In the next few weeks The Recursive will bring to your attention the compelling stories of future STEM talents in CEE.
First, meet the young innovators from Romania’s award-winning robotics team Auto Vortex.
Two years ago, The Recursive reported on their success at the International Robotics Championship in Chicago. They were the first team in the world to beat the Americans on American ground.
Over the years, the Auto Vortex team participated in robotic competitions and won several awards in the Netherlands, Libya, Germany, Jamaica, France, and South Korea. And this year, they doubled down on their success by winning first place for the second time in the USA International Robotics Championship.
A team of young innovators
How did a group of high school students from Romania become international robotics sensation? We reached out to their coach – Valentin Ionuț Panea, a finance teacher from the Bucharest University of Economic Studies (ASE) to find out.
He told us that he started the team meant for students aged 13 to 18 years old at his garage 13 years ago.
„We attended the first international competition in that year, and we kept on building robots, recruiting students, growing and inspiring others”, Panea says, adding that the robotics team is open to children from all social categories.
“We mentor them, we train them, inspire them, and then after they win one competition, they start to blossom“, the teacher observes.
This year they participated in the International Robotics Championship with three divisions. One of AutoVortex’s teams is an all-girls team who built the robot, programmed it and made it all the way to the semi finals.
Freedom to explore and play
So, what’s the secret sauce for Auto Vortex’s success? According to their teacher is the freedom he gives to children to play, explore and experiment.
“It’s mostly children that teach children and inspire children. I’m almost the only adult active over there and I give them a lot of freedom”, says Panea.
This non-orthodox approach together with a lot of hard work, focus and dedication has yielded their results. Sometimes they come up with a solution to a problem in 2 hours, sometimes it takes up to 10 hours of work and staying up late. In this process children learn not only the intricacies of STEM education but also how to work together and respect each other and how to achieve good results, not wait for somebody else to solve their problems for them, Panea explains.
This winning mentality is something that is missing in Romania according to Panea, as a result of the huge waves of brain drain throughout the years, seeing the country’s brightest minds moving to Western Europe and the US.
The bumps on the road to success
However, building robots and traveling around the world for competitions takes a lot of money and so far the costs have been mostly covered by the children’s parents and the teacher himself. Finding sponsors has been a rocky road for the AutoVortex’s team until now. Not many traditional Romanian companies have been willing to support the team, representing their country abroad, but occasionally they have managed to secure small funding from foreign companies who have an office in Romania.
According to the AutoVortex’s coach in Romania STEM education at the national level is very poorly implemented. For example, schools that are teaching programming are tutoring outdated languages, without giving children enough opportunities to do practical stuff and solve problems on their own. In Panea’s opinion, a middle ground should be found where children could still get the good knowledge foundation of traditional education but use it to solve the problems of the future.
The robotics team works with kids to fill in the gaps left by school but also to develop a taste for learning new stuff and confidence to compete on a larger scale.
“We live in a globalized society. There are no boundaries with the internet. It’s not enough to be very good in your small town, village, or in your small bubble. If you want to be successful, you need to compete with everybody”, Panel comments.
He adds that when he founded the team 13 years ago, people used to look at them as some crazy people wasting their time with toys. But as they have reached international success and got the local media’s attention this perception has shifted. Now, the AutoVortex team is a source of inspiration for others pursuing innovative initiatives in other areas.
The future realization of the talents
The students from AutoVortex are not different from the students from all around the country, as most of them choose to study abroad, in the West. Usually, they continue their studies in STEM, mostly computer science or engineering. The few who remain in Romania continue their education at the Polytechnic University in Bucharest.
For the AutoVortex robotics team, the goal for the future is not only to keep going with their success but also to bring a new robotics competition to Romania. They want to stimulate the best ones to be rewarded, to go to international competitions, to appear on TV, and get recognition for what they do.
Their long-term goals are even more ambitious. They want to find a solution to keep students in Romania and to offer them viable work experience. To make their goal possible, they are considering founding a robot factory that will produce the robots in Romania. They also have an idea to build a university where everybody will have the opportunity to learn practical things. But to realize their vision, AutoVortex will need assistance from their government, showcasing Romania’s potential as a future STEM leader.