The Amiable Guru: Professor Pradip Sarkar

The Amiable Guru: Professor Pradip Sarkar

K Aditya Animesh Mohanty | Aug 05, 2019

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If you are successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.

- Barack Obama

Team MM got in touch with Prof. Pradip Sarkar of Civil Engineering department to get insights into the mind of this great teacher. Below is his story from being a nervous individual to being the most favourite teacher of the NIT Rourkela students.

Monday Morning: What was your first reaction when you got the best teacher award?

Pradip Sarkar (PS): I was not expecting it, I even did not know about the procedure or anything related to it. The Dean Academics (Prof. Alok Satpathy) gave me a call and congratulated me, I didn't know why and hence asked him the reason. He didn't disclose it and said it has to be made official first. Then I got the mail from the Director, Prof. Animesh Biswas, and I was pleasantly surprised by the news. I feel very happy now.

MM: Students nowadays are not very keen on attending the classes, they attend it for the sake of TA marks or attendance issues rather than for learning. Why do you think such practice is prevalent among the students?

PS: From my experience of teaching, I have observed that Btech students are not mature enough like the Mtech ones. If a teacher stops taking attendance then the number of absentees in the class increases and that has a direct negative impact on the performance of the class. Many students waste their time by bunking the classes and doing useless things instead. So knowing this aspect, I think a teacher must be a little strict with the attendance so that the students can be guided down the right path. Another reason may be because many of the students at NIT Rourkela are not here by their choice, so they spent much of their 1st year for preparing again for JEE-Advanced, for that they require time and bunking theory classes becomes a viable option for them.

MM: Many students feel that the lecture is boring and they can better study the subject from the plethora of resources available to them from the internet and library. What are your views on that?

PS: I believe that the classroom helps impose a certain level of self-discipline required for studying a topic thoroughly. I will tell you my own experience regarding this, during my BTech days, I studied a topic called Steel-Design but it was the first and the last time that I had studied this course. It was neither there during my Mtech nor did I study it during my PhD. So I have completely lost touch with this particular topic. But now I have to solve questions from it for research purposes. For the last 5 years, I have been thinking that I will read this particular topic and gain mastery over it once again, but unfortunately, this never happened due to some reason or the other. So the message that I want to put out regarding studies is, we may plan many different things but it's difficult to put plans into action because of the absence of self-discipline and time management. Attending classes allows us the opportunity to develop the required self-discipline and along with it the skills required in time-management come automatically. One more advantage of attending classes is that the students can know which part to read and from where to read it. So attending classes will smoothen the process of learning for the students and make it less of a burden on them.

MM: Do you think the academic curriculum we presently follow in NIT Rourkela needs an upgrade to make the teaching-learning process better?

PS: Till last year I was on the committee which decided the academic curriculum. Many reputed faculties from IIT Kharagpur, IIT Madras and people from the industry were also called to the committee meeting. Any change that we make in the curricula for the students is subject to extensive deliberations where we discuss the positive and negative effects of such a change. Many students in the first year are unhappy with the curricula because they feel that they are studying subjects like Biology, C programming (for students of non-circuital branches), etc. But I want to tell the students that as an engineer tomorrow if they try to solve some problem, that particular problem will not be classified as only belonging to one field of engineering, it will invite ideas from many other branches of engineering too. Hence an engineer should have a basic idea about all the branches of engineering so that he/she can collaborate with others to find a working solution to the problem. And another reason is that the technology is changing very fast, today's new technology will turn obsolete tomorrow so how can an engineer keep up with the change if he/she is not acquainted with other branches of sciences?

MM: What is your approach to teaching? How do you connect with the students and ensure that whatever you teach reaches them properly?

PS: I try to reach out to individual students and help them in understanding the nuances of my subject. Having gone through the same stages as my students I know where and how a student might misunderstand the concept and get deviated from the core ideas, so many times I present a concept in a misleading manner and try to convince them that it's right. After they have been convinced I tell them it's wrong and how it's misleading and deviating from the core ideas. But all these methods cannot be applied to a large class. The ideal student strength should be about 50, beyond that it is difficult to ensure proper learning for every student. Even my teaching philosophy has changed from the time when I began teaching. Earlier I thought that there are some underlying concepts in the book which a student may not have understood and hence I tried to inform them and teach them about those concepts. But now I see it's a better strategy to let students discover those concepts by posing challenging problems to them about those concepts, I make them aware of the concept and let them discover how this concept is useful in solving the problems.

MM: You have done your Btech from IIEST Shibpur and then finally earned a PhD from IIT Madras. You also have had industrial experience in companies like Bechtel and Technip. Why did you change over to research and academic line from industry?

PS: I graduated in 1999 with a Btech degree from IIEST Shibpur, during that time the job scenario was not so encouraging for engineers. I joined the Bakreswar Thermal project as a quality assurance engineer. Then having realized that higher studies will provide me with better job opportunities I again applied for Mtech at IIEST Shibpur. After my masters, I joined IIT Madras for my PhD in structural engineering. Having completed my PhD. I joined Bechtel and was doing pretty well there, I was even awarded for my designs and the career seemed good. Then one day I got an offer from Fluor, one of Bechtel's biggest rivals in the construction market, I left Bechtel to join Fluor at their Vancouver office in Canada. But unfortunately, the recession of 2008 struck and my employer put me on hold for joining them, I had already left Bechtel and luckily got a job in Technip, another MNC. During my time in Technip, I went through many personal setbacks and wanted to work in a place close to my home. Still, during this time I was not confident that I would be able to do justice towards the teaching profession because of my lack of communication skills, but I applied in some of the academic institutes for the post of a professor and luckily got accepted in NIT Rourkela. I was very afraid at first to take a class, I feel nervous even when a small number of people are looking at me and giving me attention, I couldn't even imagine how could I take a class of 40-50 students without collapsing near the blackboard. In my very first class, the material which I had prepared for 1 hour got over in 20 minutes and I got very nervous after that for the remaining time of the class, anyhow I solved some problems to fill up the remainder of the class. The next class I had prepared the material for 2 hours but even that got covered up in just 40 minutes. So I continued to struggle like this in my teaching until it slowly dawned on me that I was on concentrating on myself and my performance during the class and not on the students. After I started concentrating on the students and their learning it became very easy for me to cover the material for 1 hour in about an hour. Then I offered an elective course on Finite Element Analysis and found that many students took up my elective (around 40-50). This gave me enormous confidence that students are liking my teaching style and even though I had communication problems earlier, it was no hindrance for me to teach my students effectively. Now, I think that teaching is the best profession as no other job can provide more self-satisfaction than this.

MM: Apart from teaching and supervising research activities, what are some of your favourite leisure time activities?

PS: I like to travel a lot and spend time with my friends and family. Recently, during a vacation, I went to Bengaluru with my friends and family for two days, which was quite fun. Other than that I treat my students as my family, so whenever we get some leisure time we go for picnics or dinners. I love spending time with my children as well.

MM: We have a system of TA marks, which is solely decided by the professors. Do you think this is a necessary practice?

PS: That is an administrative decision whether the practice of giving TA marks, should be part of the evaluation process or not. I cannot comment on that. In the last ten years, I have never received instruction on how I should allot TA marks to students, it depends on the professor, on what basis he/she wants to evaluate the TA marks. I believe most of the professors decide the TA marks base on the student’s performance and participation in the classroom. If we find that a student is sincere, disciplined and has a nag of learning then we consider these aspects while deciding upon the TA marks. We also take into consideration, the feedback given by the TA’s who manage the tutorial classes.

MM: Do you think that there is enough scope for carrying out research activities in NIT Rourkela? What are some of the measures that can be taken to enhance the establishment of our institute in the field of research?

PS: For good research, you need experimental facilities, infrastructural facilities, computational facilities, and decent financial aid. A few years back we used to receive a good bit of financial aid which encouraged our research acumen. But with a change in the Govt. funding policy, at this moment we are struggling with a few financial constraints that are restricting research programs to a limited basis. For instance, till last month we use to have access to all top journals, but now as we are not paying for them we are not able to access them. As far as, Civil engineering department is concerned, our lab facilities are not that great. Again the professors are to be blamed because every time the institute won’t fund, the professors need to arrange for sponsors and other sources for setting up the required equipment in the labs of their respective fields of interest. I would say that our experimental facilities are below standard and even the computational facilities are not up to the mark. In this regard, I would say that the researchers are having a challenging time. On a positive note, we have many professors engaged in different fields of research of their interest which serves as an inspiration for the students as well as the professor’s and they have managed to achieve great success as well. Likewise, the best teacher award there is also the best researcher award for encouraging research more and more research programs. We have a very ideal environment for research as well, even the institute is whole-heartedly promoting research activities which is a big plus. I don’t know about the research scenario in IIT’s presently, but a few years back, our research programs were at par with the IIT’s except the laboratory facilities.

MM: What piqued your interest in Civil engineering? Was it by choice or by rank that you choose this stream?

PS: (smiles) In our time, I hail from a small village and had no clue that was so many disciplines in engineering. We had a notion that the top rankers usually opt for electronics or mechanical. So without having any about those disciplines, I wanted to take up those streams as they were the topper’s favourite and follow the trend. But with the rank I achieved, I could manage to get Civil engineering, frankly speaking, I was not that happy. But today, when I sit back and retrospect I firmly believe that civil engineering is the best thing that ever happened to me. I would not have liked reading any other branch of engineering more than this. Because I feel, the spectrum of subjects we read in civil engineering is too vast and it has a lot to offer. When I was a student I didn’t have a nag for structural analysis and mechanics, but now they are one of my favourites subjects in Civil engineering.

MM: What are the major differences you observe between the time when you were a student and now? Do you think the approach of the students nowadays towards academics has changed?

PS: There are too many differences. In my B.Tech days, there was a very limited number of computers and mobile phones. We didn’t know how to operate computers, we just learned the basic operations about the computer. It was difficult for us to work with the computer and the entire institute had only one computer in the laboratory. But now the situation is completely different. Another major thing that makes our generation different is the nonavailability of mobile phones. I feel sorry for your generation (smiles) because in our time after the class we used to have a lot of fun, we used to go for playing outdoor games, travel different places with friends and engage in many other adventurous activities, unlike the present generation. A few years back, when I was associated with the SAC, it was noticed that the students didn’t involve themselves in club activities and other outdoor activities sufficiently, they used to confine themselves in hostels spending their time using mobile phones and computers. That is how the problems begin you know, then you students have a lot of pending work and assignments, so you end up sleeping late at night and as a result, your biological clock gets disturbed which in turn has various consequences. The differences mainly persist in the lifestyle of students, but on the academic front, I feel it’s mostly the same. Another is the diversity of places where the students come from. In our time, we mostly had our fellow mates from our state or region. But in NIT Rourkela, you can find students from different parts of the world, this helps largely in the social upliftment of a student. When you interact with friends of other regions you tend to have a sense of politeness as you believe, you are representing your region and do not want to project a negative image.

MM: With e-learning platforms providing students with more and more facilities, do you believe there will ever be a time when e-learning will become an effective substitute for classroom teaching and students will prefer it more?

PS: If the students are mature enough, then yes e-learning can be effective for their growth and development. You can find NPTEL and even MIT lectures over the internet, but still, why do students still prefer to join IIT’s? the fact is there is a major difference between watching video lectures and attending classes. The discipline and the atmosphere of learning you find in classroom teaching are never possible with e-learning.

MM: A large number of students you have taught admire you, so what is the U.S.P in your teaching process you feel, that makes you the student’s favourite?

PS: Yeah, that is what I also questioned myself when I was awarded the best teacher award but realized that is not the first time the students have shown their love for me. Earlier also students have told me that I have played a major role in shaping their careers and helping them choose the right path, but I never realized this. As I said earlier, I was an average student in the class, I try to give a good lecture in the class. I try to understand every student in my class and try to figure out their mental state. Suppose, if anyone is mentally disturbed while attending my class, I get to know that and after the class, I discuss with that particular student about his/her problem. I believe I have a good social and mental comfort level with my students. Students feel comfortable to share their problems with me whether it is related to academics or anything else. I give room to students to discuss their problems with me in the class or outside the class. I interact with students in a friendly manner, so I feel the students share a good comfort level with me apart from lectures.

MM: On a concluding note, would you like to pass a message for our readers?


PS: The objective of doing anything in life should be to learn new things. If a person has the right amount of passion and dedication to learn, then he/she will be successful. For instance, you can take the case of the famous Ekalavya, who proved that through passion and dedication to learn you can achieve your desired goal. Love the work you do, be honest and sincere to yourself.

Team Monday Morning congratulates Professor Pradip Sarkar for the well-deserved award and wishes him the best of luck for his future endeavours. 

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