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An Indian University Is Trying To Innovate What Students Learn — And How They Learn It

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

India has more young people than any other nation on Earth, 600 million people. About half the population are under the age of 25. Among other things, that means the country needs more college classrooms, a lot more. By one estimate, India needs to build at least a thousand new universities in this decade alone. In the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh, NPR's Anya Kamenetz visits a campus that was built in just five months. They're on an unlikely quest to become one of the top universities not just in India but the world.

AAYUSHI BISWAS: So we've got the beauty parlor, the salon and also the pharmacy.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Nothing on the campus of SRM University in Andhra Pradesh is more than two years old.

BISWAS: This is the open cafeteria. It starts...

KAMENETZ: And everything, from the labs to the library, looks as spiffy and spotless as a computer rendering. Aayushi Biswas, an engineering student from central India, has filled her dorm room with plants, Harry Potter merch.

BISWAS: Plus, a lot of books - I love reading books.

KAMENETZ: With her long hair and glasses, Aayushi is the kind of bright self-starter you'd expect to meet at U.C. Berkeley, where she did study abroad. But here, in her home country, she's found a university that matches her interests.

BISWAS: The way this university promoted entrepreneurship is something I've never seen before in Indian colleges.

KAMENETZ: This broader region of India is famous for producing and exporting technical talent. In fact, they've sent so many graduate students and engineers to study and work abroad in recent years that Telugu, the local language, became the fastest-growing foreign language in the United States.

NARAYANA RAO: We are the brain-power suppliers to the world.

KAMENETZ: Narayana Rao is the university's vice chancellor.

RAO: I coined a phrase. You take any product coming out of America, there is an Indian inside, like Intel inside.

KAMENETZ: But that's exactly the problem, says Rao. To get to the next level of development, India needs to home-grow its own talent and keep them here. He points to the country's fledgling space program.

RAO: All of these achievements of the space programs were accomplished by the Indians trained in India.

KAMENETZ: SRM AP for Andhra Pradesh is the newest and smallest campus of SRM Institute of Science and Technology, a private institution founded in the 1980s. It was designed from scratch to be innovative. Besides a high-tech research into areas like batteries and 3D printing, there is an entire school of liberal arts, which isn't always found at Indian universities. Most SRM AP students are studying engineering and computer science like Aayushi. But they also take classes like rhetoric, theater and gender studies. SRM AP is trying to innovate not just what Indian students learn but how they learn. Former Vice Chancellor Jamshed Bharucha says the norm since he was growing up in Mumbai has been bunking or skipping classes and then cramming or what they call here...

JAMSHED BHARUCHA: ...Mucking up for exams - very memorization-oriented, very rigid curricula.

KAMENETZ: So SRM AP is working with an American startup called Minerva. Their software uses artificial intelligence to promote active learning, keeping students speaking up and problem solving all through class.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Massoum...

MASSOUM: Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Define what is a thesis for us?

MASSOUM: A thesis can be defined as a main idea or the topic...

KAMENETZ: We're in a freshman English class where the students are all wearing headsets and sitting in front of monitors. They can see their classmates over video chat. The software is selecting students at random to answer the questions from the professor.

SAI KRISHNA VISHNAMULUKA: In the beginning, like, we all were exhausted. Like, the class is like an exam to us.

KAMENETZ: Freshman Sai Krishna Vishnamuluka (ph) explains this class really keeps them on their toes. And it teaches students to...

VISHNAMULUKA: ...Learn how to apply this - like, how to apply what we have learned.

KAMENETZ: This American-style learning also spills over into extracurriculars. Aayushi Biswas belongs to a group called Next Tech Lab that has won hackathons all over the world. She's leading something called Python in Pajamas, an all-girls, late-night event using the python coding language.

BISWAS: It's just going to be a night full of coding Python - girls in a room in pajamas.

KAMENETZ: SRM AP has more women in engineering than most Indian schools. They make up about 35% of the program. Aayushi says, in India, girls are often pushed towards studying and passing exams. She wants them to know they can build their own stuff, too.

BISWAS: Like, in India specifically, 11th and 12th grade, girls are pushed into getting good grades. So they aren't that much into these things, building stuff.

KAMENETZ: The students' optimism here is infectious. But there are very literal roadblocks to the development of SRM AP. We're an hour from the nearest city. And the road here ends in a muddy rut. The campus was built on subsidized land because it was meant to be part of a brand new capital city called Amaravati. But right now, that project seems to be held up. Rao, the vice chancellor, says the fact that the campus is currently surrounded by banana fields and herds of goats is no problem.

RAO: The students look for - will I get good education and training here? Will I have opportunities to work on my dream ideas? Do I have role models here?

KAMENETZ: Applicants won't be so concerned, he says, with the type of road or lack thereof.

RAO: Cement road, tar road - they won't ask.

KAMENETZ: At the end of the conversation, Rao points out a model of a real working satellite that was built and launched by SRM undergraduates from the Chennai campus. He says...

RAO: Ten years - we'll be No. 1. Of course, no university becomes world class on the day one.

KAMENETZ: So they're reaching for the stars. Will they get there? Maybe. But Aayushi Biswas, for one, probably won't be with them. She's got her sights set on MIT for grad school. Anya Kamenetz, NPR News, Vijayawada, India.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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