I was still on the moon. Chandrayaan had taken me along, and I was too excited to come down to Mother Earth. The morning sun woke me up to reality, and I opened my mailbox. The email from an IIT alumna immediately caught my eye. It was from a post-graduate student. A small-town girl from Odisha has grown in 20 years into a key member of the Mission. It was an emotional mail written after the success of the mission. In lovely words, she thanked me and my colleagues for teaching her the most required engineering skills to make the mission successful.

Not for nothing, “it is not rocket science” is a popular idiom. It summarises the very essence of difficulty. An undergraduate student cannot master the science, engineering and technology in rocketry, whether from the Indian Institute of Technology or any other engineering college. Rocketry defines the essence of higher education: a multidisciplinary science requiring deep generalists and seasoned specialists.

For 50 years, IITs and IISc have been a fertile breeding ground for bright young women and men in advanced science and engineering. No wonder the Chairman of ISRO, Somnath and the program director Veeramuthuvel are also alums of these institutes. The bright students from all over the country, like uncut diamonds, are polished by the IITs to shine and make the world notice.

Polishing the diamond

Contrary to the public opinion, IITs are not about coaching and Kota. There is excellence beyond the BTechs. The doctoral and the post-graduate programmes are the actual diamond polishing factories. The competition for performance is intense as they must compete with the best in the field to publish in high-impact factor journals.

Each IIT publishes over a thousand papers annually in peer-reviewed journals that have largely gone unnoticed. Unlike popular belief and expectation, only some papers have an application or product. Publications are a means for research skill development, such as experimental, mathematical and analytical skills. It is these skills that are in the arsenals of rocket scientists. Higher education in this country has delivered, and the moon rover has rolled.

For over 20 years, the IITs have collaborated extensively with leading research centres in India, such as ISRO, nuclear research, and defence laboratories. IIT Madras has had an ISRO cell for 30 years, and many projects from these cells have significantly contributed to the moon mission and others. Scientists from these organisations continue to earn advanced degrees from IITs. With 15 different departments, IITs offer expertise for multidisciplinary projects requiring diverse specialisation areas.

In a fast-changing landscape of technology, continuing education is the lifeline for survival. Learning is a continuous process, and the pace must match the speed of development. With more than 3,000 courses, the National Program for Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) offered jointly by many IITs and IISc is a gold mine. This excellent government initiative is free and has attracted 1.6 billion views and more than 4.5 million subscribers. The Rocket Science is now available on your desktop.

Wake up corporates

The success of Chandrayaan underscores the significance of higher education institutions as hubs of innovation and deep science, fostering human capital that drives scientific breakthroughs and technological advancements. But, one naturally wonders whether the corporate world has understood the IITs.

For them, it is still cracking the coveted JEE and the placement is always centred around the undergraduate programme. With a mind-boggling innovation, what ISRO has achieved should open the eyes of the corporate world. It is time they start developing technologies that can be best in business.

ISRO has valuable lessons to offer corporates, particularly in integrating research with product deliverables. Research projects should be aligned with mission objectives and scientifically stated for organisations like IITs. It is important to clearly define the “whats” and leave the “how” for research.

Currently, industry-focused research at IITs is low, and there’s a whole research world waiting to be explored and exploited. Closer interaction between industry and academia will benefit businesses, even in their search for technical excellence. My dear industry friends, there is talent beyond JEE.

More than anything, Chandrayaan is the triumph of homegrown scientists. That our higher education led by the IITs has been the catalyst is an undeniable fact. They continue to stand for the same reasons that led to their formation seven decades ago.

Indeed, Chandrayaan stands as an inspiration for thousands of young women and men who pursue their research degrees in this country, underscoring the pivotal role they can play in the nation’s odyssey towards scientific, technological and societal achievements.

The writer is Institute Professor, Indian Institute of Technology Madras