The COVID-19 crisis has not halted learning for a team of young students in Italy.
Two staff members of the NATO Communications and Information (NCI) Agency are continuing to use online solutions to advise and support MyCollego, a team of young students studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) topics living near the NCI Agency-managed Satellite Ground Station F14, in Lughezzano, Italy. Despite the difficult circumstances, the students, ages 13 and 14, have not given up on their goal of winning a global science competition – and neither have their NCI Agency volunteer coaches.
"An international Agency operating on several fronts and dealing with multiple problems? It's exactly the kind of inspiration I was looking for my students," said the students' teacher, Emanuele Miliani, of the NCI Agency participation. "They offer their expertise, their knowledge, their skills. Moreover, they are an example of commitment and work."
The MyCollego team is preparing for the FIRST LEGO League global science competition, in hopes of receiving the "Global Innovation Award." The team has been nominated – among three teams in Italy – to compete for the 2020 award. This is the second time the team has received such an honour.
The MyCollego team in a way, was already prepared for the isolation COVID-19 necessitates. The students live in a mountain area, which demands remote collaboration even during normal circumstances. In normal circumstances, however, the team also met in person to improve team building.
"For me, technology increases the possibility of sharing experiences and creating networks between various local actors," Miliani said. "There is no limit to the network; the students learn to manage the relationships 'in person' as well as the digital ones to find solutions and to break down borders."
Miliani trained the students to use applications to interact with each other online, such as Google Classroom and Meet. The MyCollego team has also been supported by several coaches and Infominds, which provided beginner lessons in project management to aid the students in organizing their work.
"This challenge about current topics allows me to work with the students in a practical and proactive way," Miliani said. "I like the idea to approach things in a different way and to stimulate their creativity and fantasy in order to make them protagonists of their own future."
For this year's competition, Massimo Foroncelli, a Satellite Communications Senior Technician from the NCI Agency, used his home laboratory to help the students create and programme environmental sensors to collect data about levels of carbon dioxide at their school during lessons.
While they were able to attend school in person, the students used the sensors to collect pollution data from their classrooms.
"Following their research, they installed specific plants on walls that, according to them, are able to eat large amounts of carbon dioxide, providing more comfortable rooms with good air quality compared to the rooms without plants," Foroncelli said.
The students are committed to continuing their work remotely, going far beyond what can be achieved in normal class time, Foroncelli said.
"Our support – as the NCI Agency – to these students is an added value that helps them to carry on these complicated activities, with the certitude that if they find big obstacles that they cannot achieve, we are there to help them," Foroncelli said.
Luca Campanile, Satellite Communications Senior Technician and Chief Public Affairs Officer for the ground station, helped the students produce a video they used during the national qualifier of the competition.
"I have a strong sense of responsibility," Campanile said about volunteering. "Although I have been dedicating part of my free time to this activity since 2018, my family supports me because they believe in what I do, that I can support coaches and students."
The teachers themselves, Campanile noted, are dedicating extra time outside of class to support these students.
"You can't always wait for someone to tell you what you can do," Campanile said. "If you want to help, start doing it. You will see that others will follow you."
Both Foroncelli and Campanile are located in the Verona province in the Northern Italy, which has been badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic has spread, Campanile and Foroncelli are now exclusively using online tools to continue to advise the team.
"The COVID-19 pandemic, is a real problem with a big impact on everyone's lives," Foroncelli said. "I decided to not give up helping them for different reasons; one of them is the unique satisfaction I get when I see the joy and the emotion they express anytime they win a competition. Another reason is that, as a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer, I feel responsible for finding advice or solutions to help solve critical situations."
In particular, Foroncelli and Campanile have been working with the students on preparing the scientific documentation they must submit to the international assessment board.
"It is important to support young generations as they prepare themselves to create a better world using STEM disciplines," Campanile said.
In 2015, the then-Commander of the Satellite Ground Station F14 tasked Campanile with building relationships with local businesses and schools.
"This let us feel we are part of the local community, and a resource for the territory," Campanile said.
That community has gotten stronger each year, and Campanile has enjoyed watching the students' learning progress after participating in science competitions.
"I strongly believe that our public role as Italian Air Force and NCI Agency members is to support people," Campanile said. "Our role as STEM ambassadors is still on going."