From education to employment

How to Train a Super Geek, Russian Style

There are always Russian students at Olympiads, especially in physics, programming and robotics. Every year they take home top awards. Just like they did in World Robot Olympiad 2018, which was held in Thailand on November 14-18.

A team of ITMO University and the Presidential lyceum №239 has won a gold in the Senior High category with their Strawberry Fields project. It is a smart seedbed for growing strawberries. The team has built a robot to locate the berries and evaluate their condition using a camera and a neural network. The robot publishes a bed map on the Internet for anyone to pick a berry. When the choice is made, the robot will pick it and load it on a quadcopter, which, in turn, delivers the berry to the client.  

What’s the secret of their success? Let’s see.

The International Science Olympiad system is complex. There are Olympiads in Mathematics (International Mathematical Olympiad, or IMO), Physics (IPhO), Chemistry (IChO), Computer Science (IOI), Biology (IBO), Philosophy (IPO), Astronomy (IAO), Geography (iGeo), Linguistics (IOL), natural sciences (IJSO, the scientific triathlon of physics, chemistry and biology), earth sciences (IESO) and astronomy and astrophysics (IOAA). The oldest of them is mathematics, which began in 1959. The newest are IESO and IOAA, started in 2007. Most of them date from the 1990s.

There are competitions being added even today. Regional Olympiads are held, and they serve as staging grounds for world events. In Europe, they are in computer science and physics, in Asia they compete in astronomy and mathematics, and so on. Tournaments in robotics and programming are springing up too. The best known of them are the World Robot Olympiad, WorldSkills, Simulink Student Challenge, Google Code Jam, and ACM/ICPC. The International Collegiate Programming Contest has existed for 40 years now, and its popularity among young programmers is only growing. Last year, a record number of participants – more than 46,000 students from all over the world – was registered.

How do you win? There is a system in Russia to identify youthful talent, experts say. Not all countries have multilevel national competitions. In Russia, they are held at four levels: school, city, regional, and national. Questions in the Russian National Olympiad may be harder than in the international one. Then top 10-15 Russian national top scoring students are invited to a special training center, such as the centers at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), Lomonosov Moscow State University, Sirius in Sochi, and Innopolis in Kazan. They hold training camps, where elimination continues. After three or four sessions during the school year when they undergo rigorous training, based on their performance 5-8 students are chosen to represent this country at the subject specific Olympiads. But before going to the international competition, there is another two-week meet.

The Russians owe their results at the Olympiads to their system of teaching and training. Modern Russia inherited a strong mathematics and physics tradition from the Soviet Union. Scientists like Pyotr Kapitsa, Igor Kurchatov, and Lev Landau made revolutionary breakthroughs in science. After the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s, IT specialists were in great demand. Programming was practically the only profession you could make money in. It is easy for well-trained mathematics to master programming, because computer science is a practical application of mathematics. So, computer science also became established in Russia, albeit belatedly.

Russian schoolchildren start in primary school being tasked with solving problems that require them to do several steps at once in their heads. They’re not allowed to use a calculator in their lessons and competitions. Moreover, schoolchildren begin to operate with abstract concepts quite early. For example, they are exposed to polynomials in middle school in Russia. Numbers are an imaginable concept, but (a + b)2 is much more difficult to understand. It requires abstract thinking.

Russia also has a well-developed system of special schools, physics and mathematics biased lyceums and a system of specializations in high schools. Thus, the competition environment becomes a routine itself with school students amped up participation in Olympiads: local, regional, national and international, and their efforts pay off. 

Olympiads help talented children make it to the best universities in the country. Rising through the National School Olympiad, students train for challenging tasks and gain experience competing with the best of the best. As a result, the Russians get outstanding results at the school level of the International Computer Science, Physics and Robotics Olympiads. While universities in this country like MIPT, St. Petersburg State University, ITMO University, Moscow State University, Saratov State University, Ural Federal University, and Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU) produce highly skilled staff for high-tech industries.

The basics of the programs at home and abroad are similar, in general, but academic abilities of the students may differ. Admission is so strict in many universities in Russia that they are attracting uniquely skilled students. For example, the required score on the Unified State Examination for admission to MIPT has been 94 for many years, which makes it, along with MGIMO, one of the most difficult institute in Russia to get into. Those admitted receive a thorough education and work in teams a lot.  The ability to work in a research team  represent teamwork skills, an important set, explaining that there are a number of roles that any person can take on in a team and  representing numerous skills which are needed to take on task-focused team roles. Plus, leading Russian universities participating in Project 5-100, the Higher School of Economics (HSE), MIPT, MEPhI, Samara University, IKBFU, UNN, TSU, TPU and ITMO University have been developing students’ entrepreneurial skills. For example, MIPT is moving towards technological entrepreneurship, and many of its students continue after graduation to work in teams they had formed when they were students. This is important because your team and how you interact in it are key questions when searching for investors.

Team play is emphasized by Maxim Sporyshev, captain of the FEFU and Russian Academy of Sciences Far Eastern Division underwater robotics team. “Factors in success are first good preparation of students, and second interaction between the best students in different fields —mechanical engineers, electronic engineers, and software engineers. Good programmers aren’t often friends with good mechanics and good electrical engineers. Even more rarely do they come together on the same team for underwater robots. Third, FEFU has a good mentoring system, so that students can use their skills correctly, and rely on previous experience to avoid mistakes.”

Scientists, researchers and developers from major Russian companies while heading or being engaged onto the teaching process offer relevant knowledge in different fields, the examples are found quite often in the field of software development. High-Tec and IT companies incorporate within the universities basic engineering and IT enrichment programs – algorithms, programming, machine learning and others, and provide modern specialized vector with deep learning, data retrieval, image analysis courses, etc.​​​

“ITMO University is taking a path of transforming its educational activity based on its mission, expressed in our ITMO Code. One of this transformation’s main elements is a closer cooperation with the leaders of industry and business,” said Daria Kozlova, the First Vice Rector of ITMO University. “We work in fields where skills must be learned first-hand; knowledge can become obsolete very quickly, which is why we can’t teach computer sciences separate from real cases. Almost all of our IT teaching staff are specialists working at various companies. This is the only way to train competent graduates who possess the most advanced skills,” she added.

Getting the chance to use their newly acquired knowledge and apply it into the real business environment, including through doing short-term internships and working on companies’ projects and products, practical training plays an important role.

A good example of this is Looksery Inc., founded by Viktor Shaburov, whose team developed a popular app that adds masks to people’s faces in videos. Members of the same Olympiad programming team formed the core of the company. In 2015, after just three years, they sold it to Snapchat for $150 million. Shaburov now supports school training programs. He recently organized the Botan Investments Fund and created a grant program for teachers in the field of machine learning.

Moscow-based AIM Tech develops trading algorithms. It was founded by Ilya Sedoshkin, and employs MIPT ICPC World Finalists Renat Gimadeyev, Alexander Ostanin, Konstantin Semenov and others. This is an area where transaction speed is valuable. Speed and algorithms are what are developed especially well in competitive programming.

Coordination among universities and support from IT companies have shaped the programming culture in our country. Business and universities develop curricula together, introducing new skills and business models in education. Among the companies that support IT education in the country are Yandex, JetBrains, Mail.Ru Group, 1C, Tinkoff Bank, and Sberbank.

For example, JetBrains is developing a master’s degree program at the leading Project 5-100 universities, including MIPT with Acronis and ITMO University. Pioneer and creator of Kotlin, this company has been the main sponsor of the ICPC championship since 2018. Mail.Ru Group organized five educational programs for website and app development, artificial intelligence and high-load projects. These are Technopark with Bauman Moscow State Technical University, Technosphere with the Moscow State University Faculty of Computational Mathematics and Cybernetics, Technotrek with MIPT, Technopolis with Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University (SPbPU) and Technoatom with MEPhI.

Yandex has created many educational programs, for example, the School of Data Analysis for upper classmen and graduates with technical specialties. Yandex has also established a scholarship for students who are in their first year at the HSE Computer Science Faculty.

Companies take their personnel from among these students. Development at Russia’s biggest social network VKontakte is a lot like an Olympiad in its approach to problem solving, because its creators had been in that system since their school years. Nikolai Durov, two-time winner of the ICPC World Programming Championship from SPbPU, and his teammate Andrei Lopatin, ICPC Moscow Workshops trainer who coached winning SPbPU teams, worked on VKontakte social networking. Now ICPC champions Dmitry Egorov, Pavel Kunyavsky and Boris Minaev work at VKontakte.

Companies in other countries also help students, but Russia is distinguished by the effectiveness of its programs. Yandex has created a relatively simple platform, Yandex.Contest, where programming competitions are held. There, university teachers upload their own problems. Testing is automated, so it is unbiased, and this helps regional universities establish themselves in the programmer training system.

“There’s a lot we could say about how the way we train programmers, engineers and mechanics for underwater robotics competitions is different from foreign universities. As a rule, they have no mentors there, and students are given more autonomy. Because of this, most teams have trivial problems. On the other hand, students on strong teams can solve organizational issues independently, and in striking ways, for example, finding funding or other assistance from sponsors. The companies that produce equipment and parts for underwater vehicles are abroad. They are happy to help students who will then go on to work for them,” said team captain Sporyshev.

Project 5-100: Starting from 2013, Russia has been implementing Project 5-100, – a state support program for Russian universities. Its goal is to raise the standing of Russian higher education and have at least five member universities in the top-100 of three respected world rankings. Project 5-100 is enabling 21 Russian universities to move forward in terms of effectively strengthening their education and research, promoting innovations and R&D, facilitating international cooperation, streamlining administration, balancing the authority of the management and academics, nurturing a proactive academic environment, increasing internationalization, providing sufficient incentives for attracting the top professors from around the world and also for the existing faculty’s professional growth.

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