India’s IITs join Covid-19 fight

About 200 projects contribute to research and aim to engage students during campus shutdowns

April 29, 2020

Indian Institutes of Technology are spearheading initiatives to help control the coronavirus pandemic in their country, and to encourage student participation during a nationwide lockdown that has closed the nation’s universities since March.

V. Ramgopal Rao, director of the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, told Times Higher Education that there are more than 200 IIT projects across the nation related to Covid-19.

“Our start-ups and faculty/student teams are in the forefront when it comes to fighting Covid-related technological issues,” he said, citing work in personal protective equipment (PPE), low-cost ventilators, detection technologies and analytic tools. “Almost every week for the past two months, a new technology or solution has been put out by one IIT or the other for fighting Covid," he added.

IIT Delhi announced on 23 April that it was the first higher education institution to receive approval from the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) for a polymerase chain reaction test for Covid-19.

The development comes as India looks to scale up testing in a country of more a billion people – an effort thwarted last week when Indian states were asked to stop using about a half million testing kits from China because of quality concerns. India has had about 28,000 Covid-19 infections and 800 deaths, as of 27 April.

“[It] should change the Covid testing paradigm in India,” Professor Rao said of IIT Delhi’s test. “We hope to get this out into society in another two weeks’ time frame.”

The test is probe free and “extremely low-cost,” with a targeted price point of US $5, or £4. IIT Delhi is issuing non-exclusive licenses to about a half-dozen companies.

While IITs are largely known as engineering schools, some of the more progressive institutions are putting more focus on the humanities, including in their work on Covid-19.

Sudhir K Jain, director of the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar, told THE that “the current pandemic highlights the unexpected and different intersections that shape modern life and societies, so liberal education is absolutely essential”.

Professor Jain is the principal driver behind a multidisciplinary initiative called Project Isaac, named after Sir Isaac Newton, who was famously productive when the Great Plague kept him from his studies at the University of Cambridge.

The project encourages students to undertake Covid-19 research, open start-ups, or acquire new skills in areas such as writing, art and music. It also includes contests and awards for coding, innovation and research. About 60 per cent of the institution's students have voluntarily participated.

“As we looked at ways to engage our students during the academic disruption, we decided to use this as an opportunity to underscore the importance of creativity and the arts, which end up being downplayed in the busy rhythm of classwork and exams during the regular semester,” Professor Jain said.

“Students who go through an IIT education end up in a very wide range of professions and careers. The development of these type of skills prepares them even better for the interconnected future ahead.”

At the institution, located in the western state of Gujarat, all incoming students go through a five-week foundation programme that includes training in creativity, communications and ethics, while all undergraduates are required to take about 20 per cent of their coursework in the humanities and the social sciences, despite the fact that they are engineering majors.

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