DR VALENTINA IVANOVA: INSPIRING CHILDREN FOR A BETTER FUTURE

by Bozhidara Georgieva; photography by Nelly Tomova

The co-founder of Academy Nikola Tesla, is on а mission to prepare kids' for the challenges of tomorrow

Valentina_Ivanova_Academy_Nikola_Tesla.jpg

In times of rapidly changing social, technological and political climates, all parents worry about what is the most responsible way to prepare their children for the challenges of tomorrow. New technologies are reshaping the ways in which children learn and perceive the world, and will have lasting consequences in the foreseeable future.

Academy Nikola Tesla is an ambitious and forward-thinking organisation that works hard to offer young Bulgarians a way to make the most of the future and new technologies by inspiring and thought-provoking courses in subjects such as robotics and programming. However, the Academy is not only about providing excellent extracurricular STEM education – its mission is to create holistic individuals who are smart, compassionate, and aware.

The Academy is headed by a woman who has devoted her life to this ambitious task. Co-founder Dr Valentina Ivanova has a PhD in AI, has specialised at the Software Engineering Institute at the Carnegie-Mellon University, in the USA, and has an Exec. MBA in finance management from Sheffield University. We talked to her to learn more.

Everyone talks about AI nowadays. What is your opinion about it?

When talking about the recent achievements in AI and the popular pre-trained transformer we have to remember that it was created with the sole purpose to convincingly combine pre-existing cliches from the Internet. It was not created to think for itself. I am telling this as someone with a PhD in Systems with Artificial Intelligence. AI-generated answers could be indeed impressive and appear like genuine thinking, but they will always remain a simulation of thought, a mathematical recombination of the most popular statements on the Internet. And we are all aware how trustworthy source of information the Internet is. AI provides a machine-generated mixture of contextually related phrases in flawless English. It imitates, follows models, and repeats cliches. It does not think, it does not understand.

In this case, which professions are more likely to benefit from AI?

These will be the professions that depend on critical approach towards the world, analysing cause and effect, making sensible decisions, and reaching conclusions. Such professions require human qualities far beyond the reach of AI, such as understanding, independent thinking, and being innovative. These are the most fascinating professions around, but anyone contemplating a career in them should be aware that they are also very demanding. The level of excellence is very high, and professionals should have profound background knowledge and expertise, and continue learning throughout their life. To sum it up, the advance of artificial intelligence only made natural intelligence more valuable.

How will AI affect education, in your opinion?

AI could be fatal for formal education. The students could effortlessly fulfil all formal requirements by copy/paste and graduate without learning anything at all – without learning fundamental facts, without knowing how to think for themselves, without building perseverance, and work ethics. In Bulgaria, the situation is even more dire. The current policies of the Ministry of Education encourage formal covering of set educational criteria – how many homeworks have the students written, and how many points have they scored on multiple-choice tests. This approach totally neglects the true meaning of education: a way to create thinking, sensible, and responsible individuals. Sadly, we are already seeing the results from these policies in the way in which young people behave in their workplaces, how they drive their cars, or how they build long-lasting relationships. However, they are not to blame. They have spent 12 years of their lives in an educational system that sets a negative example and is deeply inadequate for preparing them for the challenges of tomorrow.

What are the basic knowledge, skills and qualities that children should possess in order to feel safe for their future?

Since the dawn of humanity people have developed a set of skills and knowledge that made them capable and adequate members of society.

First, children should be good people. They should be capable of personal growth, to be emotionally intelligent and to understand that they are a part of society and as such have certain obligations. They should be capable of using humanity's experience and wisdom, to listen to their hearts and express their thoughts and feelings properly. They need all of these to make the world a better place.

Second, children should be capable of independent and logical thinking. They should know how to approach information critically, know causation from correlation, see hidden links and switch from the abstract to the concrete, and back.

Of course, third is the ability to efficiently use the tools of their time. Once, it was the plough. Today, it is computers and digital technologies.

How do you, at Academy Nikola Tesla, nurture these skills and knowledge?

We teach our students how to learn from the wisdom of previous generations, and how to express themselves efficiently with our Bulgarian Language and Literature courses.

We teach them to be reasonable, responsible and focused people capable of critical thinking and solving problems with our Mathematics courses.

We teach them to understand and master the tools of our time – digital technologies, in our Robo ste(a)m and Programming courses.

Becoming a holistic, aware individual takes a lot of time and deliberate practice. This is why our curriculum has courses for children ranging from preschoolers to 12th graders. Methodical work and development give the best results. However, we are also open to any child who wants to improve, regardless of their age.

It does not matter at what age and for which course they join the Academy, they are eager to stay longer. It is because of the friends they have made here, because of the special attention they receive from their teachers, and, finally, because of the realisation that they have found their place here.

We are also exploring the possibility of offering courses for university students in the near future.

On what principle have you chosen the subjects at the Academy?

The classes are age-appropriate. With the youngest ones we start with fairy tale characters, logic riddles and toy-like robots. With the eldest we are preparing for the final exams in Bulgarian language and literature, mathematics and informatics, and for university application. You can learn more and apply on www.ANT.bg.

In what cases do parents seek help from Academy Nikola Tesla?

Usually, when their children are going to meet a particular challenge – applying for 1st or 4th grade, sitting the national exams after 7th and 10th grade, or their final exams. Our role in this case is to fill the existing gaps in the children's education.

Some teenagers join the Academy when they start learning programming at school, but the time and explanations there are not enough.

We see the best results with children who study with us systematically and persistently, who are driven by the desire to know more than what is taught and required by the educational system.

With them we work ahead of the curriculum, we help them to broaden their horizons and, eventually, to fulfil their dreams. This is both a great challenge and a great source of joy for every teacher. I believe in these children because they, and their parents, have recognised knowledge as the road to success. I want to see them as the face of а new, modern Bulgaria. We are going to support them all the way. And one day, hopefully, we are going to welcome their children at the Academy Nikola Tesla.

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