Prof. J Ramkumar- on encouraging children to innovate, and current opportunities in India
Prof. J. Ramkumar is a faculty member in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, India. His specialisations include micro /nano manufacturing and new product/process development, tribology, composite, and manufacturing process modelling. He has 27 patents to his name, in addition to winning several prestigious awards. I met him a few months ago at the TOSC national finals meet (2018) and then at an innovation meet by the Atal Tinkering Lab in April 2019. Me: Q1. What was your spark in childhood to get into research? Prof. Ramkumar: I always used to feel the need of technological intervention in solving human drudgery problems. So, I always used to look for alternatives for a single solution. This lead me to a spark that I should do something innovative. So, to be novel and innovative... I found out teaching and research was a great option.
Me: So, you found it out later on in your life, like when you were an undergraduate student rather than when you were in high school.
Prof. Ramkumar: Correct, correct! That was way after my undergraduate. But I always used to think whether there can be an alternate solution for the same problem. For example, if someone uses a spatula to do an operation or something like that, can there be another way to do that? I used to think of such things right from my childhood.
Me: Q2. What is your opinion of children as innovators?
Prof. Ramkumar: See, when you are trying to look for innovative solutions the first step is 'empathy study'. Empathy study means that you step into the shoes of the customer and then you try to see what all do they face and then start working on it. If a child could undergo a very good empathy study, then I am sure that they would come up with beautiful solutions. This is also because they are still not influenced by a lot of literature and other such things those are available. So, if a child could do an empathy study and if somebody could help them specify the problem very clearly, I am sure child prodigies will come up.
Me: Q3. What message would you like to give to those people who relate successful innovation with grades/ performance in school?
Prof. Ramkumar: There is no correlation as such. I would say that till the age of 21 or 24 or 27, the child is evaluated by one (easy) parameter - grades. After 21 or 24 or 27, you are no more evaluated based on those. You are evaluated on financial status or whatever success it may be in your life. So, what you have to understand is that when you are in school you have to see the overall knowledge and not the marks. You must ask questions to yourself like, what do I understand, or how am I benefited from this course (in terms of knowledge, understanding), and not anything else.
Me: Yeah, because people always relate that if you are really good in school then you would be great at research.
Prof. Ramkumar: That has zero correlation. Well, I will tell you some statistics. In IIT Kanpur, we get 40% of the alumni coming back. But then, out of this 40%, say only 10% are the creme class. The rest would probably have been around 6 or 7 pointers. Life is different and research is different.
Me: Q4. How do you think we can get more Indian children into innovation?
Prof. Ramkumar: In India, we don't have the avenues that children can try their concepts into a physical model. So, there is a lack of opportunities. Maybe funding is not there, or machines are not there, or they are not accessible. And the parents also don't encourage. For example, they say that rather than 'wasting' your time in trying out something new, why don't you focus on your studies. In India the major challenge is to encourage them and help them access facilities to develop their ideas into physical prototypes. Once that comes into existence I am sure our children will do great.
Me: But we don't see that happening yet
Prof. Ramkumar: That is very true. However, the government has recently been taking some initiatives, for example the Atal Tinkering labs. They are giving machines and money for sustenance of the lab.
Me: Yeah, so something related to that came in my mind. Atal labs are as such taking up the problem of innovation, but not research.
Prof. Ramkumar: Correct! research and innovation are quite different from one another. Research needs lot more understanding of the subject. Which is kind of a long process.
Me: Q5. Do you think that India should have structured research programs for high school students?
Prof. Ramkumar: See, when you start doing research, it requires a better understanding of data points. That's all. So, it comes down to a better understanding of data points and developing a concept. However, the route of innovation is easily possible. You are trying to work on a problem. You try to come up with a solution, and you can immediately validate your solution. So, innovation is much more easier and faster up to the level of proof of concept. But research is something where you want to have a depth of knowledge. But in India we don't have many kids who have that kind of an understanding to be able to undertake research.
Me: Do you think that professors like you should formally start taking in high schoolers in their lab?
Prof. Ramkumar: If a high school student comes up to me, then I will never say no to that person. However, I have never met a student who has come to me and said that 'I would like to work on this', or asked for any data.
Me: Q6. What do you think about the role of mentors in the process of innovation and research?
Prof. Ramkumar: I think they are an integral part. Actually, children need the help of someone to clearly state the problem for them, and guide them through the process.
Me: Q7. Tell us something about the “imagineering lab”, and how can students access it?
Prof. Ramkumar: Okay, so the concept of Tinkering lab originated in IIT Kanpur. And then, when Dr. Ashutosh Sharma moved from here to DST as the chair person, this concept got popularised. But then we thought that we should have a change. So imagineering lab came up. It is the conglomeration of the two words "imagination" and "engineering". The problem with the Tinkering lab was, that you have an idea, and you can have a proof of your concept, however, it was not possible to take the actual thing to the market. So, what we do in imagineering is to optimise the product- to help convert a concept or an idea into an actual prototype.
Me: Q8. What is your final piece of advice for any high schooler who wants to do research?
Prof. Ramkumar: Don't worry about you final output. Care more about knowledge. Look forward for developing something, and look forward to helping the society. This interview was conducted in person at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur.