Redefining 21st Century Undergraduate Education: Interdisciplinarity and Ahmedabad University’s Foundation Programme

Sudhanshu Rai, BTech in Mechanical Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Science, Class of 2023, recently got placed at energy conservation and automation solutions leader Forbes Marshall. He says about the selection process, “I expected to face technical, core mechanical engineering questions. Far from it. One of the group discussions for an international automobile major was on how eCommerce brands manipulate individual buying choices. Not related to mechanical engineering by a fair margin, but I have been exposed to similar discussions in our Foundation Programme studios. Interestingly, the human resources head at Forbes Marshall emphasised the multidisciplinary outlook of her company and was impressed with the macro view we were exposed to right in the first year at the University through the Foundation Programme.”

In 2019, Sudhanshu was among the first cohort of students at Ahmedabad University that experienced the Foundation Programme unique to Ahmedabad University, envisaged as the core of its undergraduate education. “It offered a new learning environment wherein you are not just sitting in a room surrounded by textbooks, which was the case when I was preparing for my JEE and 12th boards. Rather, we explored things in the real world as they existed, indulged in discussions, addressed societal problems, and presented our solutions,” he says. The May 2023 engineering graduate believes that this self-exploratory nature of learning helped him nurture curiosity and an ability to independently seek solutions while collaborating with students across disciplines.

The nature of traditional jobs and workspaces is fast changing. How would a mechanical or computer engineer be able to design a driverless car without understanding the ethics involved in either avoiding hitting another vehicle or a child who has strayed onto the road? Equations may not help there; one needs some notion of ethics and the ability to debate contentious issues that require more than simple solutions. Can an entrepreneur run a successful 21st-century business that does not align with climate change mitigation goals? The Foundation Programme, mandatory in the first year for all students entering the Undergraduate programme at Ahmedabad University, addresses these challenges.

The Programme is built around six domains that define contemporary academic and life skills in the 21st century, areas of innovation that are transforming the world, and perspectives that help an individual become a responsible member of any society. These include Data Science, Materials, Biology and Life, Behaviour, Constitution and Civilization, and Communication. But the idea was not to teach these domains as disciplines and motivate students through grand challenges. Hence Thematic Studios were around these challenges – Water, Environment and Climate Change, Democracy and Justice, and Neigbourhoods. The Programme builds the foundations of interdisciplinary learning at Ahmedabad University and enables students to engage with issues of society through project-based learning. It is immersive and intensive, with four modules simultaneously taught by two faculty from two different domains. Students spend four weeks in each domain, spending over five hours daily in the Studio, a mix of in-classroom and outside learning. Debates and discussions led by faculty dominate the three-hour morning sessions, while the afternoon sessions consist of field visits, data collection, and documentary reviews.

Saptam Patel, Assistant Dean of the Undergraduate College, who is part of the core group steering the Foundation Programme, clearly remembers the time Vice Chancellor Pankaj Chandra introduced the Foundation Programme to core faculty members in 2017. She was a part of the team that designed the Water Studio. “The idea, Professor Chandra said, was to fill the gap between what we deliver as a higher educational institution and what they need in the workspaces of the future. What thinking will go into making critical decisions related to work at the crossroads of 21st-century issues and opportunities? The Foundation Programme is a seed; that is why we involve all our first-year undergraduate students in it, including lateral admits from other colleges and universities. It is that vital. It could transform the landscape of higher education in India,” she says.

Mousa Mohammadian, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the School of Arts and Sciences, is part of the Democracy and Justice studio. “Students come to the Studios fresh out of high school with conventional classroom expectations. They think they will sit down, listen to our lectures, take notes, and so on,” he says. “But we arrive with anything but that agenda. We begin the Studio by asking them to design a just society and explain why they think it is just. They are surprised, even unsure, of what is happening. But this is critical to change their perspectives.” He adds, “At first, students are hesitant to express their opinions. Many of them think, ‘what if I am wrong?’ Throughout the Studio, our goal is to make them express their views confidently, not because they are definitely correct, but because this is the best time and place for them to examine their views and see whether they are defensible.” Professor Mohammadian, who earlier taught Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, USA, says that the Foundation Programme is unique to Ahmedabad University. “With two faculty from different disciplines coming together to manage a Studio, it brings together different perspectives. Not just students but faculty too gain from these experiences.”

Professor Patel handles student queries about the Foundation Programme and its relevance at the beginning of every academic year. “When we conduct the Water Studio, many students wonder what more they can learn about water. We have the big picture; they don’t. Yet. By the time they finish the four Studios, they understand their roles and the role of community and go on to pick up relevant courses in the coming years. They make the connect, for example, between water and gender and understand what we are trying to say - if you want to address the problems of women, address water. It comes full circle.”

Sudhanshu speaks of how, as part of the Neighbourhoods studio, he met with different communities in different locations of Ahmedabad. “We were assigned locations, and we had to list things, activities, and people that we observed and which had a bearing on our learnings in that module. It was an unusual activity at the most rudimentary level that instilled a deep sense of observation and analysis. As an aspiring engineer, I came up with product ideas that could help people in these Neighbourhoods. I doubt any other University would have put me through a perspective-building process like this.”