Preparing students for a high-tech future

Chuck Jennes

Since 2018, NextLab.Tech has been offering advanced educational experiences to students in its home country, Romania. NextLab offers an easy-to-use, expandable library of STEM-related projects and lessons that integrate knowledge bases, learning paths, flows and open educational resources.

All lessons and projects integrate with affordable education devices, such as open-source programmable boards and accessories, connected to a virtual learning assistant that is based on machine-learning technologies. Using this software and hardware, NextLab is helping students prepare for the job market of the future.

With recent support from private companies and the Romanian government, NextLab has shown substantial growth. The company has now set its sights on expanding to other markets, including the United States. USGBC recently spoke with the company’s co-founder, Razvan Bologa. In addition to managing NextLab, Bologa is a professor in the Department of Informatics and Economic Cybernetics at the Bucharest University of Economic Studies.

Where did the idea for NextLab originate?

It started with several people who wanted to "put a chip into the hands of every Romanian child." They were looking for a solution to distribute programmable microchips and microcontrollers on a large scale to support education for the jobs of the future. And that’s how we started this company.

What is the company’s “unique proposition”?

We have an adaptive learning platform that empowers teachers, who are not necessarily familiar with advanced technologies, to deliver advanced lessons. In other words, you can be a low-tech teacher and still deliver a good lesson in advanced technology.

The curriculum is part of what we offer. However, we also have knowledge bases that are accessible to children. Whenever a child asks a question, a NextLab expert answers it. If a question is being asked for the first time (and therefore isn't already in our knowledge base), the answer will be stored so that other children who have the same question can find the answer.

The knowledge base uses advanced machine-learning algorithms and artificial intelligence to retrieve questions, answers and other information. So, basically, the children are not aware of the technology that’s at play. Teachers and students just communicate in their natural way, and the machine will find the appropriate answer. There is also a text-to-speech component that enables the machine to answer verbally in the student’s language.

How is the curriculum organized?

The curriculum is for one school year. There are four stages:

  1. Building a simple line follower robot. This stage engages the students and builds their confidence, which makes the technology more attractive to them.
  2. Building a more advanced robot; for example, one that can find its way through a labyrinth.
  3. Teaching children to create small hydroponic systems that are easy to monitor.
  4. The students work in teams to create a master project. That’s usually a microgarden. At this point, they are more fluent in the technology and have considerable confidence in their abilities. The final project culminates in a green exposition, where finished projects can be put on display in the school, at an event or even at a sponsor’s place of business.

We have 1,700 teachers and about 60,000 students. We have a project that, by the end of 2023, will bring the number of schools to 5,400 and will engage approximately 800,000 students.

What’s behind that growth?

Relevance. Initially, we discussed the idea with several companies that expressed an interest in preparing students for jobs of the future. We received commitments from the Romanian Commercial Bank, Groupe Renault and GlobalWorth (Eastern Europe’s largest office developer). They liked that we were able to offer a structured education program that would prepare young people to work with modern technology, so they agreed to participate with some anticipation of what could be. It’s worked far beyond everyone’s expectations.

In fact, after seeing the results, the Romanian government asked us to put this program into all schools. That was a tremendous boost, and it created a platform that allows us to now speak with other governments about replicating the same kinds of projects. That’s how we were able to grow. It was not simply about our technology and curriculum; we were also offering this important academic solution at the right moment.

What kind of feedback are you getting from students?

They are surprised that they can complete such sophisticated projects. We have children, especially from disadvantaged communities, who did not initially believe they would be able to build a working robot—and, most important, they are surprised that they have access to a very advanced knowledge bases. Thus, there is little difference between a child who is in a remote rural area and a child coming from a wealthy city, because they share the same knowledge base, the same content.

Moving forward, what is your vision for the company?

We are actively engaged with other countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and we are exploring opportunities in the United States, specifically involving disadvantaged or underserved communities—places where they have a shortage of teachers who can offer such technologies and training. We will propose mostly green education projects in those areas.

How do you see USGBC contributing to that vision?

We were impressed by USGBC’s focus on education and on raising awareness of the benefits of green buildings. That’s why we wanted to be part of USGBC. And I think there is an important synergy that we can cultivate together. It’s something we would like very much to explore.

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