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Third-Year HSE Student Daria Romanova Wins the National UMNIK Competition

Daria Romanova

Daria Romanova
Photos provided by Sirius Educational Centre

Daria spoke to the HSE News Service about her project, the UMNIK (Smart) programme, and her personal path to success.

Daria Romanova, third-year student of Information Science and Computation Technology, with her project, ‘Developing immersive software with a performance analysis system for teaching physics at high school’, won the Innovation Promotion Fund’s national UMNIK programme. The programme supports research and technology projects with commercial potential by young researchers.

Victory in the competition means not only acknowledgment of the project’s relevance and high academic level but also provides a great deal of real support, since it guarantees further funding of 500,000 roubles for the project for the next two years.

Daria is carrying out her project as part of the Laboratory of 3D Imaging and Computer Graphics under the academic supervision of Alexey Rolich.

Daria provided us with more detail about her project, the UMNIK programme, and her route to this victory.

First Uncertainty and the Choice of Direction

It all started when I was a second-year student: I had to choose a topic for the term paper, and I had no idea what I wanted to study. I spent a long time bouncing around in search of something, talking to lots of academic supervisors since I wanted to make the right choice. I ended up talking to the supervisor whom I really wanted to work with on the deadline day, and made an absolutely random choice out of two topics, picking the one related to studying physics in VR. And the stars aligned in such a way that when I started to get immersed in the project, I finally understood that this was the one.

I started actively studying the market of VR companies in Russia and globally: what products and technologies already exist, what advantages and disadvantages they have, and what is missing. I attended specialist conferences, worked as an intern, and gathered a lot of feedback from experts in this field. I understood I could make something better than was currently on the market. But one person doesn’t make a team: to make the project develop beyond mere talk, I needed collaborators and funding.

I found my ideal team quickly: during the third year of studies at MIEM, you have to do a project as part of the project-based learning model, and everyone was looking for a project to work on

The next and most difficult problem was funding. I had heard about UMNIK a long time ago, but always thought it was something unachievable and too difficult. Nevertheless, I started considering opportunities and finally decided to apply.

Daria Romanova
Photos provided by Sirius Educational Centre

About the Project

Russia has a plan to take a key position in developing and implementing VR in education, among other fields. The infrastructure is evolving: VR equipment is being purchased for schools, technoparks, quantoriums, and educational centres. This equipment requires software, and to make it, we need to grow the internal market, supporting national teams and technologies.

In this context, my key aims are to improve the system of assessment and make it more objective, to take some of the workload off the teachers, to personalize learning, to increase motivation and the share of material digested, and to decrease the impact of plagiarism. We offer physics lab work; as of today, they are ‘Parallel and series connection of conductors’ and ‘Studying radiation’. Currently there is no one universal framework of concepts and approaches to VR projects, there are just a few ‘template solutions’. Developing a methodology that would describe the basics in this field is a challenge for different areas of VR application, while the demand for this technology is growing exponentially.

Soon, this field will have leading experts, big projects and various methods, but those who are doing it today define the distribution of leading companies and HR attraction centres across the world

We also have to understand that when it comes to learning, such things as the user’s knowledge, their capabilities, social context, and stories they are familiar with are all important: this is the foundation for an effective product, and we need to understand these things, the students’ opportunities and limitations, in order to build empathy, intuitive mechanisms, correct focus and types of interactions. All of this is necessary to be able to predict both behaviour and result. That’s why the developers need to implement the technology themselves. Our solution is partly an experiment and building a ‘palette’ of template solutions, which will be generic and equally effective in other educational projects.

Selection for the Competition

The selection takes from three to five months and consists of several stages, the contents and form of which may vary depending on the UMNIK platform of your choice. The organizer is the Innovation Promotion Fund, but, depending on your area of interest, the selection is carried out together with industry partners. I chose UMNIK-Sirius.

The first stage is the application, where you have to answer some questions about yourself and your project. These include questions about which competencies will help you to perform the task, what the goal of your project is, what you are going to do in these two years, where your outcomes will be used, what the academic novelty of your solutions is, whether you really need the grant, the parameters of development, patent protection requirements, and many other points. Preparing the application took me two weeks, and this experience was incredibly useful. By answering these questions, you can use the selection stage to understand your vulnerabilities and see what has been underdeveloped at the pre-production stage. As a result, I had 13 pages of the application and a dozen pieces of paper with the insights I’d had while writing it.

It is important to say that UMNIK accepts project even at the ideas stage, so if you know how to use technology to make people’s lives better and are able to answer some basic questions, such as what, why and for whom, you have a very good chance of success

Semi-Finals and Finals

After about two months, I received word that I had made it to the semi-finals, which, due to the circumstances, would be held remotely, with the expert committee considering the semi-finalist’s applications. I received the next letter on January 16, and it was an invitation to the final defence at Sirius Educational Centre, in Sochi, which was scheduled for the afternoon of January 26. The problem was I was in Cuba, and due to come back to Moscow only on the morning of January 26. As a result, the Fund organized the logistics with surgical precision, and after 15 hours of flights, I was in Sochi, where I left my suitcase at the reception and rushed to the defence.

Despite the circumstances and two sleepless days, everything went very well. There were five finalists, evaluated by a committee of five experts. The jury members were very knowledgeable about the topic, they asked very deep and relevant questions, but no one was trying to make us fail. The projects were strong, and in the end, all five finalists became winners.

How the Money Will Be Spent

The lion’s share of the grant will be spent on the necessary software and equipment. The grant is transferred in parts: 200,000 roubles for the first stage tasks, and 300,000 roubles after pre-defence, for tasks in the second stage. One of the requirements is that some of the money is spent on a pre-acceleration programme. I will spend the rest of the money for the company formation, so that we are able to take on government contracts. Now, we’ll have to change our calculations, because the exchange rates have changed, and the hardware we need has increased in price. When we finish our project, we are going to bring it to market; after UMNIK, we are going to participate in the START competition.

Summing up

For me, UMNIK was an opportunity to carry out the necessary research and preliminary preparation which is essential for creating a really high-quality product. My project deals with teenagers and teachers, so, like in medical practice, when you are introducing innovation into education, the main rule is ‘First, do no harm!’

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