How functional are our labs?

How functional are our labs?

Kunal Singh Sriniketh Shankar | Nov 11, 2019

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NIT Rourkela has been producing outstanding results for a long time now. There isn’t much lacking in terms of facilities that an outsider can point out after having a look at the consistent results of NIT Rourkela in terms of placement, research, higher studies and many more. Even people working in the administration and the students sometimes stay unaware of the flaws of the institute that could be rectified, but due to lack of certain factors, it is not feasible to make changes that are required. One such field of concern at NIT Rourkela is its lab and research facilities.

Even with limited resources, students at NIT Rourkela have been giving their best in every situation but it’s the institute's responsibility to provide the best facility to these hardworking students so they can carry on their work without facing any lack of resource-related issues There have not been many complaints regarding the software resources from the M.Tech and PhD scholars but when it comes to the hardware part, students are sometimes made to dump a project due to lack of proper equipment. Research and project works that include software such as MATLAB, GSI, and others do not face many issues and the minor issues that did arise were solved without much delay and the software was updated regularly. The situation starts getting worse when projets and research works include hardware and equipment.

Mining Department

TA of ground control lab of mining department had the following to say:

This lab consists of experiments for students ranging from BTech to MTech and PhD students. Btech students have their experiments once a week but research students regularly work in this lab and we have the facility to open the lab for as long as the students demand with permission. In case of any damaged equipment or malfunctioning machine, we try to carry out the maintenance process as soon as possible. The repair process takes time when we need external services for the equipment and that time depends on the service provider and on how early they repair and give us the equipment. So we are trying our best to provide a hassle-free environment for our research and project work students so that they can give their best.

Next, we have a review of a PhD scholar and M.Tech student working in the mining geology lab:

The lab is more or less software-based and the working condition is a bit uncomfortable. The system and desktops are not up-to-date. The software such as MATLAB and ‘gis’ software need at least a 4GB ram system for smooth functioning. Other labs have a system with proper Ram and processor needed for the smooth functioning of the software while we have 2 GB ram systems and working on such system sometimes becomes frustrating. Moreover, the working conditions are not comforting. Without any AC, the summer becomes unbearable and moreover minor facilities such as curtains, table fans, etc. are also not properly maintained. No one gives much attention to these minor requirements but these affect the working environment and reduces the efficiency of research students.

There are moments when students come up with a project but due to lack of proper equipment, students need to dump their projects and work on other projects. This lack of hardware is the main factor that causes a delay in any research or project work.

According to HOD of mining, Prof. Himanshu Bhushan Sahu, as compared to other departments, mining department lacks the modern types of equipment required for proper research and carry out projects with efficiency. However, they are trying to give maximum output with the existing equipment which includes a computer-controlled testing machine, differential thermal analyzer, noise meter and many more. Maintaining these instruments and equipment is not very easy. Minor defects can be easily ruled out in a week or two but major defects require a service engineer from outside. This process takes a lot of time-varying from weeks to months. Under AMC (Annual Maintenance contract) they get a service engineer for maintenance of equipment only once or twice per year and sometimes in an emergency. Moreover, the grant provided to the Mining department for operational purposes and buying equipment is not sufficient. There is almost no fund granted for buying modern equipment and the entire fund is under the operational grant.

Civil Department:

Next, we have a review of the civil department that faces majorly space and equipment related issues.

The Highway and concrete lab which studies the characteristics of highway material and road design faces major issues related to space and their work is related to road design. There was barely any space for free movement of students around the lab. It has space either the resources or students in the room. The lab requires more space to keep supplies. There are a few plans to extend the lab and shift the lab to a spacious area but even this will take a lot of time. The funding for various labs will be done through HEFA loan granted through MHRD which will be used to equip new instruments and resources o make the research and project work.

According to the HOD of the civil department, Prof. Mahabir Panda,

The condition of the lab is not up to the mark and many changes need to be implemented as soon as possible. There is no fund allotted for buying new research and project-related equipment. research and project in civil require some expensive and modern equipment which institute has failed to provide due to lack of funding. Still, the situation is manageable and research and project works are been going on in these labs. Another problem is that due o lack of modern equipment, students go to IIT Bhubaneshwar and IIT Kharagpur to make the sample required for the project that causes more delays to the project. Recently a new lab named geomechanics lab has been proposed to be built that might help in solving the space issue faced by the department.

Mechanical department

The mechanical department consists of heavy weighing machines that require regular maintenance and more manpower as compared to other department labs. The hydraulic lab consists of modern equipment such as CTA (constant temperature anemometer) used for measuring the velocity of the fluid, ADV (Acoustic Doppler velocimeter). CTA costs around 60 lakhs and the department is thankful to the institute for this equipment as it is very essential for accurate measurements during research work. But still minor negligence cannot be unseen and pose problems while carrying out experiments. Problems related to the pumping of water, availability of distilled water to carry out experiments and maintenance and cleanliness cannot be neglected. The lab is quite well equipped with modern machines such as CTA, PIV which is not present in many institutes but these high-end machines need regular maintenance and manpower to carry out physical work at times. Without maintenance, these machines start corroding and rusting which degrade the quality of the machine.

The refrigeration lab contains equipment such as thermos molecular vacuum pump, thermoacoustic engine, Liquid nitrogen plant and many more in the lab. The Nitrogen plan which is the most important machine of the department remains unused as it has not been repaired for months. The repair cost of the liquid nitrogen plant itself is around 30-40 lakhs rupees as stated by the TA working in the lab. These are the hurdles related to budget and funds that NIT Rourkela needs to cross to emerge as a better developing institute in India.

Somnath Das, a senior technician of the mechanical department made a thermoacoustic engine that is demonstrated and its principles are taught to the M.tech first-year students. Similarly, there are many machines of utmost use in a mechanical department that require regular maintenance.

Food processing Department

Distillation adsorption

The mass transfer lab of the department is equipped with sufficient machinery required to carry out basic processes like distillation, adsorption, etc. As stated by a PhD scholar, the major issue with the lab is that these equipment are just sufficient to get the fundamental things done in time. These could be upgraded and replaced by modern equipment but there have not been many problems with the functioning of the present machinery. For any missing equipment, students go to the central facilities or adjacent lab in the department.

As stated by HOD, Prof Rama Chandra Pradhan

Since our department is new and we procured most of our equipment in 2015, so the equipment is in good working condition. Due to a lack of funds, we are certainly unable to buy more equipment required for the labs. At present we are using the central facility for missing machinery and some of them are located in different departments as well. Moreover, the central facility has some rules to book equipment in a central facility about 15 days prior. This is sometimes uncomfortable for the students as they need to run around different labs to use the equipment and wait for 15 days to use the central facility. This slows down work and some time is frustrating to students.

He further added,

Moreover, the biggest headache at present is the availability of space for carrying out research and project work, we have few rooms used by students of every year. So when B.tech students have their labs, Mtech and PhD students have to wait. Since this is a new lab, we need more space and new equipment to undertake several projects. Our this year’s grant of 10 lakhs rupees has already been used up in buying and maintaining equipment and we are short on budget. There is a need to increase the grant for buying and operation of new equipment for his lab.

Electrical and Electronics Department

This department deals with both software and hardware related systems and equipment. It includes circuit and system labs, image processing and computing labs requiring up to date software for smooth conduction of the procedure, embedded system lab which requires both software and hardware and many more labs. The circuit and system lab have small equipment such as multimeter, DSO, CRO which do not face any major malfunction and hence require very little maintenance. But the labs requiring hardware such as embedded systems and applied power electronic lab face issues with failure of the hardware and the time it takes to repair this equipment can vary from weeks to months. Generally, minor issues are rectified by technicians from NIT Rourkela but when any service engineer from outside is involved or the machine has to be sent to a firm for repair, the process may take months to be completed.

As stated by M.tech students working in embedded system labs that require both hardware and software implementation, their main work is to code in the software and implement them into the hardware such as microcontrollers. They haven’t faced any problems with the hardware part but there is always room for upgrade. They want to upgrade the existing 8051 microcontrollers by more advanced ones such as Arduino or raspberry pi. According to them, with constraints, you push your limits and that is exactly what the scenario of laboratories at NIT Rourkela is. Limited equipment makes the students extend their limits and they figure out ways to complete their tasks with those limited resources. The existing machinery and equipment are good enough to make students understand the concepts but to give a better working experience, modern equipment is a must.

Similar was the case in applied power electronics lab of the electrical department where students are working on a project on solar inverter which requires various types of machinery such as DC converters, motors, bucks, etc. these are all equipped from project funds and no through the department. So we have good enough equipment required for us.

According to the HOD of the electrical department, Prof Dipti Patra:

There are various labs for different specialization such as a basic electrical lab for first years, embedded system lab, image processing lab, renewable energy lab and many more depending on specialization. Most of the labs had new lab equipment added to hem recently. There are also plans to get newly licensed software for our labs. A new DSP lab is also under consideration as it is included in the revised syllabus and the lab will be in working condition as soon as possible and it will be well equipped with modern machinery and equipment. But the lack of a budget is still a problem for every department. Recently there has been a proposal to get HEFA (Higher Education Financing Agency) loan from MHRD which will be utilized to buy equipment for the labs. Repairing and maintenance of existing equipment depend upon the extent of the damage. If it's minor then it can be repaired by a local technician, but in case of major damage, service engineer from outside is required and this process becomes a bit lengthy and time-consuming.

Department of Planning and Architecture

The department does not provide any raw material for all the projects and models. The only thing which the department used to provide was a printer for various purposes. But, recently, even this was stopped as seniors needed to use more of the printer to print soft copies, which used to cost 300-400 rupees per page. The labs were supposed to be open for 24 hours as the students have to work for 24 hours or even more per day. But, from recently, even this was stopped by the HOD. The new rule was that a person is allotted to provide and take back the key. The student has to take the key from him after prior permission and return it to him at sharp 8 AM the next morning. The issue faced by the students is that they work late night till 4 or 5 AM. So, it is not possible for them to return it the next morning.

The only choice we have is to work in the room, but the rooms arent properly lit and the quality of drafting is substandard as even the drafting table to be used is not available in the rooms. When any equipment or complaint is given, the administration tries to rectify it as soon as possible. So, the maintenance is pretty good, giving us the motivation to work there. Apart from this, the students don't seem to have a problem with their administration.

Team MM interviewed Soumi Muhuri, Head of Department of Architecture on the various labs their department houses.

There are basically 5 separate studios for the students of 5 different years to work on. Apart from these, the other labs are:

  1. Visual Arts Laboratory
  2. Climatology Laboratory
  3. Computer Laboratory for all the CAD designing and simulation
  4. Material Museum

The Visual Arts Studio is a new addition and the equipment are new and are still coming in. We have planned to start using this lab from the next semester onwards.

According to her, all the labs have all the basic equipment required but there is still scope for additional equipment that may be very useful for the students like a 3D printer and a Laser cutter, although it hasn't been put through the institute. The funds which they got were a total of 12 lakh INR per year, which is lesser than the previous year's funds. How they use the funds depends on the department itself.

The labs are open 24*7 and can be easily availed by a student from a specified person who handles the keys. The student has to return the key by 9 AM the next day. There is also 24*7 surveillance for security to prevent misuse and damage. In case of any malfunction or damage, repairs are done as soon as possible efficiently so that the academic proceedings arent delayed. The faculty is pretty satisfied with the infrastructure provided by the institute as it fulfils all their academic requirements. The HOD seems pretty satisfied with the funds as they are able to manage everything within the constraints although the funds were cut when compared to last year. At present, they don't have any plans for establishing any new labs.

The HOD thinks they can use more visual aids in labs, which are already being used in theory classes to help the students to understand better. If they manage to get more funds, there are better high tech equipment available which we can procure.

Department of Chemical Engineering

The main issue the students face is funding. Chemical engineering requires a lot of chemicals as the name suggests. So, as far as a professor has a research project in hand, he/she and the students working under him/her can avail those funds for the equipment purposes. But, when it comes to the department, the chances of acquiring equipment are very tough as there are very limited funds allotted. Another issue is that there is no common laboratory with basic instruments present for use by every department student when he wishes to. This happens in the chemistry and physics departments, but not here.

The quality of equipment present in the labs are old but still in working condition. If better equipment is acquired, it is a boon, but the present equipment is still fine. At the beginning of every year, a survey asking the required equipment takes place, but the equipment never seems to arrive. There is no time limit for the labs and can be accessed at any part of the day or night as per convenience. The faculty who are working under a project have good funding and are prosperous, but the ones without projects face many difficulties when it comes to labs and equipment. The quality of equipment differs from lab to lab with senior professors having better labs and the labs with projects getting more funds. The labs for B.Tech students are open only during the academic hours, but for research, the scholars have their personal key, so it is accessible to them 24x7.

One big issue we face is that not all faculty get equal funds for research. There should be a rational division with respect to the number of scholars working. Chemical procurement is a very big problem with this department as some chemicals take so long to arrive. Within this period, if a student, especially B.Tech students has any deadlines for projects/experiments, it cannot be met. If that chemical is present in another lab, a student cannot use it as it had been purchased by another faculty or in some cases, a student might not be aware that his required chemical is present in that lab. So, a common register of all chemicals present would be highly helpful, which can be acquired with the faculty's permission. Buying new chemicals which are already in excess in other labs is just a waste of resources and money.

Department of Life Science

The labs here are well equipped at least at par with our needs, but still, the scholars need to visit other institutes to get samples ready or to perform experiments. This scenario arises when the equipment is not needed by a lot of people but for others, it's a necessity. The equipment is modern but those which are out of order seems like they are never going to work again. For instance, equipment is available but for it to work we need a special part which is missing or not ordered or irreplaceable, that's where our nightmare begins of visiting another institute just to perform a simple experiment which could have been done here but due to negligence that day never comes. The equipment is mostly bought under a project, and the labs owning them are done doing their work and don't need those again but students from other lab need it, and there we get stuck because project money is exhausted and we can't afford it and they are not even ready to replace it. Other than that, equipment is well taken care of, especially the high-end equipment.

The scholars don't think the department can afford to expand so currently there is no new lab in action, only the previous ones are getting restored according to how the faculty wants it. Funds are definitely not enough that's why they keep writing new projects to get constant funding and majority of their time goes in looking for a project advertisement, which could have been saved given that we have funds.

The equipment which is working is in good condition but those which are out of order takes a lot of time and loads of applications and signs to get in working condition again. Accessibility is also an issue, even though we have centralized instrumentation, some faculties love to get attention and you have to go to their lab take their permission to use it and it's true for the whole institute not just our department. They clearly say that we don't book according to CIF. Again, loads of applications with tons of signatures and at least 1 month of our time (it's the least).

Some labs are well equipped and have all instruments in working condition, so they are okay with the condition while others have to live on others' mercy to use those. It's a 50-50 situation.

Few faculties work hard and others don't even bother to take out time. It will be a mixed response if you ask individually. Other faculties put a lot of work pressure on students, so forget about having a life they don't even get enough sleep.

Department of life science has different types of labs that deal with important aspects of modern biological problems. Microbiology lab deals with the biofilm formation. Evolution of drug-resistant bacteria. Cancer biology lab deals with various factors associated with cancer along with their cure. Laboratory of immunology deals with various pathways involved in the host-pathogen interactions. The drosophila biology lab deals with nanoparticle, toxicity and various diseases such as diabetes and cancer. However, there is only a limited number of instruments that is available in the department which does not meet the requirement of the scholars. Currently, there is no new lab is in planning and no funding is available for buying any instruments. The funding comes from individual projects of the faculties which go into buying an instrument for individual labs. There are many requirements for new machines. The labs are equipped with some instruments which are accessible on prior booking. If some instruments are nonfunctional complaints are given and they are repaired, but they take a lot of time, so the work gets hampered. Students face problems as there is a shortage of instruments in the labs or departments. Some labs are lacking in funding, so the work often gets hampered and students are not happy with it. Besides the student's faculties are also restricted to do the work as there are problems related to funding. However, they often collaborate with other institutes which is helpful for the students.

Department of Chemistry

The types of labs here are Organic, Inorganic, Physical, Material and Bioinorganic.

The equipment present here are old and some are outdated; some are not in working condition; and the quantity of equipment is very low, keeping in mind the number of students in each class. The experiments aren't being completed on time and by everyone at once because of the quantity. Coming to the repair of instruments, whenever administration is contacted, the reply is that it will take a lot of funding, which is not present. But, the major issue is the less number of instruments. The funding received by the department is clearly not enough as it has been a limiting factor in many of the projects done by the department.

The feeling of many TAs is that the rules for correction and assigning marks should be stricter and the safety precautions such as glasses, lab coats, etc should be followed strictly. Cleanliness is another issue. Some labs are not maintained properly cleanliness wise and hygiene wise; this may be an issue for many experiments. The Post Graduate labs need better quality equipment which matches the market standard.

Department of Computer Science

Computer Science departments labs mostly happen in the LA labs, although there are computers in the department, many of them are not functional and are not enough in quantity. Even if there is a system, the maximum RAM available is 4 GB, rendering them useless for any high-level computing and pre-final or final year UG/PG students.

Usually, the high-end equipment that the projects get is from the funds received from research projects from various Government or private boards. The development of labs also depends on how enthusiastic the faculty is. For example, a deep learning lab was possible to set up because of the enthusiasm of the responsible professor. The equipment required was also acquired from the project funds provided by the Science and Engineering Board (SERB). The computers set up in that labs using the project funds are way better than the normal systems of the department.

Reinstalling Linux is thought of as a method to improve the performance of a system, so whenever asked, the administration just asks the students to reinstall Linux and just use it as an excuse. When small equipment like mice or keyboards is repaired, private vendors are also approached other than through the institute depending on the urgency. As it is the CS department, it is supposed to have very fast and strong Wi-Fi, but unfortunately, this doesn't happen. Students have to invest their own money for a router and set up their router. The backup is also poor. They have a maximum of 25-30 minutes of back up. Most of the times, it is the student's fault, as they don't charge their SMPS. If it is charged in the weekend, it may provide back up for a week.

In case of any malfunction or issue, there are technical staff in the department responsible to cater to all the issues of the students. But, since a few weeks, the tech staff is also responsible to take care of the administration in the department office as the person responsible is on maternity leave. The tech staff of CS department is very helpful, but burdening them with other administrative work is undesirable. For bigger issues or network issues, the data centre or main computer centre is to be approached. Whenever a problem is to give to the main office, it takes at least a week to rectify it. Getting a system from the department to work on is nearly impossible as the schedule is jam-packed and the number of systems is limited. The infrastructure provided is also improvable on many fronts. Masters students don't have a dedicated lab, which is an issue at times. The labs are open 24*7 for PhD scholars as they have their own keys and is very safe to work in. At the end of the day, the funds allotted from the institute side has to be increased to expect better research performance and results.

Department of Bio-medical and Biotechnology Engineering

Team MM had the opportunity to have a chat with Dr Thirugnanam, Head of Department of Biomedicine and Biotechnology.

The labs of this department can be widely divided into 6 main categories:

1)Cell and Molecular Engineering Lab

2)Agriculture and Environment Engineering Lab

3)Bioprocess Engineering Lab

4)Biomaterial and Tissue Engineering Lab

5)Medical Instrumentation and Electronics Engineering Lab

6)BioMechanics and Bio Transport Engineering Lab

In addition to these, there are two additional laboratories namely Anatomy and Physiology Laboratory and Departmental Computation Laboratory.

According to the HOD,

This department is one of the most well-equipped departments in this institute with equipment value going in crores of rupees. Some of the notable equipment housed here are: Environmental SEM, Confocal Microscope, Electrospinning machine, HPLC, 3D motion analysis and force platform, universal testing machine, FTIR, cell culture facility, smart agriculture lab, FCAS, fluorescent microscope, bioreactor, RT-PCR, Mettiman, Bio AFM(in the process), Clean Room facility.

Also, this is the department with the most equipment under the central Instrument Facility, giving access to students of all departments to use that equipment after booking it online. The usage is limited to the availability of operators/technical assistants (TAs), who are limited. Hence, round the clock accessibility is not plausible.

Coming to non-functional equipment, basically, any non-functional equipment can be divided into minor repairs and major repairs. Minor repairs that can be done with the budget of the department itself is taken up by a PIC who takes responsibility for the processing of the repairs bills and files.

In case of any major repair, special approval has to be taken from the director and the processing of the file. He feels that there is a tremendous delay in the file processing and approval process. For example, almost one and a half year is over since we submitted the papers for a Bio-AFM and haven't seen any progress. When it comes to a major repair, there are insufficient funds that we are getting from the institute, which delays the process by a large margin.

He further added:

The students are pretty happy regarding the quality of equipment provided in the labs considering that this is one of the best-furnished departments. But, I wish to see more responsibility from the students towards the equipment and the laboratory as a whole. Although there is some difficulty in conducting teaching labs due to the low number of Teaching Assistants(TAs) available, it is being managed. Coming to faculty, satisfaction Is pretty high as the equipment required for their projects and experiments are available.

The fact that the running costs of labs are high considering the number of consumables required for a single lab, obtaining them within the 20 lakhs budget allotted to the department is tough. In some extreme cases, the Professors save some consumables from their research projects for the teaching. Hence, in short, more money and manpower would make the situation better for the laboratories. Regarding the upcoming labs, they are Biomedical Instrumentation and Electronics Lab 2, Smart agriculture lab 2, Bioprocess engineering lab 2 and Gene manipulation lab.

Conclusion

Overall, the labs of NIT Rourkela have been good enough providing basic facilities and resources of which students have been taking maximum output. The lack of funds for buying new equipment is quite common and there is a need to find a solution for the same. Still, students have been successful to deliver their best even with limited resources and are determined to continue to strive for success no matter what the situation is.

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