Can US universities learn from India's 'pressure cookers'?

Two students sit on their beds with laptops Students at the IIT Delhi campus get little time to relax

By the year 2020 the US is expected to have 1.4 million computing-related jobs, but will only have the capacity to fill a third of them. Should schools in the United States be looking to Asia for tips on how to get more students to study science and maths?

From a young age, children at India's top schools have it drilled into them that they must excel in maths and science.

Their goal is to win a coveted place at one of the 16 Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and a fast track to a high-flying job.

The IITs enjoy no international ranking but they have been recognised by the US Congress and Microsoft founder Bill Gates for their contribution to US innovation.

Graduates have gone on to be leading high-tech innovators - for example the creator of Google news Krishna Bharat, and the co-founders of online poker site PartyGaming studied at the IITs.

'Academic Mount Everest'

Each year about one million Indian students sit the entrance exam hoping for this kind of success, but just 10,000 people, or 1% of them make it.

Utkarsh Malhotra using a laptop Utkarsh Malhotra left school early to enrol in a specialist coaching college

There are nine times more people applying for each place than there are applying to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the highest-ranking universities in the world.

One student who made the grade is 21 year old Utkarsh Malhotra. He is now in his final year but says passing the entrance exam was like scaling an academic Mount Everest.

"I know people who changed their diets, who changed their sleeping patterns, who changed everything for this examination," he says. "IITs are like a pressure cooker situation so I don't know if this prepares us for future life well or not."

Twinkle Aurora in class Twinkle Aurora hopes a place at one of the IITs will help her become an automotive engineer

Eighteen year-old Twinkle Aurora is hoping to follow in Malhotra's footsteps. She attends a private coaching institute and spends 13 hours a day, six days a week studying to pass the exam.

"It's very tough because you can't stay in touch with social media like Facebook and WhatsApp - they take a lot of your time, so you have to sacrifice lots of friendships… but after one year when you've slogged your way through the year you get something that's big," she says.

Poster of students with the words: "We are proud of our star performers" The corridors of Twinkle's college are lined with posters of previous students showing their achievements

But once the students are in, the pressure remains. I met Malhotra on a Friday afternoon but instead of winding down for the weekend, he was working hard.

"I don't know [if any other] institutes in India have exams on a weekend but this one does. The pressure is immense and you grow to live with it," he says.

The best of the best

So what makes the IITs so successful? "We get the best students in the country," says Suneet Tuli, the dean of research and development at the Delhi campus.

"And for a country of 1.2 billion, the best is really the best."

"The second thing - this is part of our culture, [education is] based a lot on mathematics, so that gives them good analytical skills."

Susan Wojcicki Susan Wojcicki wants the US to prioritise computer science at school

Some think the US could learn from the way India approaches science and maths, including Susan Wojcicki, senior vice president of advertising and commerce at Google.

She thinks there should be much more emphasis on computer science in US schools.

"Nine out of 10 schools right now are not teaching computer science. If you think about the future and you think about how important computer science is going to be it's a problem - we're going to need a lot more kids to be able to have those skills," she says.

"I would really like it to be like reading and math and science and spelling - they are requirements - everybody takes it, everybody learns it, and that's the way I think we need to think about computer science and coding in the future."

There has been some criticism of the methods the Indian education system uses with its reliance on rote learning, and whether this really prepares the IIT students for the wider world.

Creative thinking

Steve Stepanian, head of Indian operations for the management consultancy Bain & Company, has some reservations.

"At the more junior levels they are very quantitatively sound, they are very responsible, no problem. The issue becomes [when] they're given an open-ended question - that is where there seems to be more of a struggle," he says.

Find out more

  • Anu Anand's report was featured on Newshour on the BBC World Service.

For example, they would get the basic figures spot on, but when he asks what advice they would give to a chief executive - "that is where you draw a real blank," he says.

In his experience, the number crunching by US students may not be as accurate, but "when I come to that question of what the CEO should do, they are much more capable of synthesising that and pulling together a much more cohesive answer and make a recommendation".

But for Wojcicki it is about the balance between learning the basics and thinking creatively: "I look at Silicon Valley and we have so many great engineers that have come from India," she says.

"American schools are really good [when it comes to] thinking about the creative component but we also need kids to learn the basics."

Anu Anand's report featured on a special edition of Newshour, guest edited by Susan Wojcicki, on the BBC World Service.

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