“We have always done it this way is a dangerous line”, screams a poster at Makerspace, the design innovation lab at Plaksha University in Mohali. That’s the danger that the newly set up science and tech university promises to avoid. Plaksha is trying to change the rules of tech education, changing everything from the way of funding, the way of functioning, the way of teaching to the very curriculum. As the founding Vice Chancellor, RudraPratap, says, “When you start on a clean slate, it is a different ball game.”
Prof Amit Sheth showing one of the “toys” at Makerspace Lab at Plaksha
The highly regarded professor from Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, says he was excited to join Plaksha simply because here was a chance to do something radical and different. “Science and Technology’s time has arrived. If we do not put our foot on the pedal and accelerate, we risk missing out on a complete century,” he says.
Government institutions have done phenomenally well. But within them is the constraint of public funding. “When you have public funding, you are working in a structure that has existed for the last 50 -70 years and it is answerable to a different set of people, who may not care about objectives but care about rules,” he says.
By contrast, he says, “In private funding, they care only about the outcome. More than that, the rules are for you to write.” This is what, he says, the Plaksha team has done – created its own rules on how to run a research-focussed tech university.
“If India has to move from being a services economy to an innovation economy, we need to teach kids how to think. You need them to become more creative,” says Hitesh Oberoi, one of the founders of Plaksha University, and its trustee, and CEO and MD of Info-Edge, describing the vision behind the institute. He says Plaksha believes in interdisciplinary education, multi-disciplinary education and more holistic development.
The University, says Oberoi, has been funded by the collective philanthropy of more than 100 donors, many of them tech entrepreneurs, who have opened their purses liberally. “But it’s not just about money, it’s about many other things they are providing – mentoring support to students, building university partnerships with corporates, helping hire faculty, helping with outreach, admissions, brand building and more. Many of the founders are involved with everything that Plaksha is trying to change and do,” says Oberoi. Bharti Foundation, the Havells Group, HT Parekh Foundation are all big backers.
The campus opened its doors to students in late 2021, and the first batch of undergrad students will be passing out in June 2025 - though over 200 students (four cohorts) of the one year post graduate Tech Leaders Fellowship Programme (TLF) have passed out, and been placed.
A walk-through of the campus with students, Avishi Rajgarhia, who is in the third year, doing data science, economics and business, Vedika Aggarwal, also in the third year, majoring in computer science and artificial intelligence, and PranjalRastogi, a second year student, who is leaning towards robotics, and a chat with them, shows you just how different is the teaching approach here. The students are all fired up about solving problems of the planet, inspired by the ‘Innovation Lab & Grand Challenges programme’. The project based ILGC acquaints the students with the issues confronting society that can be solved by technology.
At the Makerspace lab, you meet its director Amit Sheth, professor of practice, who says, “My job is to take ordinary Joes, who have no creative background, and make them design thinkers.” The lab is filled with cardboards, and toys of all kinds – a closer look reveals that these are not toys but deep scientific puzzles, many of them drawn from nature. This is a space for the students to tinker. The cardboards are being used to design innovative furniture. All sorts of interesting projects – among them, an energy efficient compact wind turbine inspired by the biology of trees -- are in various states of completion.
But the first step to create better products or services is to go out there in the field and study it. One semester all the students have to go around studying various services in Chandigarh. “Somebody studied the bus stand, somebody studied a government hotel and a private hotel, one student surveyed a Chandigarh hospital, one student even studied the jail. The idea is to go and check out various services, talk to people, find out the issues and lacunae,” says Sheth.
Among the interesting outcomes from here are an idea for a better designed food trolley for a single aisle aircraft. “When the food cart travels on the aisle, nobody can pass, so a team of students worked on a cart that becomes a flat structure – it’s a phenomenal idea,” says Sheth.
Another project is a drone fitted with sensors that sugarcane farmers can use that tells them the perfect time to harvest.
Back on our tour, the students show us the new age classrooms equipped with projectors and whiteboards. Near the classrooms, there are small breakout rooms, where a team of students can sit and collaborate, the library is a vast space with similar zones. Next we visit the teaching studio. Since a lot of the courses are absolutely new topics and the teachers are designing their own modules, the college records the videos.
The fully residential campus strewn with fascinating artwork – a gigantic installation that is a map of the land of five rivers made with electric circuit boards catches the eye - has huge grounds with football fields,tennis, indoor basketball and badminton courts. The hostels are air-conditioned, the tall ceilinged cafeteria is all abuzz with funky lighting and artwork, there is a tuck shop and lots of areas to chill out.
You find that there are no departments here. A conventional university might have a computer science department, a biotech department and so on. Instead, here, there are research centres focussed on problems - clean energy, water security, sustainable agriculture, climate, equitable health, and so on. “According to your interest, you go ahead, and become a part of the research centre you like and are incentivised accordingly. For Problem X certain funding is available, for Problem Y another set. You contribute to solving that problem in a team that has people from other disciplines,” explains Pratap.
To promote inter-disciplinarity, the dean convenes a meeting of all faculty every Friday and the teachers tell each other a summary of what they have been teaching. “The faculty members themselves get educated, they are crossing boundaries. They are not in their cocoon and just doing their own regular teaching,” points out Pratap. The result is that in their classes, they can cross refer to other disciplines.
The focus on humanities is also pretty different – it’s not just plain vanilla language and communication, instead the courses are “Art of thinking” and “Reimaginging technology and society”. “In this entangled world, we look at technology and the anthropocene, and how humans are at the centre of the planet’s problems, and how technology can be used to solve it,” says Brainerd Prince, who heads the Centre for Thinking, Language and Communication.
Pratap, Sheth and Prince all stress on the need to get students to ask a million questions, think a lot and think holistically. “It’s a long journey. To get the culture of getting the humanities guy talking to an engineering guy who is in dialogue with the science guy who has to talk to the computer science guy. The dialogue has to be continuous - only then can we achieve what we want to achieve,” sums up Pratap. The important thing is that a start has been made.