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Impact Through Knowledge Dissemination and Cooperation in the Community

By Alaina G. Levine

In the area around the city of Rourkela (INDIA), located in the northeast Indian State of Odisha, the school drop-out rate is considerably high, notes Naushita Sharma, a junior in mechanical engineering at the National Institute of Technology Rourkela (NIT Rourkela) and a past member-at-large of the university’s ASME section. Some boys tend to drop out of school in the10th grade due to economic reasons, and girls may leave as early as the 5th grade. Sharma and her fellow ASME members realized that this community problem had significant national economic and workforce impacts, and seized the opportunity to address this dilemma.

Their elegant solution was Project SAHAYOG (STEM Augmentation and Holistic Advancement for YOuth: Gearing up for the future), (also from the Hindi word meaning cooperation), an outreach program and engineering conference which targeted young boys and girls was designed to educate their neighborhoods about the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education and careers. The team specifically reached out to people in the community who are underrepresented minorities in STEM, including members of the tribal community and those who are below the poverty line. “Our aim was to attract young students into engineering research, and to provide information to help them understand what it is,” says Udayan Singh, also a junior in ME.

Funded in part by an ASME Diversity Action Grant, the year-long program was a complete success. Project SAHAYOG kicked off in the fall of 2015, ASME members visited schools and conducted surveys to identify the level of awareness the kids had of different topics and career paths in engineering, as well as parental pressures to pursue certain professional paths. One important piece of data gleaned from the survey was that 75% of the girls were in the position to be the first members of their family to go to college, says Singh. Based on the information they collected, the team then implemented an “Activity Week” in January 2016, in which the group of engineering students returned to the selected schools and presented a set of demonstrations and active-engagement activities for the children to learn how to solve engineering-related problems in team settings.

A view of the audience

The last phase of Project SAHAYOG (wherein the DAG funding from ASME was utilized) consisted of integrating a program into the schools and introducing a conference held at the university. Over a three day weekend (March 2016), the section hosted the National Workshop on Engineering for the Future. At this event, 166 students (including 84 girls), primarily 12-19 years old from 13 regional schools and two diploma colleges (similar to community colleges in the US) attended presentations and demonstrations by engineering professors and ASME section members, and toured three major departmental laboratories that house research in automation, cryogenics and internal combustion engine dynamics.

Almost, fifty-percent (50%) of the talks were on mechanical engineering research topics, while the remaining spanned the scholarship of STEM, including discussions on breakthroughs in electrical, civil, and energy engineering. The conference was inaugurated by Professor B.B. Bhattacharya, former Director of the Indian School of Mines, who spoke about the Indian expedition to Antarctica. The Director of NIT Rourkela, Professor S.K. Sarangi, discussed his research on cryogenics, while Professor Suman Chakraborty, an ASME Fellow, talked about his ground-breaking research in microfluidics and microfabrication. Another keynote speaker Dr. B.P. Singh, Chief Scientist at a leading national laboratory in India, explained his recent work on grapheme. NIT Rourkela’s faculty members also spoke about breakthroughs in wireless communications, robotics, structural engineering and automotive engineering. Special sessions were devoted to being successful in college and engineering careers, and included presentations by NIT Rourkela students, notes Sharma, who served as the convener for the conference. In the valedictory speech, Sarangi encouraged the kids to focus on the societal and industrial aspects of engineering to improve people’s lives.

A view of the dias during the valedictory session. Prof. Suman Chakraborty, F-ASME, Chief Guest, Prof. S.K. Sarangi, Director, NIT Rourkela and Prof. K.C. Pati, Dean (S.W.), NIT Rourkela can be seen sitting as Naushita Sharma thanks the guests and student delegates for the workshop

At the conclusion of the meeting, another survey was taken, in which the kids were asked if they would prefer to study STEM for a career in engineering. A resounding 95.2% of respondents answered in the affirmative.

There were many lessons for the ME students who organized the affair. As the convener, Sharma gained prized expertise in project planning and execution, time management, and communications. “Being able to head this workshop, I learned I could lead,” she says. “And this gives me an edge in my career.” Similarly, Singh shares how the meeting involved “social engineering”, in which he and his colleagues truly sharpened their abilities to lead – they had to ensure the kids paid attention, knew where to go next, and were gaining value from the experience. “I have a newfound respect for professors leading the classroom,” he says with a laugh.

The team members were also able to hone their crisis management skills. While making the last minute review of the facilities, “we realized that the auditorium did not have microphones or a projector,” says Sharma. But there wasn’t staff to assist, because the section had purposely set the event on a holiday weekend so the room space would be available. The team sprang into action and everyone rallied to find and procure the equipment. “And when we started at 9am, no one knew anything had been wrong,” says Singh. Section leaders also learned to negotiate, when they needed to quickly arrange for a tea break for the attendees and had to convince the skeleton crew on campus to help them with this enterprise.

Looking back on the exciting year of outreach, the team is both proud of their accomplishments and introspective of their impact. “Engineering and research is something we are meant to do, but in a developing country like ours, it is a major responsibility to reach out to kids who have less access to information about how to pursue engineering careers,” says Singh, who has published letters to the editor about the state of educational development in India and plans to go to graduate school in ME. “There is a responsibility and an aspirational aspect of it and that makes it the most important thing.”

Sharma, who presented on their project at WE India, the inaugural Society of Women Engineers conference in the nation and also aims to pursue a PhD in ME, notes that the influence that this project has on her community is long-lasting and empowering for everyone involved.  “After the event, we met with a class of students who had attended, and both the kids and later even a parent asked when we were going to organize this again,” says Sharma. This means everything to her because it clarified Project SAHAYOG’s goals and results: “Knowledge makes a difference.”  

For more information on the published letters referenced in the article visit the following links:

School-based journals: a good idea for India (co-authored with Prof. John Berry) Difficulties in doing science at school DST’s INSPIRE Camps: do they actually need a change?

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