Local municipality as a pillar of direct support to Industry

Vladimir Prebilič is Mayor of the Kočevje Municipality, as well as Professor at the Faculty for Social Science, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia


 

Introduction

 

This paper is a case study of Kočevje, Slovenia, in how a local municipality functions as a pillar of direct support to Industry 4.0. The municipality of Kočevje, located along the southern border between Slovenia and Croatia, is Slovenia’s largest municipality by area. With a population of 15,500 it is also one of the least populated, with 90% of its area covered in forests. In 2014, unemployment in Kočevje was 26%, a sad record for Slovenia. The reasons lay in an uncompetitive economy with a low level of added value, and a continuous brain drain as young and educated residents emigrated.

The first challenge was to establish the necessary conditions for attracting new investments and generating new jobs. This was made possible through various forms of tax holidays and breaks for investors, providing suitable locations for new companies to build facilities, lowering the price of land, and persistently removing administrative barriers to investment. Gradually, 400 jobs were generated in Kočevje, which was proportionally by far most in Slovenia, given the population of the municipality.

However, with all the new jobs came a new challenge: finding a suitably qualified and skilled workforce. The partners, most notably Japan’s global Yaskawa Corporation, expected the local municipality to build a bridge between the town’s education system and its economy. Although Slovenian law gives the local municipality no formal influence on education and it cannot change the curriculum, a way was found to meet the expectations of the partner and form cooperation. This became a case study for Slovenia and the European Union.

 

Setting up an open robotics program

 

Since municipality of Kočevje did not have this kind of knowledge, of course, its administration took advantage of the Business Incubator public institution, whose founder and owner is Kočevje. The first step revealed that primary schools in the municipality were highly humanities oriented and no subjects in robotics were taught. Moreover, the system itself did not promote enough technical knowledge, which is a necessary basis for the 21st century.

In most cases, programming, process thinking, and robotics were completely unknown to schoolchildren. Moreover, most had no opportunity to encounter these at home, so their interest in technology was waning. At this point, we gave the professional team at the Business Incubator the task of designing an interactive form of voluntary courses in the basics of programming and robotics.

Based on the positive impact of a pilot project at one of Kočevje’s primary schools, in which the entire generation of fourth graders was put through a robotics basics program, we proposed and encouraged local schools to adopt a more open primary education curriculum that would provide basic technical knowledge for primary school pupils. Thus, the local municipality took on the role of establishing a bridge among the primary school system, the Business Incubator, and the local economy.

 

 

Today, the Kočevje Business Incubator runs a series of robotics workshops for the whole generation of primary school pupils. For pupils in the 2nd triad, 3rd through 6th grade, it runs a program with LEGO WeDo 2.0 robots. With the help of scientific projects, pupils learn about technique, natural phenomena, physical concepts, and the basics of programming. Curiosity, analytical thinking, social skills, critical thinking, and problem-solving are encouraged in pupils. It is crucial that this whole generation is equipped with this knowledge, as it is all too often the case that only children of ambitious parents who can afford paid after-school activities have access to this type of knowledge.

The response of the children has been remarkable. By playing on managed projects, five key goals were reached:

  • Modelling research and designing solutions
  • Getting to know science through real life examples
  • Gaining basic programming knowledge
  • Learning cooperation and presentation
  • Learning critical thinking and problem-solving

 

A program for learning the basics of how to program simple KUBO robots without using a computer was developed for pupils in the 1st triad, grades 1st through 3rd. After testing, an unexpected positive response was observed among the children, showing that they were receptive to this type of programming learning. Teachers all over Slovenia also showed great interest in this kind of playful education during class lessons.

Today, all three primary schools in Kočevje, encompassing over 1,500 pupils, are integrated into the program, which means that every year 250 new pupils or 20% of the entire public school population will learn the basics of programming and robotics. The curriculum developed in Kočevje has already been transferred to 56 primary schools through teacher training in Slovenia, where the program is now being followed by 260 teachers.

Because of the COVID-19 crisis, workshops were held as webinars in 2020 and 2021, and more than 800 teachers and pupils have participated so far. The real results are reflected in the much greater interest in technology among young people, enrolments in the mechanical engineering program now triple what they were before, and companies actively involved in the school system, where they contribute additional resources, teaching aids and even their engineers. In short, the municipality of Kočevje has not only become the site of an international corporation, but also an environment where the municipality actively coexists with the company and ensures a future for young people without having to emigrate. Indeed, 2020 showed a reverse trend as young Kočevjites return to their hometown, housing is being built, and the population is on the rise for the first time in 30 years.

 

 

Conclusion

 

In the future, it will be important for economies to focus on learning and be closely linked to the public school system. Industry 4.0, meaning the digitalization of processes—robotics, the automation of production and further digitalization of business processes as a whole—represent the future of the younger generation’s professions. This means that public education systems need to change or supplement their curricula to be more adapted to the opportunities and needs represented by companies.

The Slovenian initiative to introduce robotics into the primary school curriculum in the first and second triads was also noticed by the European Commission. Our team was invited by the EC to Pori, Finland and Brussels, Belgium to present examples of good practice on this subject. At the end, we were selected as one of the 6 best examples of how to introduce robotics in primary education at the EU level.


Copy edited by Lidia Alexandra Wolanskyj

All terms in this article are meant to be used neutrally for men and women

Vladimir Prebilič has participated at the International Expert Exchange, "Development of Municipalities: trust, institutions, finance and people", organized by U-LEAD with Europe Programme in December 2020. His speech delivered during one of the workshops is to a great extent depicted in this article.

In the name of the U-LEAD with Europe Programme, we would like to express our great appreciation and thanks for both inputs of Mr. Prebilič. The article will be included in future online publication Compendium of Articles.

Compendium of Articles is a collection of papers prepared by policymakers, Ukrainian and international experts, and academia after International Expert Exchange 2019 and 2020, organized by U-LEAD with Europe Programme. The articles raise questions in the fields of decentralisation reform and regional and local development, relevant for both the Ukrainian and the international audience. The Compendium will be published online in Ukrainian and English languages on the U-LEAD online recourses. Please, follow us on Facebook to stay informed about the project.

If you have any comments or questions about the Compendium of articles or this article in particular, please contact Yaryna Stepanyuk yaryna.stepanyuk@giz.de.

 

This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union and its member states Germany, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia and Slovenia. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of its authors and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the U-LEAD with Europe Programme, the government of Ukraine, the European Union and its member states Germany, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia and Slovenia.

 

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