India education: Going green

NEW DELHI, India — When Yale University decided to establish its new Climate and Energy Institute in March the choice of Rajendra K. Pachauri to head it came as no surprise. Pachauri, who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore, has after all set up Asia's first university focused entirely on sustainable development.

In 10 years — a short span for a university — Pachauri's TERI University has made a name for itself in the rapidly growing field of sustainable development. The New Delhi university has won praise from industry executives and academics who say the institution is tackling some of the world's most pressing environmental problems, including poverty and pollution, and has the brainpower to make a difference.

For Yale, Pachauri will not only bring experience in setting up a university, but also a rich body of research from TERI's parent body, the Energy and Resources Institute, an environmental think tank which he founded in 1974. Yale's new institute will provide seed grants, support graduate study, sponsor conferences and workshops, and foster interdisciplinary research in areas ranging from basic atmospheric science to public policy. Almost 100 Yale scientists, engineers, physicians, social scientists and policy experts have joined together to launch the enterprise.

“We are fortunate to attract one of the world’s foremost climate change experts to lead this ambitious new institute,” Yale’s president, Richard Levin said, when he announced Pachauri's appointment.

Known for training specialists who help companies become more environmentally friendly, TERI University has created academic and research partnerships with Yale, North Carolina State, Michigan State and Brandeis Universities; as well as with the Free University of Berlin, and with the University of New South Wales, in Australia. International universities consult with TERI faculty members on how best to develop their curricula, or to learn more about how India is promoting sustainable development.

Many of TERI graduates have been snapped up by multinational companies like Suzlon Energy Limited, one of the world's leading players in harnessing wind energy, and Ernst & Young, an accounting firm, which has hired graduates as environmental consultants for its clients.

All students at TERI are required to take a broad range of courses in such subjects as economics, policy, sociology and the hard sciences. But what makes the program special, supporters say, is the requirement that students intern with companies or government agencies, and tackle actual environmental projects before they graduate.

"We don't want the students to specialize as scientists but as environmental managers, so they can work in the organization they join as advisers on environmental issues," P.P. Bhojvaid, dean of academics, said earlier this year.

TERI offers seven master's degrees, in areas including natural-resources management, water-resources management, and public policy and sustainable development. It also offers doctorates in the broad areas of biotechnology, energy and environment, regulatory and policy studies, and natural-resources management. The student-faculty ratio is four to one.

Students assist researchers at TERI on projects that include reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, building wastewater-treatment systems, and helping townships manage waste in an environmentally friendly manner. "After one year of course work, students jump in to live projects," said Rajiv Seth, a senior administrator at the university. "They do one semester of independent study, which we call a minor project, and then a full semester of a major project with industry."

To ensure that its graduates understand how their environmental projects will operate in the real world, the curriculum is a mix of social sciences and hard sciences. Students enrolled in water-resources management will also study policy issues, and students enrolled in public policy and sustainable development will also study pure sciences.

India's top industrial houses believe the university's balanced mix of multidisciplinary and innovative education equips students with skills suited to real-world problems rather than just academic theorizing.

"What they teach is very relevant to today's context," said Ulhas Parlikar, director of the alternative fuels and raw materials division of ACC Limited, a leading cement company in India. "Its graduates are multidimensional, are very willing to work in the field, and have passion for their work."

The university's next goal is to become more global, both in its curriculum and its student body.

"That is important because when it comes to environmental issues, we have a great deal to learn from others, and others can learn a great deal from us," said Mr. Pachauri. TERI's partnership with Yale reflects that interest. And Pachauri's appointment as head of Yale's Climate and Energy Institute will only deepen this partnership.

"Our collaboration with TERI University is beneficial to both sides," said Timothy Gregoire, a professor in the Yale forestry school. "It is imperative we remove the insularity of years past and become a global community." He noted that Yale, which last year announced a multimillion-dollar investment in academic partnerships in India, has a long-term commitment to the country. "They view our collaboration with TERI University as a model on which to develop such relationships," he said.