May 13

The COVID-19 pandemic has required schools and organizations running extracurricular programs to rethink their approach to education. For the first time this year, some of the leading global STEM programmes are moving their key events online. Despite the limitations of the online format, these organizations have developed innovative ways to connect to a growing audience of young people who see a future career in tech and related sciences.

For FIRST – a global STEM education programme and robotics community designed for elementary, middle, and high schools – a key challenge has been creating guidelines for participating schools that would work equally well for students who are in the classroom and those in front of a screen at home.

“The early stages of robotics projects that mostly involve brainstorming and talking through ideas translate well to remote environments, since many students are already used to using video chat platforms for remote learning,” said Erica Newton Fessia, vice president of global field operations for FIRST, in an interview to Business Insider.

Although FIRST is primarily a robotics programme and competition, there is much more to it than just building and programming robots. It puts a major focus on developing skills that are crucial to any start-up these days: these include pitching potential investors to raise funds for projects, designing and marketing a team brand, learning to run public relations and much more. Most of this training is well-suited for remote, virtual collaboration.

The main problem for such programmes is reconceptualizing their annual events that bring together students to compete and showcase their inventions. This season, FIRST has introduced remote events for regions that are unable to hold in-person gatherings, and has amended its programme to include new challenges to the FIRST Robotics Competition that focus on remote learning and building.

One of the first STEM programme events to go fully online was Robofest, Europe’s largest technology competition and festival for young people, organised by Volnoe Delo, a charity foundation of Russian philanthropist Oleg Deripaska. The 12th annual Robofest took place between 26 October and 1 November and was held online for the first time. For the logistics of the event, the organisers set up a competition area in Moscow, the home of the Robofest, to which participants connected to compete and communicate with each other remotely.

Just like FIRST, Robofest has amended its structure to allow for more flexibility. Of particular note is an interactive online lecture room that was set up for the festival and that broadcast lectures and workshops with leading scientists, engineers, writers, journalists and businessmen. Despite its unusual format, this year’s Robofest attracted more than 5,000 participants from different countries.

Robofest organizers noted a significant increase in the number of young people taking interest in tech sciences and robotics, and linked it directly to the pandemic. According to their study, conducted during the festival, more than half of new participants said that their interest in robotics and related sciences came during the lockdown, and more than a third of participants in past festivals confirmed that the pandemic and lockdown allowed them to devote more time to their self-education in this field.

The rapidly changing world makes us more reliant on technology and increases the awareness among young people of the importance and the potential of a career in robotics, particularly in light of restrictions tied to social distancing and lockdowns. And it is at times like these that students can learn best to address real-world problems and create life-changing technologies that will stay with us for many years to come.

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