This story describes how I became a professional in computer science. My path has taken me from Kitee via Joensuu to far away places in the world – all the way to New-Zealand and various African countries. I have, however, always returned to Joensuu and I have had the chance to work on many interesting projects with robotics, programming, teaching and the SciFest science event.

My story with computer science starts from the late 1990s. After upper secondary school, I was going to apply for a study place at the then University of Joensuu. I was very interested in chemistry, as I had completed the advanced syllabus in chemistry at upper secondary school. When filling the application papers, on a whim, I decided to put computer science as my first choice. In hindsight, that was a lucky move. This choice gave me a few extra points in addition to my grades, and I was just and just accepted as a student to the Faculty of Computing.

My studies started and the field felt like a natural choice for me. My goal was to proceed in my studies the traditional way, and end up working for the software industry. My future plans, however, changed when I bumped into Professor Erkki Sutinen. He later became my manager and dissertation supervisor, as well as conducting our wedding and becoming a good family friend.

Robots to schools – already 15 years ago!

My adventure in the world of robots started when Erkki got hold of some programmable Lego Mindstorms RCX robots for teaching purposes. We practised making a new type of programming environment for these robots. This led to many new ideas on how to use robots in teaching, especially with children and young persons. Within this framework, we started a Kids’ Club in collaboration between the faculty and the students. The purpose of this technology club was to provide an authentic research and learning environment for the university. Around that time, I started my academic career teaching the basics of computing to upper secondary school kids in Eastern Finland, and I also became involved in the activities of Erkki’s teaching technology group. Together with the children and young people in the Kids’ Club, we were fascinated by robots and learned how to use and programme them. This provided us with material for research.

The challenges and opportunities related to using robots in teaching have taken on new forms and the scale has reached new dimensions

In the technology club, we used the same equipment and materials as schools now use in the teaching of coding. Through the club, we also organised a RoboCupJunior robotics tournament, which currently has a life of its own through the strong Innokas network. As souvenirs from abroad, our club team brought back, for example, the Championship of Robot Football in 2002.

New thinking from Africa

My own journey in the teaching and research of teaching technology continued with different projects, which allowed us to also build an international network of partners. In 2005, we were invited to the Sasol SciFest event in South Africa. The purpose of the trip was to present our activities in robotics and technology education at the largest science and technology event in South Africa. Every year, the event gathers over 60 000 participants to Grahamstown, a smallish university town far away from the big cities of South Africa, Johannesburg and Pretoria. This trip highlighted the character of SciFest to us, and Grahamstown seemed to have a lot in common with Joensuu. And so, we came up with a far-reaching, and perhaps even bold, idea of organising a similar event in Joensuu. This was the beginning of a new adventure…

SciFest Joensuu as the spearhead of international and impressive science education

The first SciFest Joensuu event was organised in spring 2007. With the active involvement of the University of Joensuu Faculty of Computing, we were able to set up the event in an impressive scale. During the first year, over 3000 children, young persons and adults interested in science, technology and environmental issues participated. This kicked off a communal science and technology festival, unique in Finland and the whole world. A few years ago I had the opportunity to work as the Executive Director of Joensuu Science Society (link in Finnish) and the producer of SciFest. This experience opened my eyes to see how difficult it is to tell the public about the findings of scientific research. Scientists are good at writing expert articles to a limited target audience in the same field. However, different methods are needed to raise general awareness of the results. For ten years already, SciFest has proven to be a perfect platform for this purpose, expanding and becoming more diverse year after year.

Joensuu also provides a good setup for internationalisation. I spent a year in New Zealand during my postgraduate studies. My visit was very successful and provided me with a great basis for research. I also gained a variety of experiences in Africa during my studies. Our group has close ties with African countries located south of Sahara, and I have been privileged to visit countries such as Tanzania, Zambia, South Africa and Mozambique. These trips have often been related to the the questions and research of technology education and robotics. Our ICT for Education in Eritrea project of the recent years opened my eyes to the uniqueness of Africa, the diverse opportunities, and the fact that we, as scientists and teachers, also have a lot to give to the rapidly developing countries in the area. The prerequisite for success is to work with the locals as equal partners, using the strengths of the society and environment.

We come full circle

Now, after over 15 years in the fascinating world of teaching technology and technology education, a major cycle is closing in a way. I recently raked through the cabinets in our laboratory and found a pile of old Lego RCX robots – the ones we started our technology club with in the early 2000s. Despite the fact that some of the robots were ruined by leaking batteries, we managed to compile a nice set of ‘retro robots’, and we are currently developing a new type of robot programming environment for the needs of fledgling coders. Despite returning to my roots, I can tell that my work is not done yet. The challenges and opportunities of using robots in teaching have just taken on new forms and the scale has reached dimensions.

Ilkka Jormanainen, Executive Director, Joensuu Science Society