Knowledge

Knowledge

Estonia’s primary education system ranks eighth in the world

According to the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report, Estonia’s primary education system ranks eighth in the world.

The Global Competitiveness Report looks at data on different areas in almost every country on earth and then compiles the data into a picture of the economy for those countries. Then, they are ranked according to the 12 pillars of competitiveness, which include health and primary education, the macro-economic environment, the efficiency of the labour market, infrastructure, and so on.

estonian-kids-at-gustav-adolf-grammar-school-kristjan-salum-iiIn the field of the quality of primary education, Estonia has scored eighth with the score of 5.7.

The country spends about 4% of its GDP on education, and its Education Act of 1992 points out that the country’s goal is “to create favourable conditions for the development of personality, family and the Estonian nation; to promote the development of ethnic minorities, economic, political and cultural life in Estonia and the preservation of nature in the global economic and cultural context; to teach the values of citizenship; and to set up the prerequisites for creating a tradition of lifelong learning nation-wide”.

The countries that have scored higher than Estonia are: Ireland and Qatar (score 5.8; rank 6-7); the Netherlands (5.9; 5); Singapore (6.1; 4); Belgium and Switzerland (6.2; 2-3); and Estonia’s northern neighbour Finland (6.7; 1).

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One of Finland’s strengths as the leader in this field is that all students, regardless of their ability, are taught in the same classes – and as a result, the gap between the weakest and the strongest is the smallest in the world.

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Cover: Schoolchildren at the Gustav Adolf Grammar School in Tallinn. Photo by Kristjan Salum/courtesy of the Gustav Adolf Grammar School.

Scientist Mart Min enjoys seeing results working in real life

Estonian scientist Mart Min, born in 1943, is a multifaceted man. He started his career in the electronics industry as an engineer but soon united engineering and science, which has brought him to participate in working out a solution for pacemakers and creating a euro coin identification machine.

This article is published in collaboration with Research in Estonia and Study in Estonia.

Min, a professor at the Tallinn University of Technology, says the creation process has always fascinated him but he is not a classical scientist who makes long-term passive observations, collects facts and filters the required information to systematise the information into new knowledge.

“I came to science from engineering. I make minimally intrusive but still active experiments and I have always tried to use the acquired knowledge for aiding medical diagnosing and creating new machines, treating methods or a new production processes. Seeing scientific results working fascinates me,” Min explains.

Knowledge for different areas

Seemingly, Min has been engaged in very different areas – space projects, medical technology and a coin identification machine – but actually their common denominator is measurement. “Already from the beginning of my career in engineering and science my research topics were connected with obtaining information from the environment, both natural and engineered,” Min says.

mart-min-is-also-the-person-who-brought-thomas-johann-seebecks-name-to-the-department-of-electronics-at-tallinn-university-of-technology

While he was studying, the Soviet-occupied Estonia had a strong electronics industry, which provided for the larger Soviet industrial complex; there were several large enterprises in Tallinn and some in Tartu and other cities. Students received in-service training in these factories, which had their own design offices and several also had research departments. Min practiced at the RET (Radio-Electronic Technology) Corporation in Tallinn. The main development line at RET was creating new principles for electronic measurements.

His diploma thesis in electronic engineering at the Tallinn Polytechnic Institute and later his PhD thesis, defended in 1984 at Kiev Polytechnic, Ukraine, were devoted to information acquisition and measurement technology.

The acquired knowledge has been implemented in various ways: in measurement devices for the electronics industry, spectrometric devices for space labs and later mostly in the research and development of medical electronics.

Successful innovation for pacemakers

Min’s consistent work has been noticed – in 2011, his research group was nominated for the European Inventor Award, mostly because of new details made for pacemakers.

His first research in the field of pacemakers was published in the late 1990s in the framework of the EU Copernicus project, “Hardware based Fuzzy Logic control of the pacing rate in rate-adaptive cardiac pacemakers”. In this project, bioelectrical impedance analysis or electrical bioimpedance, based sensing of lungs’ breathing character as an indicator of the physical workload of the patient, was introduced.

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“In 1999, I was asked to give some lectures at Stockholm University about the usage of electrical bioimpedance information in medical monitoring and diagnosing. The next day, I was suddenly asked to give a similar lecture at St Jude Medical Company (an American-Swedish company) and I received an invitation to collaborate with the company in the field of bioimpedance based sensing and pacing rate control,” Min recalls.

The collaboration lasted four years and concluded with new solutions for the estimation of the patients’ physical workload and controlling the pacing rate, as well as limiting the highest pacing rate to avoid overpacing and, therefore, the possibility of destroying the heart muscle.

All these solutions were patented by St Jude Medical around the world and have been used in its products – implantable rate adaptive cardiac pacemakers, little generators that create voltage pulses, which are about millisecond long and have few volts of amplitude. These pulses encourage heart muscle to contract. Artificial stimulation is needed when the heart’s own natural electrical signals generator – the sinus node – is working too weakly or slowly, or not at all.

Collaboration with foreign talents

Min’s wide-ranging and universal work has continued within his research group in Estonia. In addition to Estonian students and scientists, there are also people from abroad, for example, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Germany, Greece and Afghanistan.

“In our master’s programme of communicative electronics there are about twenty foreigners, as well as ten doctoral students who have a great role in our research,” Min says.

For example, Georgios Giannoukos from Greece got his doctorate degree from Tallinn in September. He participated in the project called “Impedance spectroscopy based identification and control”. Giannoukos got the idea to come to the Tallinn University of Technology from a fellow scientist in Greece and he really enjoyed studying there.

Tauseef Ahmed from Pakistan is working on the subject of a network of wireless sensors for his PhD, which is in alliance with the projects in the department. Ahmed is also working on e-health modelling that is a project of his supervisor, a senior researcher, Yannick Le Moullec, who is one of the busiest supervisors in the department. Moullec will become professor in January 2017.

Robin Ehrminger from Germany enjoyed his master’s studies in mechatronics and continues on the PhD level. “So far it has been a great experience with a lot freedom for creativity. At the moment, I am investigating different approaches in the field of bacteria concentration detection,” he says.

All three men work with Mart Min and they appreciate this opportunity a lot. “I can describe Mart Min as an outstanding and very active scientist, who has a valuable experience and a great sense of humour,” Ehrminger adds.

Giannoukos describes Min as a gifted scientist with a brilliant personality. Ahmed points out that when he has attended conferences and introduced himself as a student from Estonia, people have asked whether he knows Mart Min. “I think he is a very high-profile researcher in Estonia,” Ahmed asserts.

Multifunctional technology

One of Min’s and his research group’s latest works is the euro coin identification machine. The enlargement of the European Union and the opening of borders brought along an explosion of fake coins and that is why a new type of validation machines was needed.

Min says it took a bit more than five years of study and development to get from the idea to a working machine. “The main principle for identifying euro coins is measuring the electrical impedance of their different layers in a broad frequency band (impedance spectroscopy). We used the non-contact induction current (Eddy current) spectroscopy method,” he explains.

The idea and the proof-of-concept demo device were developed as a response to the procurement of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). The prototype was developed in the framework of the EU-FP7-SME project, “SafeMetal – Increasing EU citizen security by utilizing innovative intelligent signal processing systems for euro-coin validation and metal quality testing”.

By the way, the technology of electrical impedance was patented in 2010. The same technology can be also used for diagnosing health issues and electrical failures in satellites, as reported by the Estonian daily, Eesti Päevaleht.

Helping people

Min says that research in the field of medical technology is the closest to his heart. “When one works together with medical doctors, one sees how many troubles mankind can have,” he notes. “One also sees that clever technological solutions are already helping people today, but one understands how many problems technology can solve in the nearest future with the aid of science. I myself have been a demanding patient recently and experienced these problems first-hand.”

Currently Min is working on cognitive electronics and especially on a new method for determining changes in central blood pressure. It is part of his project, “Impedance spectroscopy based identification and control of objects: signals, algorithms, energy efficient solutions” that focuses on blood pressure.

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Min mentions that science goes forth independently thanks to curious people, as it has happened already for many centuries. He also states that science should be strongly supported by the society and government to gain economic and social benefits and security for citizens and the state as a whole.

“Science needs financing and scientists must voice their responsibility. A lot of problems in today’s science could be surpassed if fundamental science, ie, applied science and innovation, would be considered as a single development process,” Min suggests.

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Cover: Mart Min. All photos courtesy of Mart Min and Research in Estonia.

The Cambridge Baltic Conference 2016 to focus on technology and governance

The Cambridge Baltic Conference, organised by the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian societies of the University of Cambridge, will bring together leaders in politics, science and business with students and young professionals.

Organised since 2013, the annual Cambridge Baltic Conference includes speeches, workshops and presentations along with ample opportunities for networking.

This year, the topic of the conference is titled “Technology and Governance”. The panels of fintech, e-governance, e-health, big data and governance, talent attraction and modern diasporas will explore where technology and governance meet and interweave.

The organisers aim at generating a nexus of ideas that will combine the knowledge, creativity and experience of students, business community, politicians and academics.

Speakers include Theresa Bubbear, the British ambassador to Estonia; Andres Metspalu, the director of the Estonian Genome Centre; Kaspar Korjus, the head of the Estonian e-residency project, and many others.

In addition, two workshops on the legal implications for the fintech industry and on talent attraction to the Baltics will be held.

The conference, held on 12 November, will also be a part of the British Estonian Chamber of Commerce’s trade mission to the UK.

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Cover: Christ’s College, Cambridge (courtesy of the University of Cambridge.)

Tartu University achieves a new record in the world rankings

According to one of the most important higher education lists, the QS World University Rankings, the University of Tartu (UT) now holds the highest position ever.

The university’s position in the ranking has improved from 501 in 2012 to 347 in 2016.

In the process of preparing the ranking list, the QS takes into account a survey among academic leaders and heads of institutions of higher education; the proportion of students and lecturers; the reputation of the university as the employer; the significance of academic publications; and the percentage of foreign lecturers and students.

The QS ranks the level of research at the University of Tartu “very high”. “UT accounts for over half of Estonia’s national research output with close to 3,000 research articles published annually and 100 doctoral degrees conferred each year. UT belongs to the top 1% of the world’s most-cited universities and research institutions in 10 fields and has cooperation agreements with 71 universities in 27 countries,” the QS said.

UT students at the opening of 2015-2016 academic year. Courtesy of UT.

Founded in 1632 by the Swedish king, Gustav II Adolph, the UT is the oldest and largest university in Estonia both in terms of numbers of staff and students, and the volume of its teaching, research and development activities.

By global standards, the UT is a medium-sized university. As of 2016, almost 14,000 students are enrolled, including over 800 international students – the university offers 18 degree programmes that are fully taught in English.

One of the University of Tartu's international students, Brigita Salkute. Courtesy of UT.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and Harvard University, all in the United States, took the top spots in the ranking, which was compiled by over 70,000 academics and over 35,000 employers. More than 3,800 institutions were assessed and 916 universities in 81 countries were finally featured.

Another Estonian higher education institution, the Tallinn University of Technology, ranked among 601–650, the same position as in 2015.

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Cover image: an image of the historical main building of the University of Tartu (courtesy of the UT).

Honey and bees win Estonian students a prize in China

The students from the University of Tartu (UT) won the first place at the international innovation competition in China with their idea about creating an innovative environmental indicator based on the analysis of the chemical composition of honey; their idea also promoted keeping bees in urban environments.

The doctoral students of the School of Economics and Business Administration, Tõnis Tänav, Kristian Pentus and Tarmo Puolokainen, participated in the Youth Innovation Competition on Global Governance in Shanghai, with sustainable development as the main topic.

“The idea had to contribute to the achievement of the UN’s objectives of sustainable development, such as reducing poverty, access to education, environmental conditions etc,” Pentus told the UT press department.

The team created a novel and complex environmental indicator, which is based on the analysis of the chemical composition of honey, death rate of bees, productivity of honey and other indicators. This makes it possible to map and compare the environmental problems of different urban areas, cities and countries. The system would work on the data of urban beehives kept by people themselves and would also promote beekeeping in cities.

The idea to link the project with bees and honey came from life itself. “Our team member Tõnis Tänav has worked briefly with bees and he knows some beekeepers, which is where the initial idea came from. From there on we started thinking as a team how to form the raw idea into a project,” Pentus said.

Hive monitoring programmes have exploded in recent years around the world – the aim is to measure the healthiness of surrounding environment. The chemical composition of the honey could indicate, for example, how polluted are the air and water in the area.

The competition involved more than 700 participants from 40 countries.

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Cover: a honey bee in action (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Private initiatives advance Estonian education

Private initiatives raising funds for education is a rather new approach in Estonia. Several foundations have kicked off only recently to broaden the horizons of Estonian students and enable them to tackle challenges out of their comfort zone. Private donors hope children will get better jobs in the future and possibly change the world.

Eesti 2.0, a non-profit private initiative, was founded just a year ago, but has already launched three projects. In early June, the organisation announced that 50 schools in Estonia would each receive two littleBits STEAM Student Sets, easy-to-use electronic building blocks that empower everyone – of any gender, age or technical background – to create inventions, large and small. The programme’s launch was attended by the Estonian president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves; the founder of Eesti 2.0, Hardi Meybaum; as well as other supporters of the cause.

Eesti 2.0 III

“littleBits will enable to make physical objects move around and the electronics are simple enough so even the elementary school students will understand how to build electronic circuits, but the older kids can build more complicated machines,” Meybaum explains choosing littleBits to become the next project of Eesti 2.0.

In May 2015, Eesti 2.0 ran a pilot programme delivering MakerBot Replicator 3D printers to 50 Estonian schools that resulted in 3D printing becoming a major success in the Estonian education system. Almost half of the digital student projects submitted to this year’s national science fair, “World Country Estonia”, organised by the Information Technology Foundation for Education (HITSA), was in 3D technology. Lately, the municipality of Tallinn announced a procurement for buying 3D printers for all schools in the capital, cementing the understanding that 3D printers offer a multitude of opportunities to teach new technologies at schools.

Makerbot

As of May this year, Eesti 2.0 introduced bitcoin computers built by 21.co, a Silicon Valley based startup. Balaji Srinivasan, the founder of 21.co, an influential thinker on bitcoin technologies as well as a lecturer at Stanford University, has set up an exclusive online course providing Estonian schools with instructions on how to get started with bitcoin computing and machine-to-machine micropayments. Students in this programme will gain expertise with the bitcoin protocol, and will learn how to set up machine-payable endpoints and how to write code that uses bitcoin micropayments, such as simple games. The material also covers the blockchain, the special distributed database that underpins the bitcoin protocol.

Eesti 2.0 VI

“Our aim is to inspire Estonian schoolkids to pick their future in technology,” Meybaum, who is himself a good example of how an early interest in technology and resilience can take one quite far in life, asserts. He founded the company, GrabCAD, that in 2014 was acquired by Stratasys, one of the world leaders in 3D technology. 3D printing is one of the fastest growing industries as it enables to produce prototypes at low cost and little time. Literally anyone can print an artificial limb or even a spare part for the space shuttle. As also proven by the Eesti 2.0 3D printer project – even elementary school students find the printers fascinating, but, at the same time, easy to use.

“We want to bring to our schools new technologies that would enable students to span their knowledge across disciplines,” Meybaum notes.

Eesti 2.0 has been supported by a group private donors. Anyone can contribute to the mission and as soon as enough funds have been raised, Eesti 2.0 will help the next school in line to obtain the device.

Go study abroad

Eesti 2.0 focuses on elementary, middle and high school students across Estonia, targeting all 533 schools with 137,236 students. While this is the most ambitious attempt by private capital to influence this most populous segment of education, the foundation follows in the footsteps of those whose charity has focused on higher education.

This summer will be the 12th in row that will see 20 talented high school graduates to receive a scholarship to continue their studies in well-acclaimed European and American universities.

The Young Scholar’s Grant was initiated by private entrepreneurs in cooperation with the ministry of education and the Archimedes Foundation. Last year, the private donations reached €40,000, which was matched by the same amount by the state. Private donations can be anything starting from €10, while some people have committed to donate €5,000 each year.

“Most of the people who want to support students’ studies abroad have experienced living someplace else,” explains Tõnu Pekk, the chairman of the board of the Young Scholar’s Grant. “This is not charity but rather a way to indicate a certain shift in the society.”

The Young Scholar’s Grant has helped 110 high school graduates to start their studies in a foreign university, like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or Yale. So far only one of them has returned home before completing the studies abroad, just to do it in an Estonian university. At least half of the students have by now also finished their graduate and post-graduate studies.

There’s no need to worry that the students who go to study abroad are “lost souls” for their homeland since they have all stayed committed to making Estonia a better and a bigger place even if they are not here physically. Despite the fact that there is no requirement to return home after they have completed their studies, the most active students have initiated the local Estonian Society in Edinburgh and a few students at Cambridge organised a Baltic Conference. Last year also saw the first grant supported by the former students.

While the Young Scholar’s Grant will most often take care of the costs of a student during their first semester of their bachelor’s studies abroad, there is another private initiative that aims to support the students of graduate or post-graduate level. The Tamkivi Foundation for Natural Sciences supports young Estonians’ studies and research in the field of natural sciences.

Tamkivi Foundation Fellow Tuule Mall Kull

Managed as an endowment by the Estonian National Culture Foundation, the foundation has allocated five grants since it was founded in 2013. Last year, three fellows were chosen among the high quality of candidates.

Education is the basis of an open society

Ever since Estonia regained its independence, the Open Estonia Foundation (OEF) has been running dozens of educational programmes spanning from sending Estonian students to study in the UK, the US and the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, to publishing texts by influential European thinkers for Estonian academically-inclined audiences.

Eesti 2.0 IFounded in 1991, the OEF was supported by the Open Society Foundation, a non-profit founded by the Hungarian-born entrepreneur and philanthropist, George Soros. The OSF has been slowly pulling out of the former Soviet bloc and their support for the OEF will gradually stop next year. The OEF is currently allocating funds made available by the EEA EFTA states (Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein), aiming at spreading democratic values and human rights by making the society more tolerant and open to discussion.

The OEF has helped to kickstart more than ten initiatives, like the Estonian Debating Society and Noored Kooli (Youth to School) that have become influential in educating next generations on their own. The OEF still organises the Open Society Forums and lends a helping hand to the Opinion Festival, a thought leaders’ summer gathering in Estonia.

Although it has been a long-standing tradition in Europe that education is a field controlled and advanced by the governments, the private initiatives in Estonia set a good example how private initiatives can also make a considerable impact in the society since it can take the students spanning all levels of education closer to the up-to-date issues of real life much faster.

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Cover: children from the Gustav Adolf Grammar School in Tallinn admiring a 3D printer, delivered by Eesti 2.0 (photo by Oleg Hartšenko)

Global ambassadors of Estonian e-governance studies

International students have found Estonia on their path. One of them is Crystal LaGrone from Oklahoma, the United States. LaGrone is currently half-way through the e-governance technologies and services master’s programme at the Tallinn University of Technology (TUT).

In Estonia today, there are dozens of institutions offering higher education, including public and private universities, institutions of professional higher education and vocational schools. The University of Tartu is now among the top three per cent of the world’s universities, and the highest ranked in the Baltic states. Similarly, the Tallinn University of Technology, whose alumni include world-class startup entrepreneurs, has ranked among the 500 best universities in the world.

Higher education is open to all eligible students, at bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate levels. In the universities, many courses are taught in English and have drawn a wide variety of international students through the high quality of teaching and environment. According to the International Student Barometer (IBS), 89 per cent of international students at Estonian universities are satisfied with the quality of education on offer.

An agent for change

One of those international students, who have found Estonia on their path, is Crystal LaGrone from Oklahoma, the United States. LaGrone is currently half-way through the e-governance technologies and services master’s programme at the TUT. Developed in cooperation with the public and private sectors, the programme is listed as one of the priority curriculums in Estonia, even promoted by the tech-savvy Estonian president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, among others.

LaGrone says the course has exceeded her expectations and she has become “an agent for change”, who wants to take the ICT to the next level in her home country, after being inspired in Estonia.

Her story is a curious one – first arriving in Estonia as a visitor with the Methodist Church three years ago, she instantly fell in love with the country. “I’m a true estophile now,” she says, warmly.

“I discovered that it is a very progressive country with a very advanced ICT and internet voting, specifically,” she adds.

“LaGrone says the course has exceeded her expectations and she has become “an agent for change”, who wants to take the ICT to the next level in her home country, after being inspired in Estonia.”

Being politically active since her youth, LaGrone believes internet voting will increase political participation and thus democracy, because it gives an opportunity to vote for those who otherwise might not have done it. Since Estonia became the first nation to hold legally binding general elections over the internet in 2005 – something that has become a norm now, while most countries, including the US, are still only contemplating about the possibility – LaGrone decided to learn first-hand how to implement changes, all with an aim to take this experience back home.

“I applied to the master’s programme here, even though I don’t have a tech background. But the university accepted people with diverse backgrounds: bachelor in law, public management, IT, economics or other related field. And I have to say that it really improves the dynamics of the class,” LaGrone explains.

“People at home asked me why on earth do you want go all the way over there to study. But it is because the curriculum is so unique,” LaGrone says.

“The difference is that in the US you can take e-governance, cyber security, computer science classes separately – but there is nothing that can combine all this. You may be able to piece them together, but you won’t have enough to make any sort of degree out of that. Here, it is already combined for you,” she adds.

Tallinn University of Technology's library

Indeed, the master’s programme in e-governance technologies and services gives students broad knowledge about the makings of a modern state – the transition into e-governance, its management and development. The curriculum brings together science, practices and knowledge in these fields.

LaGrone observed that it is all very dynamic. “As we go along, they add new information and also ask feedback from the students – so we get to play part in putting the curriculum together, which is a very unique opportunity. On top of that, you have a chance to study in Estonia, where it is all implemented. We get to see the practicality. We got resident’s permits, so we can use the digital signatures, for example,” she notes.

Only two degrees of separation

The practicality of her studies is what LaGrone emphasises the most. “Back in March, during the last parliamentary election, I got to meet the people who actually implemented internet voting. This reminds me another important point about Estonia: in the US, there is a saying about six degrees of separation – you are six people away from somebody you need to talk to, when you want to dig deep into something. In Estonia, it’s down to one or two, so it is all very accessible. For me as a student, it is a big thing – here, when you ask someone what it actually means, you get a response.”

Crystal I

Both the lecturers and the students involved with the e-governance programme embody the fact that Estonian universities have become more international recently. Most lecturers have extensive global experience. “I’m really happy with the lecturers, because they have been able to pull people who really know their subject,” LaGrone remarks, while highlighting that the head of research at the e-governance academy, the Swedish-born Katrin Merike Nyman-Metcalf, has worked in about 40 different countries.

“In the US, there is a saying about six degrees of separation – you are six people away from somebody you need to talk to, when you want to dig deep into something. In Estonia, it’s down to one or two, so it is all very accessible.”

The students are from different countries too: Ukraine, Georgia, Hungary, Germany, the US, from the Palestinian territories, and of course, Estonians. “Some are jealous of how close-knit our group is. We all learn from each other because we have such different specialities and background. We have taken trips to the Estonian countryside, and we have had cooking nights. We have made a commitment to get through our course together, because we all want to graduate,” LaGrone reveals.

Global ambassadors for Estonia

LaGrone underlines that some students will be global ambassadors for Estonia. “Many will go back to their country, working and implementing the solutions they learned about in Estonia. Some will do it for their governments, some for private businesses. And there are some, who really like Estonia and want to set up startup here. We really appreciate what we have learned,” she explains, while noting that the ever-present startup community has not left wanting either – Skype’s Tallinn office and the Mektory Innovation and Business Centre are in the vicinity of the university. LaGrone herself works at the e-Estonia showroom part-time, while she is not studying.

Crystal II

There are few things that she would improve. While her master’s programme is conducted entirely in English, LaGrone says it would benefit Estonia if the other information around the university and elsewhere would be more widely available in the pre-eminent international language, too. The issue of Estonians still being cautious of embracing people with different backgrounds is also a topic recently, especially since the most serious refugee crisis hit Europe in spring 2015.

“I appreciate Estonians’ will to retain their identity and culture, but we all live in a global society and it is important to embrace other cultures too. Estonia would miss out on some great things if it was afraid of something. I believe the Estonian spirit is so strong that you would never lose your culture and identity. I have watched ‘The Singing Revolution’ – a film about the non-violent path Estonia took to free itself from Soviet occupation – many times, and it spoke volumes,” LaGrone underlines.

LaGrone now sings in Estonian in the university choir – truly trying to embrace her university experience: “Estonian is very phonetic language, so it is not too hard to memorise the songs. More difficult are the vowels – ‘ä’, ‘ö’, ‘ü’, ‘õ’,” she says, laughingly.

“I appreciate Estonians’ will to retain their identity and culture, but we all live in a global society and it is important to embrace other cultures too. Estonia would miss out on some great things if it was afraid of something.”

While there is a widespread stereotype of Estonians being cold and distant, LaGrone insists that she has never experienced that herself: “For me, Estonians have always come across as warm and generous. Because I had heard this stereotype in advance, prior to my studies, my goal was to make Estonians laugh at least once a day – and I have succeeded, although it usually means that I need to poke fun at myself!”

She has also learned to appreciate some of the local food – “kohuke”, an Estonian curd snack, being the particular favourite, as well as products from the local confectionery maker Kalev. “I always bring Kalev back home to my family in the US – they are completely spoiled with Estonian chocolate!” she adds.

Exporting internet voting to the US

As with most of her fellow students, LaGrone has the ambition of going back to the US and making a difference, based on what she has learned in Estonia. In her case, it is of course the internet voting.

“We put a man on the moon – and we brought him back! So internet voting cannot be as hard as rocket science! Ok, I say this half-jokingly, because there are threats in cyber space. Voting is a very important issue and you would want to adhere it properly, but the paper election is more likely to be fraudulent. For example, back home we had a case where the ballot box wasn’t properly emptied and some voting papers were still left inside,” LaGrone remarks.

Crystal - Atko Januson

LaGrone says that the US can learn from Estonia when it comes to internet voting, and she will be one of the ambassadors to implement it, once the time is right – using the knowledge she has learned while studying in Tallinn.

“I believe democracy is heading towards internet voting. Estonia is dealing with the cyber threats very well – the technology is really there to make e-voting transparent. We in the US have a chance to embrace the technology and be at the frontline – or lag behind. I will certainly fight for it – even if it happens when I’m 90 years old, I am determined that I will vote online one day!”

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The article was originally published in print magazine Life in Estonia. Photos by Maiken Staak and Atko Januson.

How successful is Estonian science?

After the global financial crisis of 2007–2008, Estonia’s economy started to grow again modestly in 2010. However, the budget for basic research has largely remained at the pre-crisis level. Taking into account annual inflation, the research budget has, in fact, been diminishing, but despite of this the standing of Estonian science has improved in the world.

This article was first published by the University of Tartu blog.

As the professor of experimental psychology at Tartu University, Jüri Allik, points out in his recent paper on progress in Estonian science, Estonia deviates from other European countries in terms of how research is funded. Namely, more than 80 per cent of the country’s research funding is project-based, coming from the ministry of education and research, while in other OECD countries national project-based research funding makes up about 20 per cent on average and rarely exceeds half of the funding.

How have the diminishing financing and a heavy emphasis on project-based funding influenced the standing of Estonian science in recent years?

Surprisingly enough, bibliometric indicators of the progress in Estonian science have never been better. During 1996–2006, Estonian papers were cited 17.5 per cent less than the average paper worldwide, as registered by Thomson Reuters’ Essential Science Indicators (ESI) database. In the last eleven years (2004–2014), however, the average citations per paper authored by Estonian scientists exceeded the ESI mean citation rate by five per cent.

The impact of Estonian scientific papers relative to the ESI’s average Graph by Jüri Allik

According to Allik, the success is related to the quality and fairness of the decision-making process in funding research projects. “Ever since Estonia regained its independence in 1991, most research funding applications have had to be written in English, which allowed for use of foreign experts who are more impartial than local experts. In addition, writing all applications in English was an invaluable practice for writing scientifically sound articles, to say nothing about internationally competitive and successful grant applications themselves,” Allik said.

Another important factor is that decision-making panels consist of the best active scientists rather than science bureaucrats.

science

As we look at the key players driving the success of Estonian science, most of them work in biological and environmental sciences. Two-thirds of the 42 scientists who are among the one per cent of the most cited researchers in their field and are affiliated with an Estonian research institution are biologists or ecologists.

“Two-thirds of the 42 scientists who are among the one per cent of the most cited researchers in their field and are affiliated with an Estonian research institution are biologists or ecologists.”

“Each Estonian paper published in environment/ecology and plant and animal science receives about 40 per cent more citations than papers in these fields in general. In addition to these two fields, clinical medicine, molecular biology and genetics, physics, pharmacology and toxicology, and psychiatry/psychology are also above the global average. The fastest growth rate of impact was in computer science, in which the impact of papers increased more than 200 per cent,” Allik added.

20 per cent of the top scientists are women

Estonia passed the threshold established for countries or territories in all 22 fields of science, which is not always the case. Four Estonian institutions have reached the top one per cent in at least one discipline: the University of Tartu in nine disciplines, the Estonian University of Life Sciences in two, and the National Institute of Health Development and the National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics in one each.

More than three-quarters of Estonia’s top scientists are affiliated with the University of Tartu, Allik himself among them. It is also remarkable that 20 per cent of the top researchers are women: Kessi Abarenkov, Aveliina Helm, Angela Ivask, Anne Kahru, Mari Moora, Anu Realo, Liis Rebane and Mari Nelis. “This is especially noteworthy in light of the fact that the Estonian Academy of Sciences has only two women among its 79 current members,” Allik noted.

Estonian top scientists

He pointed out that the list of top Estonian scientists was also telling in terms of the system’s openness. Namely, the list includes several foreigners (Michael Brosche, Henri-Charles Dubourgier, Marlon Dumas, Andrea Giammanco, Andrew Morris, Risto Näätänen, Markus Perola and Harold Snieder) who were invited to work either part or full time in Estonia. Several researchers of Estonian origin, for instance Ülo Langel and Toomas Kivisild, have their main affiliation with institutions abroad, but have another affiliation in Estonia.

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Cover photo by Erik Riikoja (courtesy of EAS)

International students in Estonia: Introduction

Over the years Estonia has welcomed more and more international students. What are the reasons behind that? Do they like it in Estonia and how do they spend their time here? This article tries to answer all of these questions.

According to the Archimedes year book, in the academic year of 2014/2015 there were 2,887 degree students in Estonia. The number of international students increased by 33 per cent. There are 101 different nationalities studying in Estonia, the most come from Finland (1,294), Russia (230), Turkey (112), Georgia (110) and Latvia (101).

First, Estonian universities have done a great job with partner universities implementing new contracts and projects. Students appreciate our academic conditions, infrastructure and learning facilities.

The officials at “Study in Estonia” have also done a great job at marketing. They have made a mobile app for international students called “Survival Guide in Estonia” and started producing webinars that popularised learning possibilities and life in Estonia. Apart from the new and dynamic web page, “Study in Estonia” initiators took part in international higher education study fairs in Finland, Russia, Georgia, Turkey, China and India.

When it comes to India, “Study in Estonia” was cooperating with other Baltic states, organising an info day called “Study in Baltics” in New Delhi.

Erasmus programme

This writer has been a volunteer in a local branch of the Erasmus social network, ESN Tallinn, for many years. Erasmus is an exchange programme for students, scholars and internees. The organisation consists of people who organise trips, events and happenings for international students.

When it comes to Erasmus destinations, in 2010 Estonia was chosen the second best destination according to ESN Survey. What are the reasons? Mainly, the many volunteers (not only Estonians) who work very hard and efficiently. There are not many countries where exchange students are greeted in the airport upon their arrival and then taken to their homes. The majority of them have tutors and personal buddies. Sometimes the attention that a foreign student gets here, has even made ESN activists gasp: “They are not babies, for Christ sake!”

Erasmus students

Apart from many professional skills and contacts, the Erasmus experience has given this writer insight on how foreigners see Estonia.

Why do they come here?

There are many reasons. People from southern Europe or Latin America come to Estonia usually because it is totally different. They have palm trees and beach parties; we have snow and Christmas trees.

“Isabel loves making snow angels.”

“Pedro wants to drink hot wine and try gingerbread in snowy Old Town.”

“Magical old town and cute Christmas markets.”

These are some of the impressions by foreign students who have chosen Estonia.

A lot of students actually preferred Scandinavian countries, but after realising it is not possible to go there (financial reasons, school requirements and competition among students) they come to Estonia “because it is almost like Denmark”. Many students come here for degrees associated with IT, due to Skype and other success stories associated with e-Estonia. Cyber security is also very popular. Medical students go to Tartu, because of the quality of our medical education there.

Tartu by Sven Zacek

Some come to Estonia because it is weird and different. For example, Spanish exchange students really seem to like Estonia for those reasons.

I have also witnessed a lot of word of mouth approval, where a student who has been in Estonia, inspired his or her friend to come next semester.

And – some come here for the blond-haired girls!

Do they party here?

Well, hedonism plays an important role in Erasmus and in youth in general. We are still a YOLO-generation (“you only live once“). The most popular day for Erasmus students is Wednesday, where majority of them go to Club Mynt in the Old Town. Cheap drinks and horrible music – the two factors that make one wait in line for an hour, if needed.

Mynt Nightclub

This place also fuels international love – as well as gossip and drama. Many different nationalities find each other there – for example, an Estonian party host and DJ found his Hungarian wife here. Another one – a French Erasmus student – found his Estonian girlfriend – they have now started an international travel company that provides international students’ trips to Finland, Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Do they only party here?

No, there are many serious internationals, who do not go to parties at all. They take their job, internship, school seriously. A lot of them even join ESN to develop leadership skills. Many of them go on a trip to southern Estonia, take part in language tandems, and write for university newspapers. For example, the Studioosus – the newspaper of Tallinn University of Technology – has had an international section for the past three years.

Artistic students from Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre organise their own small concerts. Some go to movie nights and learn about “Singing Revolution” and listen the interview with conductor Hirvo Surva.

Kalamaja

Creative ladies are keen on getting inspiration from wooden houses in Kalamaja. Some of them find trippy and strange clothes from local second-hand shops, some go for picnics and different surroundings in Rummu, a former mining site, now resembling a blue lagoon.

Apart from enjoying the tranquil atmosphere of Kadriorg or jogging along the sea promenade in Pirita in the Estonian capital, many people travel to St. Petersburg and take part in ESN trips to Rakvere, Tartu and Pärnu. Very popular are trips to Paldiski, to Lahemaa National Park, different bogs and even mushroom and berry picking events!

Pirita - Urmas Haljaste

The coolest event in an academic year is the “Estonian Wedding”, where 80 international students play out the traditional local wedding. Everyone has chosen a role – from the bride to the grandmother, from the groom to a childhood friend. Many years, even “the couple” did not know each other before the event and complete strangers married in an Estonian way. In 2015, however, a real couple got married. They also had to go through different rituals from cleaning the fish and peeling potatoes to changing the diapers and drinking vodka.  This year, the “Estonian Wedding” will be Seto-style instead.

Estonian student wedding

Some international students also fancy sporting events. A guy from Germany might chant for “Eesti” (Estonia) when the national football team is fighting for European qualifiers.

Do they like it here?

The boys who want to find themselves a blond girl love it here. Some women find our children cute and want a baby by an Estonian husband. Some fall in love with the country completely. Some get excited over first snowflakes (actually, a lot of people get excited). If you are friends with many international students, be prepared for Facebook statuses called: “Oh my god, IT IS SNOWING IN ESTONIA!”

Winter Fun in Estonia II

The majority will not get obsessed over black bread, but many will miss “kohuke”, a curd snack. Vana-Tallinn, the most famous local liquor, is so-so for most, but there are people who love it so much here that they write an article about it.

Is it all so lovely?

No. Every country has its issues. It is not just an Estonian thing, it is just life.

One of my Greek friends was beaten up so badly two years ago that he was taken to hospital. One Spanish guy was attacked a year ago.

The biggest problem, however, is a phenomenon called “international students isolation”. This is an issue with every destination country, where international students hang out with only international students. An Italian might learn Spanish or even Korean, but not Estonian, since they might spend time with only those nationalities. It was the same in Cyprus, where I did my Erasmus. This isolation might mean a situation where an international student spends a year in our country and ends up leaving from here, while not knowing anything about our culture, music or the meaning of “aitäh” or “palun” (“thank you” and “please”).

Erasmus students II

I might generalise, but Estonians tend to be more distant and silent, so sometimes foreigners are afraid to make first contact with us.

How could we make it work better?

First we have to hope we will have more international students in Estonia and they will show interest coming here.

Secondly, majority of universities should have “international clubs”, where Estonians could meet, mix and mingle with other nationalities. It would also be a place to practice one’s communication, leadership and organisational skills. Companies could reach out to universities and offer internship positions.

Erasmus students III

Some companies have contacted ESN to offer study or field trips to their company. It is a great, cost-effective way to spread the word and also find new workers. Furthermore, it is a perfect way to bring in new ideas and practices. By the way, students from the European Union can do an Erasmus internship – their salary is provided by the EU, so the company can get a worker for free.

“Companies could reach out to universities and offer internship positions.”

All in all, it seems universities and the “Study in Estonia” promoters continue their hard work. This means we will welcome more international students. Hopefully all the international clubs will continue to work efficiently as well. But how can we, as regular citizens make their stay more convenient? Give your opinion on the comments sections.

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Cover image by Thomas Haltner.

Marika Seigel: How do Estonian and American students differ?

Marika Seigel, a former visiting associate professor at the Department of English Philology of the University of Tartu (UT), compares the learning methods of Estonian and American students.

By far, the question I was asked most frequently as a visiting professor at UT was, “how do you like teaching Estonian students?” or maybe, “How are Estonian students different from their American peers?”

My standard answers included, “I like teaching them quite a bit,” or “they’re not that different. Estonians are a bit quieter, maybe.”

The truth is a little bit more complicated, as it often tends to be. First of all, when I am talking about “American” students, I’m talking about students in a very particular university in a very particular part of a very large country. My home institution, Michigan Technological University, is a small school (about 7,000 students) in a very remote area of northern Michigan (the state that is surrounded by the Great Lakes). Houghton, Michigan, is wild and remote, not what most people typically think of when you think of the US. It makes Tartu seem urban by comparison.

My students there, for the most part, are destined for careers in engineering and other technical fields, and are thus rather pragmatically career minded; they frequently want to know how learning rhetoric or writing or philosophy or literature will help them get a better job.

The area where I’m from, the Upper Great Lakes of the American Midwest, looks a lot like… well… like Estonia. Despite being a dozen degrees of latitude further south, our climates are similar (except that we get a lot more snow in the winter than Estonia). The flora and fauna are similar. There is even a large Finnish population and in my home community, street signs often appear in Finnish as well as English. Many of my students back home are from Michigan or from the neighbouring states of Wisconsin or Minnesota, but there is also a large international student body (over 1,000 students), many from China and India. We’ve even had some students from Estonia. All of this is to say that when I talk about “American” students, I’m talking about a very specific subset of students at a very specific university, some of whom are not technically Americans.

In turn, I’ve only taught a couple of classes here at the University of Tartu involving a very small subset of students (some of whom are also international), so I hesitate to generalise about what the University of Tartu students are like, let alone Estonian students in general. With those caveats in place, however, here are the most significant differences I’ve noticed between students in classes I’ve taught here (hereafter “Estonian students”) and in classes I’ve taught in the US (hereafter “American students”):

1. It is more difficult (but not impossible) to engage Estonian students in classroom discussion.

At my home institution, I can count on carrying almost an entire period with student discussion alone, and just by posing a few key questions to the class. Once I get the conversation going, American students have little trouble airing their opinions for hours at a time. Estonian students, on the other hand, will answer my questions, but in a matter of fact way, and getting sustained discussion from them (where students discuss with each other instead of just with me) is much more difficult. Some of this is Estonian reserve, true, and some of it has to do with language (as I am lecturing in English), but most of the students in my class are so fluently bi-, tri- or quad-lingual that this really shouldn’t be a significant issue. In general, I’d say that American students could stand to think a little more before they speak, while Estonian students could stand to venture their views and opinions a little more quickly and with a little more confidence.

2. Estonian students don’t try to hide their texting or Facebooking or Tumbling during class.

The majority of my students here pay attention and are engaged, but those who aren’t paying attention don’t try to pretend otherwise, but openly gaze instead at their computer screens or phones while I lecture. Since the class that I’m currently teaching is on the rhetoric of social media, perhaps this can be justified as research. American students do these things, too, of course, but they go to great lengths to try to be more covert about it. Granted, when any student is gazing in fascination at their lap for an extended period of time, there’s no great mystery about what is going on, but I haven’t yet decided which is worse – to be overt that you are not paying attention or to try to seem like you are paying attention when you are, in fact, not.

3. Estonian students are more interested in discussing ideas divorced from practical application.

At my home institution, I more often have to stress the extrinsic value of theories we may be studying, or how class content might directly relate to students’ fields of study. Of course, some of this is due to the type of institution that I teach at (a technological university), and some of it is due to the fact that American students have to pay so much for their education, frequently going into astronomical debt to acquire it. If American students want the most bang for their buck I can hardly blame them, but it is refreshing to teach at an institution where students are interested in literature and philosophy and theory, and seem to, in general, value intellectual curiosity for its own sake.

4. Estonian students get dressed for class!

In my experience, they do not come to class in sweatpants, or pyjama pants, or pyjama pants paired with Uggs (Australian boots, made of sheep skin), or (as happened to me once early in my teaching career) nothing but a bathrobe and slippers. Neither do Estonian students noisily eat their meals during class. If any American students happen to be reading this, please take note: There are places in the world where it is still possible to get dressed before venturing into public and it is possible to eat your lunch on your own time. Everybody wins.

In the end analysis, though, there are far more similarities than differences, the same enthusiasm from some students and disengagement from others, the same excuses for not being able to come to class or for turning in homework late, the same energy for learning new concepts and figuring out how to apply them. I am grateful for the slight differences. It’s easy to get complacent when you teach the same classes to the same students, to get into a rut, and the differences I’ve experienced during my short time here have given me an opportunity to grow as a teacher, to develop new materials, and try different methods that will surely benefit my classrooms back home.

But seriously, Americans, put on some pants.

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This article was originally published on University of Tartu blog. The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover photo by Andres Tennus, courtesy of University of Tartu. Author’s profile photo by Tõnis Varjas.

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