Despite the degradation of the Russian education system on all its levels, today it is possible to find platforms where advanced educational projects, including engineering ones, are implemented. It’s not a regular phenomenon and mostly it’s a result of work of certain enthusiasts. We discussed one of these platforms with Igor Grigoriev, a teacher at N.I.Lobachevsky lyceum collaborating with the Kazan Federal University, and the head of the youth organization “Space Scouts”.
– Igor, you created the Lobachevsky lyceum and also you were its first principal. Could you please tell us a few words about how and when this lyceum was created?
Previously I worked in the University Psychology department. Though my higher education was connected with theoretical physics, I was placed in the psychology department. The point is that during my third year of studies, I became extremely interested in the question of mind organization and communication and pedagogics. Afterwards I started to create the school, and it was opened in 1990. During the first years the school control was exercised from scratch. We had only a small room previously used by the department party committee. It was the only area we had – teacher’s room, director’s office and pupil’s recreation. But it also was the time of close communication. Of course we needed to do a lot of paperwork but I felt like asking myself: “And what about the pupils that should be taught?” We waited for holidays to prepare documents while the pupils were away. But the holidays started and the children stayed where they were. Generally if you work with pupils in a right way they get involved. I think that tutors must not stagnate while teaching. They have to move forward. The reason is that children are often interested in things that the adults are doing. If you do not say “get out” to the child at this moment and start explaining instead he will get involved.
Afterwards the administration changed. Attitudes weren’t helping me to progress. That’s why we stayed in our places and worked in a closed system. Recently we became more open. Lots of things that you see now were developed from the time of my work as a principal. Basically everything here was purchased with my own funds of given by the pupils as the school itself didn’t provide a lot.
– What educational technologies do you apply in your work?
Our organization “Space Scouts” is created in collaboration with the Lobachevsky lyceum but in fact it works as an independent institution. The word ’scouts‘ in our title seems a little scary, but in Russian tradition it has a close meaning with the word “scout” in its classical interpretation. When I faced the scout system I realized that a lot of things that I tried and tested so hard were already used in it. To adopt some methods from scouting is really useful. Previous experience gives us the possibility to create a flexible educational system; it’s more complex than a hobby group of young physicists or biologists, for example. Getting a “specialty” in the scout system is based on completing mini-courses and getting a badge as a result. After you should go on with other specialties in the same way. You can use this system for more serious projects.
To keep up, modern people must be open-minded and universal specialists, in order to switch easily between different knowledge fields. Such universality presents itself also in cosmonautics. I often say: “You can name me any science as an example and I’ll show you how it’s connected with cosmonautics”.
– What areas do you cover in your work in the organization?
Electronic engineering, programming and modeling are our work areas. We try to write programs connected with astronomical modeling (computer-based planetarium, for example) or programs that you can use for modeling of different astrophysical objects like stars. There are processes like energy release, gravitational contraction and others.
We begin to work on such projects with pupils from their 7th grade. Now they get older and graduate from school so I have to find new ones. Pupils start to write programs from their 9-10 grades. We think it’s too early for 7th grade pupil to focus on high school education. In our schools we help children to develop first, and only after that will it be possible to think about their future.
For children who came to our school for the first time we have the introductory course, created years ago. It’s a three-day course that introduces our organization “Space scouts” and gives information about its functions and teaches pupils to work as a team and be friendly to each other. After that pupils get involved.
Our pupils can be interested in different knowledge fields. And we must focus on it. One of our pupils wanted to create a model of an SR-71 plane. We chose the model size and started to work on it. But during the process we understood that he wasn’t ready for such a difficult project yet, so we started with some basic things first. The other pupil was interested in aviation but he didn’t like to solder. It wasn’t a problem for us. Pupils should be encouraged to deal with interesting things for them.
Our system works without a certain timetable for hobbies – classes. Pupils spend all their time here, and everyone has their own problem to work with. My aim is to make this classroom universal.
– What other focus areas do you concentrate on?
Technical creativity is one of our work fields. Four years ago I was involved in a technical creativity exhibition. And some of exhibits looked very old-fashioned, you couldn’t determine in what year they were created. But now the techniques have changed a lot. That’s why we need to use all the advantages of technical progress.
We have worked with microprocessors in electrical engineering and in energetics. One of my students leads this course now. He is one of the key specialists in Electronic engineering, he works with power systems and remote control. He works with our pupils in our school.
Last year I lead the “technology” course. Usually nobody takes this discipline seriously at school, but it is very perspective field that should be taught in a correct way; not by 70-year-old manual workers for example. This discipline should be taught in a modern way, as I lead an electronic engineering course now.
– Why have you chosen this direction?
The technological breakthrough begins from research in the field of mechanics, while you also have to learn about numerical program controls and electronics. Everything is connected with electronics. That’s why, in my opinion, modern electronics is the major basis for everything.
We already have some interesting contacts in this field. For example, one Moscow Company called “Argon” produces computers for space vehicles, including ISS and MIR. Interaction with them is very useful for us.
Another more interesting direction on which we have begun to work is the constructing of nano-satellites. The out-of-date approach in cosmonautics was like constructing a bus-sized satellite and filling it with all possible technology. Such constriction can break down because of one detail. The alternative idea is to create small satellites each with a sole mission. Such a satellite completes its mission and burns up in the earth’s atmosphere. There are nano-satellites and pico-satellites. A pico-satellite is about Winchester size, a nano-satellite is bigger – from 10 to 30 kg. Modern satellites become faster and more mobile. My students can also fulfill these requirements. A big satellite is created in the laboratory and many people are involved into this process. Lots of things must be coordinated and lots of elements must work together like a single system. It will be easier to make many small satellites, each focused on one specific mission.
– In what context do you work with nano-satellites?
We took part in one interesting European competition in Sweden called “CanSat” (first part of word is “can” and the second means satellite.) The idea of competition was to make a satellite sized like a Pepsi can and weighting no more than half of a kilo. Though it’s not exactly a satellite, this construction is put into a self-made rocket and launches for one or two kilometers (thus a rocket is not our problem). So the rocket launches the satellite. When the satellite begins to fall it opens a parachute. The point is to fill the satellite with interesting equipment, in order to obtain information, to process and to submit it. We want Kazan to become the Russian centre of this research.
– And what helped you to do that?
Initiative does, first of all. Our graduates (university students now) together with KAI students came second in a similar world championship. If they had consulted with me, they would have won the competition (laughing). It’s the initiative group of Kazan post-graduates and students.
As far as we are the most advanced Kazan rocket constructors, we would like to organize a competition for special rocket creation. We would construct it together with our pupils. This rocket has an extreme task. It should launch a couple of half kilo satellites (or kilo and a half) 2 km high.
We launched one yesterday. It was a real show for children. We launched it to 300m – so you could see it in the sky. On a greater distance it won’t be visible.
– You work only with pupils?
You see, when our pupils graduate they become students and return here anyway. It’s a staged system. Even a pupil that has enough knowledge becomes a teacher in some way. According to the scout system they become an instructor. And they start to share their knowledge. Then they go to the high school and after graduation come here as well. Not everyone, of course. Students are my assistants.
– And how do you cooperate with parents?
There is a strange tendency now – parents are separated from school in every possible way. My child went to school No.102. The school was good enough. Security meets your child at the front door, and after classes you should meet your child at the same place. You can’t come inside.
But it would be better for parents to take part in the educational process. It’s a stereotype that you should only send your child to school and that’s all. Parents of junior school pupils see the situation better, so they are involved in their children’s life a little more. To make parents of elder pupils come on parent’s meetings is a big problem. It’s not a new problem, but the situation is getting worse now. Teachers could cope with that problem, but they have to be very professional in that field.
I’m trying to develop projects with parent’s participation. For example, the 6th grade of our school was organized by the parent’s initiative. All children were from different schools but all of them were preparing for a math competition. They couldn’t wait till the next year. Parents wanted to create a group for the 6th class, so we made it. Parents got involved in school life; they helped a lot so the atmosphere became friendly.
– And what external connections do you have?
We have contacts in the sphere of radio electronics. In 1993 we provided radio contact of our pupils with the MIR station. We also tried to contact МKS, but its orbit wasn’t suitable. The cosmonauts answer only in their free time, usually they are not above Kazan at the right time. However we can hear when they talk.
I didn’t get why these contacts made our pupils so excited at first. It was a work conversation with the MIR station. One of the cosmonauts was asking something about a formula, because they were preparing to land. My pupils were amazed! It was funny to them that the cosmonaut forgot the formula like a bad pupil.
We also visited Star City (Zvyozdny Gorodok). We began to program the attitude-orbit astronaut trainer. There was an international piloting conference arranged in Star City, we took our project and became participants in it.
It was funny to see how they announced things: the report of the Novosibirsk Center of Astronaut Equipment, the report of Ryazan research center from the Kazan city, the pupils of Lyceum No.1. But everybody liked the report. Unfortunately, for many reasons, the project wasn’t finished. They offered for us to stay for one more day, so we changed our tickets, because it was so interesting there. They showed us Star City and all the astronaut trainers. I realized there that our memory has limits, because I couldn’t remember all the new information, it was impossible even for me – a man who is interested in cosmonautics a great deal.
There was another interesting fact. Some time ago there was a 2-meter telescope constructed at the University. Compared to a 12m telescope, widely distributed in the world, the 2m one looked modest, but it was one of the largest telescopes available for any University.
But a telescope is not just about good optics. You can use it only in good weather. The head of the Department of Astronomy made a disputable decision. It was during the Perestroika period; during that time it was hard to find money and places for building. So he asked the Turks to construct an observatory on their territory in order to put our Kazan telescope. So if Russia alienates Turkey, I don’t know what will happen.
– Your project has been going for more than 20 years. And where are your graduates now, what do they do?
One generation is involved in astronomy. Some of them even work in the European Space Agency. One person works in NASA. It’s a girl, she migrated to the USA. Now she assembles blocks for the American shuttles. And some of our graduates work in other specializations.
Actually we prepare our pupils for work in specific structures, so they have all the required knowledge. But in fact this system doesn’t work well. Once we sent our guys to the Astronomy department. But they returned in a year and told us that there was nothing to do there. The department had closed off any external activity. No prospects for young people existed there.
I’m sure that even the University should have a certain development project for the future. Our pupils must be prepared not just to fit in with the structure, but to change it, to develop it.
– What do you think of the current school educational system?
Schools went their own way now. A lot of them have far-fetched internal problems. But life moves on, schools should change the old-fashioned educational system and stop making fake reports of experimental work. Reading these reports, you may think that we have the most powerful development center. But they don’t provide any new knowledge.
Of course, school is only a part of a certain system. Any development process leads to external changes. But schools, unfortunately, are closed systems and there are no external connections. Any innovation calls for great inner changes.
So it would be great if everyone in school understood: if anything outside is better than what we currently have, we should see and take it as a personal challenge, try to look into it more deeply, and make the best of what we have.