We interviewed Davor Sijanovic, a Croatian teacher and inventor who works very hard to develop the talents of his young students
Tell me something about you and your business
My name is Davor Sijanovic, I was born on November 12th, 1969 in Vukovar, Croatia and spent most of my childhood there. After graduating from high school, I applied and was accepted at the University of Zagreb with a major in Physical Education. In 1991. when I completed the third year at the University of Zagreb, and as a result of the war that broke out in Croatia, I was able to relocate to the United States through some student organizations to work as a counselor at a Summer family resort in California. For the next several years I spent living in the USA before my return to complete the Bachelor of Science Degree in Physical Education. Since 1998 to this date I have been working at a high school in my hometown Vukovar. The school’s name is Gymnasium Vukovar where I work as a physical education teacher, except one term (5 years) that I served as the principal of the same school from 2013 – 2018. As you are reading this short introductory a question pops up: How does a physical education teacher floats and can be successful in such a demanding field such as STEM? Thinking about that and going back many years ago to my childhood, I remember that I was a boy eager to explore things more than my peers, and was really interested in electronics, curious how things work by taking them apart and studying how everything is connected. Also, an interest that I would not allow to my son now days is that I experimented with electricity quite often. I remember a situation when I took apart my father’s first 9V calculator, he bought in Austria. I wanted to make it more efficient, took it apart, connected with a positive and negative wires and plugged it into the electricity outlet. Guess what happened? Of course, it blew up and it was smoking. I put it neatly back to his desk, but when he saw it, he had a lot to see!!!! I was grounded, of course. Another restless thing I did was taking apart a very expensive record player, and inside the player found a 220V transformer that I used to trick my family members to electrocute them with a 4,5V battery (of course, they didn’t know that, but I did). I was about 9 or 10 years old. When I was 17, I constructed and made a big working table saw from scratch that included getting an idea in my head, making a drawings with every detail on how it should look, the material I needed, measuring, cutting and putting it all together. However, to make a long story short, I have been making things since I was a little kid, but life took me in a different direction until a few years back when I slowly started returning in making stuff again. The only difference is that I do it with the students I teach at the school. As the conclusion, I can say that I like using the newest and innovative technologies that include robotics, IoT, programming and open source trying to implement them in many STEM projects, which gives me a whole new and interactive prospective to increase the student focus. That kind of work makes me an inspired teacher, the kind of a teacher who encourages students to always be a one step ahead by using new and innovative technologies and resources.
How did the idea of involving children come about? What was their reaction?
Inspired by Steve Jobs’ statement: “I think everyone in the country has to learn programming because that is how they learn to think”, we decided to popularize programming, robotics, and IoT by including as many students as possible in projects that include such activities. As we are witnessing rapid changes in living and working environment on the daily bases, the importance of learning STEM becomes a major focus of raising the awareness about its importance. The systematic implementation of ICT and new high-tech technologies into the learning process, after and out of school activities and creating a digital learning concepts become one of the fundamental activities we use to enhance the entire educational system. Our students belong to the so-called Z generation, a generation in which “smart kids code and program from the earliest age”, so it wasn’t hard to get their attention as far as creating something new and innovative using digital technology is concerned. All they needed was leadership in the right direction! During the period from 2016 to 2020 we have participated in several and innovative projects such as e – Skole: “by Croatian Academic and Research Network (CARNet). This project really and truly opened many doors and possibilities for us by enabling participation in many great activities, and also the Generation Next project by Croatian Telekom which brought to our school so many technological, innovative, and creative activities that opened the eyes to many students. Participating in such projects, the students were given the opportunity to develop their STEM skills which are the inexhaustible possibilities for positive changes not only for the society in general, but for the personal development and future careers as well.
What are the most interesting ideas and suggestions that came from the children?
“Children are naturally curious and constantly looking for knowledge” (Wilson 2012), and the reason for that is that they investigate, ask questions, solve problems before they start talking. Today’s Z generation kids often see technology as a helping tool in certain situations for automatization of the tasks they need to complete, such as for example: voice control, gesture movements, navigation using mobile devices, and of course for pleasure and fun. All this comes so natural to them instead of us older generation who struggle with the basic thing that involve technology.
Children’s imagination is endless: did your students “come up with” any strange or curious inventions?
As said: “Children’s imagination is endless”, but that is the point where we as adults and mentors must step in to set the boundaries according to possibilities and resources that we have. From time to time we have students whose participation in projects like these just boost up the imagination. One of them just graduated from our high school and was accepted at the university in Zagreb. His name is Matija Hardi, a student of mechanical engineering. He continued with similar projects himself, and recently was awarded on Instructables.com contest with the project called Clock’r Walk’r, a neat project that would never come to my mind. Those are the reward and satisfaction for us teachers when we see our students use their imagination to create something new.
Would you like to tell us about any particular project/invention you have developed?
Little by little, piece by piece we were becoming a part of the World of STEM and innovative projects and activities. This gave us a courage and the strength to participate in many festivals, competitions, and exhibitions. As a result, working on a project with Arduino as part of the Generation Next by Croatian Telecom, we built a model of our hometown Vukovar, Croatia, where we presented some of the ideas about the infrastructure a “Smart city” should have. Our project we named “Smart City of Vukovar – Our view of smart living”. This model represents the real projection (look) of one part of the main road in Vukovar leading toward another city in our region as well as the beautiful sidewalk along the bank of the river of Danube. The model is powered by Arduino boards and sensors and some of the toys and parts we picked from our homes. This magnificent model offers a solution in a greater electricity saving, better use of a solar Sun power panels, and reducing the traffic jams on the road as well as around the parking lots. Our “Smart City” project won the National competition in February 2019 among 58 projects from different schools throughout the Croatia. With the same project, On Arduino day, March 16th, 2019. in Milan, Italy while celebrating the Birthday of Arduino we participated in the Community Challenge contest among 630 other projects from around the World and won the World Arduino Day Community Challenge in the category Kids & Education.
In May 2019, our project showing the ideas for how the Smart City should look took us to two more manifestations. On May 2nd, we participated on Entrepreneurship contest for the high school students called: “The Idea of the Year – Using the new technologies for the business success” organized by Srednja.hr Portal. For this contest 60 business project proposals were received and only 10 were selected for the final presentation in Zagreb on May 2nd. We were among those ten. Our business proposal and idea, the elaboration and the presentation were marked with high scores and praise from the jury. The grade and the score placed to the throne by winning the second place.
On May 4th, 2019, we participated on INOVA – YOUTH 2019 exhibition of innovative projects. This exhibition has the emphasis on the students from elementary through the university level from different countries where they can present their ideas using new technologies or just innovative and creative projects they were working on with their mentors. On this largest exhibition of Youth innovative projects with the participation of 440 exhibitors with 218 projects our project “Smart City of Vukovar” won the gold medal and a special prize for being the best guest from Croatia. In the beginning of the new school year 2019/2020, we continued attending competitions and manifestations in Croatia. On September 26th, 2019. with the project “Smart city” we participated in the Idea Knockout competition in Zagreb being the only school selected by the jury from Bug.hr and Croatian Telekom to present our innovative idea. Idea Knockout is one of the oldest startup competitions in Croatia, it is an especially attractive competition for hardware startups because of the phenomenal prize. The winner gets a trip to Las Vegas and exhibiting spot at CES 2020 for two team members (includes airline tickets, hotel accommodation in Las Vegas and exhibiting space at Eureka Park part of CES 2020). Inspired by the success of a “Smart City” project, we decided to dive into a new and more complex attempt along with the variety of the new system in which we presented a brand new circle of improvements implemented into a final product. As a result, working on a project with Arduino, the idea for our “Generation Next” final project assignment emerged from a real need of tracking and recording the stability and safety of our school building built over a 100 years ago on a very silty soil. In that matter, we decided to merge those two fields of interest by making a model as a solution for tracking and recording the vibrations around the school using the IoT technology. So, we created:
RFID access control
Two axis Solar power bank
LED RGB lightening
Although, the curriculum of Computer science subject emphasizes that the major focus throughout the teaching process should be based on a problem solving and programming which would enhance developing the specific computer way of thinking and at the same time gives the students a chance of understanding, analytics and problem solving by choosing the appropriate strategies, algorithms, and programming solutions. Someday, all these aspects will be implemented into a real life. So, our decision to offer this kind of the activity to the students just emerged as a necessity by itself. In Zagreb, on June 3rd, 2019, Croatian Telecom along with the Institute for Youth Development and Innovativity (IRIM) organized the final presentation of the finalists for the Generation Next project. We were one of the finalists with both of our projects “Smart City of Vukovar” and the “Earthquake detector in real time” which we presented for the first time in public. After the presentation of all projects, the panel of judges elected our project “Earthquake detector in real time” as the best innovative project of the “Generation Next” 2018/2019 contest. Winning project “Seismograph – Earthquake detector in real time” opened up many doors and enabled us to participate at Maker Faire Rome in October 2019, the largest Maker Faire in Europe and the second largest in the World. The project was exhibited in the “Learn” category, Pavilion 5 (Drones, Kids, Schools, Young makers) where we proudly represented our school, City, and the Republic of Croatia.
What was it like to participate in the Maker Faire in Zagreb?
Maker Faire is the greatest Show on Earth (a family) friendly showcase of invention, creativity and resourcefulness, and a celebration of the Maker Movement where makers from all over the World gather to present their projects to a broad public. In 2019, for the first time in the Republic of Croatia, the largest family festival of invention, creativity, resourcefulness and entrepreneurship was organized under the sponsorship of the Make Community Organization (USA), thanks to the Croatian association FabLab, which has been actively participating in Maker fairs events throughout the EU for several years now and managed to bring all of these experiences to Zagreb in 2019. The event’s organizers and hosts were scientists and science popularizers Roberto Vdovic and Kresimir Canic. Both projects “Smart City” and “Seismograph” were exhibited at the first Maker Faire Zagreb which took place on 12th – 13th 2019. Among 200 makers and 60 projects, the project “Smart City of Vukovar” was selected in the top six projects of the entire event and we earned the ribbon “Maker of merit” (https://zagreb.makerfaire.com/hr/pocetna/). We were extremely honored to be active participants at the first Maker faire Zagreb, which was also the first prominent Maker faire in Croatia and the nearest region. Apart from presenting our projects and receiving positive, constructive and praiseworthy feedback, we exchanged opinions on the benefits of inventiveness and creativity with Albert Gajsak, the creator of the famous MAKERbuino, MAKER phone, and STEM box, and saw various projects and a huge amount of inspiration and creativity in children and adults. We also participated at Maker Faire Zagreb 2020, but as many other events in 2020 during the pandemic crisis it was conducted in a virtual form named Maker Faire Zagreb 2020 virtual presence. For the first time, at Maker Faire Zagreb we presented our digital game “EMMA”. To link educational, didactic and entertainment components, we decided to re-design the famous game from 1974 entitled: “Touch me” prepared by Atari. Later in 1978 Ralph H. Baer and Howard J. Morrison invented a new version of the game: “Simon”. “Simon” has been designed so that it is always coherent, whatever the order, and consisting of the main triage in the second inversion. Our version of this popular game has been built entirely from very attractive and colorful Lego bricks. The device has four major color keys, each generating one tone after activation or starting of the game. One round in the game is that the device illuminated one or more buttons in a random order, after which the player must reproduce this sequence by pressing the buttons. As the game is on track, the number of seized tones to be repeated is increased. We can certainly say that both Maker fairs Zagreb 2019 and 2020, were pleasant enabling us to socialize with creative people of all kinds, exchanging experience and knowledge, and even receiving inspiration for new projects.
How did you deal with the Coronavirus and lockdown? Did the technology help?
Among many changes caused by the pandemic, many innovative solutions were found in the field of digital technology, at the fairs, and innovation exhibitions. The organizers of innovation exhibitions faced the question of how to find platforms and interfaces that will effectively enable interaction between numerous exhibitors and participants. We were fortunate and relieved knowing that they found a path of complete digital reversal by providing a platforms available Worldwide after the initial registration, which then enables exploration of its content, including profiles of each exhibitor, their projects, as well as conferences animating the events. Some of them where we successfully participated are Maker Faire Rome, Maker Faire Zagreb, Make: projects, and INOVA youth Croatia. The interfaces they developed was inspired by the world of Games with the aim of reconstructing fluid and efficient interaction, directing visitors to the content of interest and enabling them to connect directly with the authors of the project.
As a professor, what do you think are the most important skills and subjects for the future of your students?
In today’s world, it will truly be difficult to survive for those who are not ready to adapt to the changes that happen at light speed, with an unavoidable dose of creativity and innovation. The jobs of the future will greatly change the needs and ways of implementing the classical way of education, both in primary and secondary schools as well as at the universities. Participating in many of these projects, exhibitions, competitions and festivals mentioned above and by our own example, we want to send a message to all the students and the young people that regardless on the excuses in the beginning, such as lack of an experience, lack of support and lack of knowledge, as well as being from a small school, small city, and a small country, and by having the initial fear of defeat or failure from other schools at the competitions, that they should prevail all the obstacles, and to the contrary, adopt them as the additional motivation to build a strength for the first step into the unknown and unpredictable, because what counts the most is the goodwill and the great idea.
What are your future plans?
We have a big project coming up for the final presentation in Croatia. The project is called: “Generation Now” organized by Croatian Telecom and Institute for Youth Development and Innovativity (IRIM). A project team that participates in this project are the students attending a first year of high school (freshmen) of STEM program in our school. Project team members are besides myself as mentor, my spouse Sanja Pavlovic Sijanovic who is a computer science teacher, Lara Sijanovic (student), Karlo Zutic (student), Fran Hutinec (student), and Ema Stankoski Hrgovic (student).
What would you recommend to a young inventor?
Through my example, I realized that it takes many trial and error attempts to accomplish something or to bring an idea to life. Great ideas initiate changes, and the people with ideas are the ones who change the World to be a better place for living. And truly: “Every courageous idea in the beginning looks crazy” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), because creativity and Innovativity demand a step from known into the unpredictable, but being a human being, we intuitively know that this is the thing that will lead us to reach desired goal.