Teachers, Businessmen, Robots and Youth United to Rebuild Armenian IT

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MurielKaren Vardanyan

By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN — Karen Vardanyan has an ambitious vision for Armenia’s future. If his program continues to garner success, the country will become a leader in the field of complex engineering solutions, not only in software but also in related fields. Thus far, the project has captured the imagination of hundreds of Armenian youngsters and enjoys the support of private industry and some governmental agencies.

The basic concept is deceptively simple. He and his colleagues set up robotics clubs in public schools, where pupils can take part, on a voluntary basis, and learn all about the field. They can build their own robots, as well as learn to operate them through remote control. They become proficient in computer programming. Once a year, they can participate in a nationwide competition, where they present their creations. Those youth who excel and wish to continue their education in electronics, can study at universities thanks to scholarships, and even travel abroad to further their higher education. When they return to Armenia, they will either embark on teaching careers or enter industry at some level, and either way contribute to rebuilding this vital sector.

We met with Karen, an old friend, at the Digitec Expo 2014, held between October 3-5 at the Mergelyan Institute in Erevan. Twenty-five years ago there were 8,000 people, working at the Mergelyan Institute, whereas now there are 400. These figures spell out the dimensions of the tragedy that has afflicted the sector, which earlier had been the leader in military electronics in the entire Soviet Union. When Armenia became independent in 1991 there was opposition in both east and west to the perspective of a strong sector in the country. In the early 1990s conflict situation, electricity was scarce or not available, the factories had been gutted, their equipment removed or stolen, and former employees had to seek jobs elsewhere. Thousands of highly qualified Armenians in this and other high-tech areas sought and found employment abroad, and the brain drain threatened to rob the country of its most precious resource: its human capital.

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Thus the idea of robotics clubs. As Vardanyan explained, the Union of Information Technology Enterprises (UITE), of which he is executive director, was established in 2000 as a business association of some 70 enterprises in this field operating in Armenia, whether native or local branches of international organizations. Among the many programs that UITE implements are the Digitec Expo, the Digitec Business Forum and the robotics programs with their competitions, the “Open Game” Armenian Open Championship of Developers of Computer and Mobile Games; the Armenian Robotics Developments and Support Program (ArmRobotics), the Business Innovation Forum and the Digi Camp.

 

Building Blocks for Tomorrow’s Engineers

The special programs covering the 5th through 12th grades in schools work with five basic tools. First are the School Educational Robotics Kits, produced by SYMOTEC Engineering Company. These are inexpensive kits providing the tools with which youngsters can build their own robots. The kits contain a self-sufficient collection of metallic constructor details, wheels, motors and sensors from Vex Robotics, control boxes with RoBoard based controllers, web cameras, Lan and WiFi wireless networks, related software programs and training instructions. Children work together, or rather play together, in groups of 5-7 at a time, learning about how robots work and then building their own.

At the Digitec Expo, we could see how exciting these robots are for children of all ages. They had small wheel vehicles built with Lego blocks, which they drove around in a playing area by remote control. Then there were the range finders, which are mobile platforms with ultrasonic distance sensors that can find obstacles and measure distances. A robot equipped with an arm mounted on the mobile platform can carry a web camera. It can recognize balls of different colors, follow them and perform various actions with each color. One attraction that fascinated especially the youngest children was an ecology-friendly garbage can with a big smile, that opened its cover, like taking off its hat, to collect refuse. The more sophisticated devices on display included unmanned flying objects (drones) and printers. One young boy explained to us that he had seen such a printer on the Internet and copied the design to build his own out of Lego. Then he studied programming and wrote a program to be able to run his printer.

Among the tools available to the robotics clubs is a lab program, modeled on an MIT “Scratch” program, developed in 2003, which is an online programming language and community, through which children can learn programming and create their own stories and games. This has been translated into Armenian and adapted to teach programming in the Armenian language and in an Armenian environment. So children now can do their classwork, including physics experiments or whatever, with this computer language. Of course, many children who learned to work with Scratch online, had to learn English to do so. This may help explain why we met up with so many young people who spoke excellent English. With this program in Armenian, they can also connect their games to small computers, also made in Armenia. With their computers they can develop programs to operate computer-controlled cutting (CNC) machines, to cut wood or metals, for example. In more advanced robotics clubs in the higher grades, students learn to work with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) with video stabilization cameras mounted on them, for application in weather systems and the like.

A further tool is the Atelier Lab, invented by Etienne Delacroix, who pioneered deconstructing discarded computers and other related components — “technological junk” — and reassembling them in new useful electronic devices. A trained physicist and also a painter, Delacroix was a visiting scholar at MIT. There he approached computer technology from the standpoint of an artist, and later led workshops in various countries on how to combine engineering and art. “He came to Armenia,” Vardanyan told us, “and we want to implement his approach nationally — the first country to do so.” Obviously, this requires qualified teachers and a lot of old junk computers. “Also we want to make a Live Code programming language in labs, to allow the members of engineering labs to learn programming both for Android and IOS.  Afterwards they can generate income by it.”

 

Industry Allies with Educators

One slogan Vardanyan quoted for his project is “One company, one school.” By this he hopes to organize small and medium companies to team up with schools, whose students can be trained there. At present there are about 500 such companies in Armenia and the number should increase to 1,400 by the year 2018. Since there are 1,400 schools in the country, by that time, the one company, one school formula could be realized.  To finance this entire effort, he estimated that a $25 million investment, from public and private sources combined, would be required. Help from the Diaspora, in the form of single grants to single school, would be crucial.

Anyone who finds such a sum exorbitant should reflect on the sad reality of Armenia’s economy today. Although figures vary, Vardanyan estimates that there is a 3% emigration rate, a continuing brain drain, which is threatening Armenia’s future economic and social stability. Those who emigrate are educated, university graduates, many with 8-12 years’ experience. But they see no challenges and ambitious employment at home. This is the reason why Vardanyan’s programs focus not on one single aspect but on the whole. His vision foresees an Armenia in which every school has an engineering club and the relevant educational programs, and every school has a company partner to provide on the job training. “It will take one, two, three generations,” Vardanyan said, “but we have begun, we have clubs in 60 schools so far.” And, as we could see for ourselves at the Digitec Expo, the excitement is spreading like wildfire.