Notes from Bucharest

Margrét Elísabet Ólafsdóttir, University of Akureyri, Iceland

Trials, errors and successes

I arrived in Bucharest after an 18 hours trip from Akureyri in late October. This was my first trip to Romania, and to Bucharest. I did not know much about the city, mainly that it was known for being the home of the largest administrative building in the world. An enormous building from the 1980s, initially called the People’s House, would actually be able to accommodate the whole population of Iceland. After the 1989 revolution the building became the Palace of the Parliament, but in reality the parliament only occupies a small portion of the structure. Apart form this invasive palace — and the construction site of a new orthodox cathedral in its backyard — the city’s architecture makes an impression on a newcomer to the city.

Bucharest’s past transpires through old and new buildings in various conditions and capture the attention of a city stroller. The houses evoke stories of both flourishing times and broken promises. The stories appear in sumptuous neo-classical buildings and monuments, Brâncovenesc style, art deco, and modernist houses, as well as innumerable small Eastern Orthodox churches, sometimes hidden behind monumental communists’ buildings. The communist past has a persistent presence, but concomitantly signs of an invasive capitalism emerges in form of large office towers made of steel and glass and big shopping malls surrounded by huge advertisements posters covering old buildings facades. From an Icelandic perspective, Bucharest tells a fascinating history of politics, art and culture, which is revealed by the architecture and deepened with visits to museums. The present itself shows Bucharest’s transformative phase as a capital within the European Union.

The Music RoomThe country’s aspiration for change in our times has its own manifestation within the Romanian school system. Şcoala Gimnazialā Romāno-Finlandezā or The Romania-Finnish Kindergarten and Middle School is a private institution inspired by the Finnish school system, located in the most prosperous sector of Bucharest. The school was founded in 2010 with the desire to make changes in the traditional Romanian education system. It has chosen to adapt pedagogical methods from Finland to reach its goal. It is in this school that our host, George Maruşteru from Associata Hatch Atelier, and Anca Velicu, from Institute of Sociology were conducting their first series of MakEY research sessions with a group of seven-year-old children from the school.

Şcoala Gimnazialā Romāno-Finlandezā

When I first came to the Romania-Finnish school I was with my colleague from the University of Akureyri, Anna Elísa Hreiðarsdóttir. We were there to participate in a research session with Anca, George and the children, but before we joined in, three 11- and 12-year-old schoolgirls offered to guide us around the schools facilities. We could not refuse, so they led us through corridors of classrooms situated in two buildings on a small terrain surrounded by a fence. They first showed us the kindergarten, located in one wing of the main buildings’ ground floor. There they also showed us a music room and a ‘cosy room’ “where the younger children can discuss issues with a psychologist,” our guides explained. In the music room the girls introduced us to their much loved music teacher who was about to begin a lesson, and told us about the schools’ band. They also led us through a gymnasium used for sport, theatrical presentations, and concerts, and showed us out to the playground in the backyard. Close to the playground, a new building was in construction, destined to accommodate a grammar school. The three girls were exceptionally enthusiastic guides, but their interest arose even further when they talked about the new building and the future grammar school. Their excitement was directly associated with them looking forward to being able to continue their compulsory education within the Romania-Finnish school. Their eagerness was touching as they explained the Romania-Finnish school was not a typical school. What differentiated it from other middle schools was that they did not have to “sit and write in their chairs the whole day”. Instead they were using divers learning methods and could participate in extra-curriculum activities, such as singing in a choir or playing in a band. The girls confirmed what Anca had already told us, that the Romania-Finnish school was not typical for the Romanian educational system. Şcoala Gimnazialā Romāno-Finlandezā keeps the Romanian curriculum, but aims at optimizing the pupils’ results with a student-centred, personalized approach, highlighting the creative potential of each child (http://www.scoalafinlandeza.ro/). The untypical character of the school was the main reason Anca had solicited Şcoala Gimnazialā Romāno-Finlandezā as a collaborator in the MakEY project. She expected the school’s pupils to be already familiar with unconventional learning methods, thus the transition toward a participation in makerspace activities would be easier with them than with  children who attended a traditional public school.

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Playing, creating and learning  

Anca had planned a series of twelve three-hour sessions with the participation of twelve seven-year- old pupils, which was taking place while I and Anna Elísa were in Bucharest. The workshop’s main activity was focused on a learning process through the Kerbal Space Program. Together with the learning to build a space-worthy craft, capable of flying its crew out into space, the children took part in other creative activities such as building robots with cubelet blocks, designing objects with 3D pens and creating patterns and figures with beads on beading tables. They also participated in recording each other’s activities with video cameras put at their disposal. As researcher and team leader, Anca both supervised the workshop, assisted the children and documented their activities. George was the Kerbal specialist and main instructor of the program during the workshop. They were assisted by Monica, who participated in documenting the children’s activities, and Oana, who assisted the children with their beadings, 3D pens, and cubelets. These other activities played an important role in the workshop, as the team did not have laptops for all the children, who needed to take turns on the Kerbal program or otherwise watch each other experiment and make errors.

As neither I or Anna Elísa were familiar with Kerbal, we spent time observing the children building space crafts, that either refused to take off or crashed after a short flight. These errors sometimes made the children frustrated, but also amused them. It was actually fun to watch a space craft crash, burn up in flames or shatter into thousand pieces. More irritating than making mistakes was not to understand the English in the program’s guidelines and descriptions of individual parts to be used for building the space crafts. The language barrier made the learning process a bit more laborious than it could have been, but it simultaneously allowed the children the liberty to use their creativity more freely. One of the boys, I noticed, just bypassed the instructions, and concentrated on building a spectacular space craft based on aesthetic rather than functional criteria. But he soon discovered that form follows function, and that a voluminous sculptural space craft is not likely to take off. As the workshop progressed the children became more familiar with the program and the building parts. They seemed to succeed more often in their attempt to make it through the atmosphere without incidents, and were eager to help each other out and share their newly acquired expertise. Three weeks into the workshop it was evident that a learning process had taken place, not least among the most enthusiastic Kerbal players in the group.

But not all the children were interested in the Kerbal program or even the computers. One of the girls drew my attention because of her patience and ability with the beads, as well as the 3D pen, which she mastered very well after few trials. She appeared to have pre-disposed designer skills, and a good sense for proportions and dimensions. I noticed two other girls watching her closely, and then trying to follow in her footsteps, and copy her most simple 3D objects.

Preliminary outcomes  

It was not only the children in the MakEY workshop that were learning during the four weeks we stayed in Bucharest. Meeting Anca at the Institute of Sociology, and spending time with her, George, Oana and Monica at the Romanian-Finnish school was enlightening in itself. We were fascinated by the children, and how easily they remained concentrated during each three hour workshop session. The researchers were more exhausted.  By the end of the stay I had a discussion with both Anca and George, in which we talked about what they had learned from these sessions, what they felt had worked well, and what they wanted to change before the next workshop series. One thing that they were definitely going to change was the duration of each session, as they found it too long to keep everyone concentrated the whole time.  I and Anna Elísa agreed that we had benefited from our participation and observations and decided, based on what we had learned, to alter the planned organisation of our own MakEY workshop that is going to take place in Akureyri in March 2018.

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