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Coronavirus Pandemic Reshaping Education in Europe

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Students of St. Petersburg Mining University, studying in Austria and Germany on double and triple degree programs, told about the mode in which Western universities hold lectures and practical classes after the New Year vacations. As it turned out, a return to the old format of gaining knowledge is still out of the question. At the same time, the doors of higher education institutions are open. In laboratories, for example, young people, including foreigners, are allowed to work on their research projects.

In Saxony, where the Freiberg Mining Academy is located, as in Russia, rather strict sanitary and epidemiological restrictions still apply. In most public places - cafes, cinemas, shopping, and entertainment complexes, only those who have had COVID or were vaccinated can enter. An exception is made for companies that sell basic necessities. These include grocery stores, pharmacies, and hardware stores. No one has heard anything yet about tougher measures caused by the spread of the new strain.

In Austria, the picture is similar. The latest lockdown, which started there on November 8, ended just before Christmas. Now all organizations and businesses are open in the Alpine Republic, but only to holders of a vaccination certificate. If not, it is impossible to enter almost any premises.

At the University of Leoben, too, only vaccinated students are allowed in, but the corridors of the university are not crowded for another reason - almost the entire educational process takes place online. There is simply no reason for young Austrians to go to their alma mater.

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“Teachers give us live lectures, and they also post current assignments on a special educational platform. They try to do everything possible so that we can get not only knowledge but also practical skills, even under COVID restrictions. For example, we were given VR glasses, which we use in some classes to observe in 3D mode the models of deposits and the stages of their development. Meetings with scientific supervisors take place at the university, during which students and professors discuss the nuances of scientific research for a future Master’s degree thesis. Examinations can be held both in-person and online at the discretion of the instructor,” said Alexandra Semenova, who intends to receive the Austrian degree of higher education.

St. Petersburg Mining University students, who are now studying in the FRG, spend somewhat more time at the university. As Nikita Golokhvastov says, “all lectures and practical work related to computational operations, including solving various problems, are transferred to the online format. But as part of the course project, the guys work in the laboratories of the Freiberg Mining Academy according to previously announced plans. In doing so, they are required to observe special precautions. For example, “the accumulation of people in one room” is forbidden. In addition, it is mandatory to wear masks with a protection rating of FFP2 or higher, i.e. respirators.

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“About 80 percent of learning is now online. Of course, this disrupts some kind of student-teacher connection, but educators are making a tremendous effort to iron out the disadvantages of the new format. Both lectures and seminars are conducted live. Students always have an opportunity to ask questions, both during the class and afterward, but using e-mail. As for practical training, it began almost immediately after the New Year vacations," said another student from St. Petersburg Anastasia Sherstneva.

As explained by her colleague Eldar Salpagarov, each Russian student “has an individual project, which must be defended by the end of April”. As early as last year, all the students were asked to choose one of the most relevant areas of scientific activity for the German university. Now it’s time for laboratory experiments, which are conducted under the guidance of experienced mentors from among the faculty of the Freiberg Mining Academy.

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“I am engaged in research of bio-binders based on mixtures of lignin and collagen in refractory materials for ladle applications. The purpose of my work is to evaluate the mechanical properties of refractory ceramics with binders based on lignin and collagen and compare them with the properties of similar material with binders based on coal tar. This work will be done both before and after the thermal shock, and then, depending on the results, the percentage of bio-binder content in the ceramics will be changed or its composition will be transformed. All this is necessary to find the best chemical compositions or organize the optimal technological production process,” said Eldar Salpagarov.

His fellow student Sofia Mazepa is also engaged in the improvement of refractory materials. At the laboratories of the Freiberg Mining Academy in co-authorship with Anastasia Sherstneva, she compares the difference in mass of samples before and after 5, 15, 30, and 60 minutes at temperatures of 800, 1200, and 1600 degrees Celsius.

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“After the experimental part is completed, it will be the turn of analytical work, which will involve optical and scanning electron microscopes. Our goal is to evaluate the influence of various additives in the refractories on their resistance to oxidation at elevated temperatures,” Sofia says.

She points out that the samples under study were provided to the university by a German company specifically to study their properties. In other words, the research is applied, and the management of the Freiberg Mining Academy and the customers are waiting for the results, which is an additional motivation for the girls.

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“In order to obtain a European master’s degree, a certain number of credits (ects) must be earned during the entire period of study. They are awarded for the subjects included in the curriculum and for laboratory research. In addition, any student can sign up for courses that interest him or her and get extra points, of course, provided he or she successfully passes the exam. Such a system helps not only to close academic backlogs but also to gain additional knowledge. For this semester, after passing the session and coursework, each of us will have 32 points, which is a little more than the required level,” summarized Nikita Golokhvastov.

It should be noted that currently 25 students from St. Petersburg Mining University and other universities of the Nedra consortium are studying in Austria and Germany under double and triple degree programs. All of them have committed to return to their alma mater and continue their studies in the homeland. The project is coordinated by St. Petersburg Mining University and the International Center of Competence in Mining Engineering Education under the auspices of UNESCO established on the basis of the oldest technical university in Russia.

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