiments.

The main problem, especially with the Mechanical Engineering department is that the number of experiments available for the students is very less and that creates the disconnect. We do have the capacity to expand but the priority of most of the professors is to publish research papers. So no one pays attention to developing labs. Moreover, there is no incentive for teaching properly, we don’t even get promotion for teaching well. It was only this year that the Best Teacher Award came up, and this might inspire some teachers to teach well.

MM: What are the major differences that you noticed between teaching during your college days and now?

AS: In the 1990s, teaching was considered as the primary work of a teacher. The level of dedication and devotion of the teachers at that time were exemplary. When I joined, there were professors like Prof. T.N Subramanian, Prof. S.K Nanda and Prof. K.R Patel who were stalwarts; they didn’t have many projects and research papers in their hands, but they were excellent teachers. I was mentored by Prof. Subramanian and he literally taught me how to teach. This type of healthy relationships between the senior and junior professors is missing these days, not only in NIT, Rourkela but in the society as a whole. This is a general societal degradation. The respect, love, and affection for seniors and the attitude of willing to mentor the juniors has reduced greatly. It also happens in families nowadays and this really pains me. Though there were no Air Conditioners and exceptional infrastructure in olden times, the teaching was enjoyable.

MM: In a world of Massive Open Online Courses and humongous amount of knowledge and resources being available online, how do you see the role of a teacher in classroom change? Would you prefer using these mediums too?

AS: In previous times, students were completely dependent on the teacher’s effectiveness of transmitting knowledge and the library. But nowadays so many online resources are available.

If everything is available to the student on his laptop, why should he be forced to come to the class? He will attend the class only if he likes it. Hence, I don’t believe in the attendance system. If the student likes the teaching, he will definitely join the class. Therefore, the freedom of choosing whether to go to class or not should be solely given to the student himself.

But on the other hand, not all the students are mature enough. Hence, my advice is that they should attend classes and if they don’t find them useful, then they should go for online courses of their choice. Also, because there is a lot of availability of online courses, the primary objective of the teachers should be to make the students better human beings. I understand that the online courses are good and at times, they are even better than the classroom teaching but attending classes is also important. Now if there is no attendance, do you think students will not go to class just because they are not satisfied with the teaching? Many will actually misuse this facility.

MM: What is your stand on the current evaluation system of Indian Technical Institutes like the NITs and the IITs?

AS: I believe the examination system should be based on continuous evaluation. There should be more surprise tests and interaction based evaluation. The teacher will understand what areas the students are facing trouble in and this also helps the students to remain updated. Interaction based evaluation is one thing I am trying to implement. Projects and practical experience should be also included in the evaluation process.

MM: What is your opinion about the revised academic curriculum? How successful has it been in removing the grievances?

AS: The curriculum had been revised in 2017 for the UG students. The revision reduced the number of credits significantly, to provide students with time for self-study. The Open electives have been removed, considering that the allotments made for a lot of students forced them to study subjects that they didn’t connect with at all. Instead, we are trying to bring an element of electiveness in the professional subjects that are taught. Now students may be able to choose a few subjects from other branches which they feel will benefit them in the course of their career. The curriculum revision for the Master's programmes will be rolled out on the 20th of February. The changes have been made considering the best interests of the students; hence I believe they will be effective in removing the grievances to a major extent.

MM: You have been recently appointed as the Associate Dean (Academics) of the institute. What are your exact roles and responsibilities?

AS: Let me begin with the necessity of the inception of such a post. The Dean (Academics) originally had to cater to issues of students of all the courses (Bachelors, Masters and Doctorate) and programmes offered. It eventually led to overloading of his office and a decrease in efficiency as well. The role of an Associate Dean will be limited to catering to the needs of the Undergraduate and Postgraduate students only.

I have been in office for just a couple of months, and I have observed the long queues outside the Dean’s office. The queues have the same people every day with pending cases. My first priority would be to clear all these cases in the fastest manner possible, through a more efficient clerical system. The students have often complained about the apathy of the clerical staff and the haphazardness of the academic office. I am keen on addressing this grievance and making the academic office much more student friendly.

MM: As an Associate Dean, in your view, which all departments need academic curriculum review and improvement in terms of teaching methodologies, courses, and the staff?

AS: I cannot comment on individual departments. The teaching methodologies are the discretion of the department and teachers. However, some of the departments need an upgradation in terms of faculty-student ratio as well as the laboratory facilities. The authorities have identified it.

MM: With which institutes have NIT Rourkela signed MoUs till now? Which institutes are in the plan for the near future and can we also partner with international universities that will enhance student exchange programmes?

AS: I have come in touch with the administrative aspects of the Institute in the recent past only; hence I cannot enlist all the MoUs that the institute has signed. I am aware of an MoU with the Start-up Village of Kerala, which will enable the Start-Ups incubated in the TIIR to benefit from their programmes and facilities. In my opinion, the MoUs with the Universities are an indication of the outreach of an institute. Thus, I hope the institute is taking steps in those directions.

MM:  What is your opinion on having Adjunct faculty from industry background for short-term courses in NITR?

AS: Having Adjunct Faculty from industry is a beneficial practice followed in a lot of foreign universities and even a few Indian ones. The ideas of having them in our institute pose the following problems though:

  1. The industry professionals find it difficult to adapt to the environment of the institute and to adopt a suitable medium and mode of instruction the students are used to. The Academia of NITR also faces trouble while coping up with the style of instruction of the Industry professionals as the Industry-Academia relations in India have been quite strained in the past.
  2. The institutes have a restriction that professionals who teach in the institute have to be a M.Tech or Ph.D. degree holder.
  3. It’s cumbersome to find professionals in Rourkela due to its connectivity issues. Despite the above-mentioned hindrances, the Industry-academia relations need to be strengthened at some point and there has to be a beginning.

MM: How is the offline mode of feedback helpful? What if feedbacks were taken after the mid-semester so that the professors can anlyze the areas that need improvement and successfully implement them for the current batch? 

AS: Offline or Online, I believe a feedback is useful only if some action is taken on the basis of the feedback provided. Online or Offline mode of feedback doesn’t really make a difference unless a proper system is in place which allows the teacher to gauge what are the issues that plague the students. The subsequent actions taken by the teacher after the feedback is taken should also be considered.

The timing of the feedback definitely is an issue to be looked into. Even the authorities are considering taking the feedback in the middle of the session for precisely the same reasons you mentioned. Plans to implement it from the next session are already in place.

MM: What is your take on the process by which TA marks are awarded? 

AS: TA Marks stand for Teacher’s Assessment marks. Staying true to its meaning, I feel the teacher should be given some freedom at least in this respect. Declaring the criteria upon which the teacher is going to do the assessment helps the students. However, at times, the teacher simply assigns the marks upon the attentiveness or activeness in the class. At other times, they use more tangible modes of assessment like class tests and assignments. The mode of assessment should at least be at the discretion of the teacher, as generalizing everything often takes the uniqueness out of things. Despite this, I am of the opinion that declaring the TA marks beforehand is a sensible idea.

MM: You are one of the five faculty members involved in the administrative working of SCP. What is your opinion about the system and how do you plan to improve its performance?

AS: It’s indeed a matter of concern that around 100 students in the current first-year batch have had a backlog in three or more subjects and according to them they aren’t kindled with classroom teaching. SCP has a wide domain for its functioning.

Our primary motive is to instil positive demeanour among students who have just left their home and parents for a new city with altogether different lifestyle. Our aim is to arrange motivational speakers for explaining to them that these changes are phenomenal and every individual has to cope up with them in a healthy way and not to resort to alcohol or drugs. We want to aid this long-term illness via permanent solution rather than some temporary measures like medication with antidepressants.

We want to train our teachers, as well, and make them realize that they shouldn’t intentionally put the students in a panic situation and avoid man-made apprehensions. PhD and M.Tech students are more mature as compared to the undergraduates and many have already been catered with meditation and spiritual needs during the Research Scholar week.

MM: On a concluding note, what will be your message for our readers?

AS: The message that I want to give to teachers and students is to love and have affection towards everyone, at par. I think this simple message indeed solves all miseries around.

Prof. Alok Satpathy’s strategy to deal with problems is brilliantly unique and now we know the legit reason of him being awarded as The Best Teacher! The tete-a-tete ended with a challenge for us to make him lose temper which he proudly claims to not have lost in last 20 years! Team MM wishes him luck for his tenure as the Associate Dean!

Interview

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