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Can Robotics Curb Brain Drain in Moldova?

This activity was one of four winners of Chemonics’ recent Market Systems and Youth Enterprise Development Innovation Contest within the youth enterprise track. To read about the other three contest winners, click the following links:

Can a Competition Create Space for Learning? Three Design Factors to Consider
Ukraine’s Most Celebrated Watermelons Spark Unexpected Reform
Empowerment at Your Doorstep: The Case of WEinSPIRE in Pakistan 

When thousands of youth are migrating abroad to seek better employment opportunities, how do you provide a viable economic alternative to encourage them to stay, develop their skills, and invest in their communities? That’s exactly the question that Moldova faced and the Moldova Competitiveness Project (MCP), funded by USAID and Sweden, found an answer in robotics. With the design and implementation of the Educational Robotics program, MCP is closing the opportunities gap by providing Moldovan youth with the science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) skills needed to find employment in the country’s rapidly expanding ICT industry. Significantly, MCP is also working to ensure sustainability by first gaining local buy-in from communities and has spread the program to 125 schools and libraries across Moldova.

Building Robots, Building Careers

Moldovan youth are eager to work and earn a decent living for themselves and their families; however, many find that countries outside of Moldova offer better chances for economic prosperity. The result: Moldova is in the grips of a youth migration crisis as thousands of youth move abroad in search of better work. At the same time, though, ICT has emerged as one of the most dynamic industries in the Moldovan economy, and it remains a key priority industry for continued development and expansion by the Moldovan government. The new Moldova ICT Industry Competitiveness 2023 strategy, endorsed by both the government of Moldova and the ICT industry, outlines a path of exponential industry growth with the potential to expand the sector to 20,000 tech engineers. This presents a significant opportunity for Moldovan youth, provided they possess the skills needed to thrive in the ICT sector.

Moldovan youth work on a robotics project.Data shows that children who are exposed to educational robotics are two times more likely to major in science, engineering, or other related STEAM fields in university. Armed with this knowledge, MCP embarked on a program of working with the Moldovan Ministry of Education, schools, and teachers to incorporate robotics into educational activities. Currently, MCP’s Educational Robotics program has several components, including training teachers in using robotics for educational activities, equipping schools with LEGO robots, creating robotics clubs where students aged nine to 16 experience a hands-on application of science and engineering and organizing thematic contests for implementation of competition-based learning. Students are challenged to design, build, and program their robots to perform a variety of tasks and solve real-life problems, and using what they have learned, students have gone on to participate in national, regional, and even international robotics and science competitions. The ultimate goal is to provide students with an inspirational and nurturing STEAM environment so that they will be empowered to pursue STEAM subjects in university, participate in Moldova’s burgeoning ICT sector, and positively contribute to their economy and communities.

Beyond the technical skills gained from this robotics program, students become more creative and develop essential soft skills like problem solving, critical thinking, and working in teams. These skills are often lacking in the Moldovan curriculum; however, they are critical for future jobs in ICT or other STEAM fields and also contribute to positive outcomes later in life.

Robotics Makes a Mark on Moldova

One of the biggest questions that any development program must answer is how do we make this initiative sustainable? MCP’s answer was local ownership and the project accomplished this through investment in local capacity building. MCP encouraged local community involvement to co-fund robotics kits, competitions, and other essential investments. To open a robotics club through the Educational Robotics program, schools and libraries in Moldova must pass a rigorous application process, starting with an intensive training and then proving their commitment to the program. Applicants commit by co-funding certain aspects of the program, including robotics kits, robotics classes equipped with computers, teachers’ wages, and competition expenses. Schools are encouraged to establish buy-in with the community by enlisting the support of private businesses, local governments, parents, and community residents. Co-funding totals about $170,000, which is more than 25 percent of the Educational Robotics program’s total investment. Investment by USAID and Sweden in the Educational Robotics program totals over $500,000, including robotics kits, capacity building for teachers, FIRST LEGO League competitions, and awareness raising.

After starting from a small pilot in six schools, enthusiasm has rapidly grown. Currently, the Educational Robotics program focuses on elementary and middle school aged youth in 112 schools and 13 libraries across Moldova. More than 7,000 Moldovan youth and 200 teachers participate in the program and third of the beneficiaries are from rural areas.

Teachers who are a part of the program consistently report that interest in their robotics clubs is growing and student engagement remains high. With the help of this program, students have gone on to compete and win international robotics competitions including the FIRST LEGO League. In a true testament to the success of the program, the Moldovan Ministry of Education has even introduced robotics into the optional curriculum, increasing access to STEAM education and innovate methods of learning.

A survey developed by MCP and delivered to 1,400 beneficiaries of the Educational Robotics program showed that the program helps participants perform better: 73 percent of students experienced an improvement in computer science, 47 percent experienced an improvement in physics, and 33 percent experienced an improvement in math. Taking part in robotics has also made 55 percent of students more creative, demonstrating a highly positive impact across the STEAM spectrum. The program also improved participants’ relationship with peers, teachers, and parents. These results demonstrate that the Educational Robotics program is delivering on its goal of creating a generation ready for the technological jobs of tomorrow. 

Preparing students for a rapidly evolving 21st century sector requires a 21st century solution. Through the locally-supported and locally-driven Educational Robotics programs, MCP is reigniting students’ passion for and knowledge of STEAM subjects and setting them on a path towards success in the ICT sector. Complementing the hard skills, students in this program also strengthen valuable soft skills to ensure that their educational development is inclusive and holistic. The future is certainly bright for Moldovan youth.

This post was authored by Ionela Titirez, the ICT education and entrepreneurship development manager with the Moldova Competitiveness Project, and Kate Brolley, an associate on Chemonics’ Education and Youth Practice. Ms. Titirez has coordinated the Educational Robotics program in Moldova since its launch in 2014.