Dr Valentina Ivanova on the innovative education that opens the doors to the world
Education is not an end in itself, but a way to fulfil even the boldest dreams – and with the classes at Academy Nikola Tesla children can really achieve this. The extracurricular activities at the academy focus on robotics, programming and mathematics for young and older students and put the emphasis on developing logical and creative thinking with age-appropriate methods. Thanks to this innovative approach, Academy Nikola Tesla has become the stepping stone for the future growth of Bulgarian children into thinking, aware and responsible adults who know the digital world that they inhabit and can model it in a way that fits best their dreams.
To learn more about this innovative educational project, we talked to one of its founders, Dr Valentina Ivanova. She has a PhD in AI systems and holds an MA in software systems from Sofia's Technical University and has specialised in the Sheffield University and the Carnegie-Mellon University in the US.
What is the Academy Nikola Tesla?
Academy Nikola Tesla is a fulfilled dream – a place where the best teachers meet the best students. The educational system lacks the capacity to answer the interests and to develop the potential and talent of outstanding students. We have. We work in small groups divided by age and level. We encourage children and teenagers to compete with themselves and to be better every time we meet again. We teach them to fight the problems that they encounter, to persevere and be creative, to use their knowledge and skills in a constructive, consistent and target-oriented way, to dream and to fulfil their dreams. Academy Nikola Tesla has branches in Sofia, Plovdiv and Varna, and works online with the rest of its students.
Why do Bulgarian children need a place such as the Academy Nikola Tesla?
Children need an environment that encourages their curiosity, they need people who can answer their thousands of questions and who can provoke them to think. We integrate exploration approach in each activity. We teach kids not only on the how, but also on the why. Actually, we teach them mostly why. Slowly and with lots of work and perseverance we build a mental model of how the world works. Together with the children we experiment and rediscover the wonders of digital technologies. We teach them how to recognise and manage them. It is important that our children are not passive consumers of digital content but people able to use technologies creatively and with awareness – as creators, innovators and proactive builders of the future.
In the near future programming will be a part of one’s basic literacy and it is really important to start learning it at a young age. How are the classes for your youngest students organised? What is ROBO STE(A)M?
ROBO STE(A)M is the new, extended programme that upgrades our previous format – Robo English. In it, the youngest students discover how they can programme different robots. We expanded the programme with even more experiments, exploration tasks and challenges that reveal the beauty of and the connections between the physical and the digital world. We charge diodes with electricity from lemons, we sort balloons, we walk on one-way paths in guided columns to find the shortest way to the good fairy's house. We learn to seek solutions because when something is not easy it becomes interesting. We invite the youngest students to join our one week ROBO STE(A)M school in summer or to join our group in the next school year.
Why did you choose to teach older students at Academy Nikola Tesla to program on С++?
С++ is a difficult language. If you have to start working as a programmer tomorrow, do not start learning it! С++ requires in-depth work, knowledge of the principles of how machines work and attention to each detail. С++ allows us to demonstrate to students the evolution of programming languages. The children have time and opportunity to learn it as if they are learning a foreign language – from the simplest language constructions to the latest methods and styles. All of these require attention, patience and a lot of exercises. We chose С++ for its rich capabilities to program at different levels of abstraction. When you know it, the transition to each of the other programming languages from a higher level would be easier. С++ not only opens the doors to the world of programming – it gives you the key.
How do you choose the teachers?
We work with people who we know and with whom we share an understanding and vision for the meaning and benefit of quality, in-depth knowledge. Our children's time is invaluable, for us it is crucial to bring meaning to it by allowing them to aqcuire knowledge and skills that will be useful throughout their lives. Thus, regardless of whether we teach them programming, maths, physics or Bulgarian language and literature, we teach them first and foremost to think, to understand what they do, to be responsible for their actions, to value knowledge and to use it. To be happy that they know and can!
How do you dream of seeing your students after 10, 20 or 30 years?
I believe that the children that are with us today are the future builders of modern Bulgaria. I want to see them making the world a better place – each in their profession. I want them to be able to develop and conquer new peaks here, in Bulgaria. The skill to use digital technologies provides opportunities to transcend geographical borders. We are already seeing the first success stories of our students. The first fulfilled dreams. I dream that this will be the same after 10, 20 and 30 years as well – to see our students happy and successful. The greatest recognition for us will be when, some time in the future, our current students bring to us their own children, and then they – their own. Education is not an end in itself, it is a means to achieve even our most audacious goal – our dreams.
Sofia: 17 Tsarigradsko Shose Blvd, phone: +359 888 955 097
Varna: 46 Prince Boris I, floor 2, phone: +359 899 386 370
Plovdiv: 144A 6th September Blvd, floor 3