Recently, more than 80 young women and men in Coclé, Panama were set to graduate from a vocational-technical school where they’d been preparing for careers in fields like mechanics, electronics, construction, and commerce. In pre-Covid times, they would have spent the last two or three months of their final school year splitting time between the classroom and on-site visits to workplaces to attain hands-on experience in their professional areas.

Of course, these students were excited to be finishing their education despite the challenges of the pandemic, but many of them were afraid they hadn’t been able to adequately practice their technical skills due to Covid-related restrictions. To address their fears, they were invited to participate in Desafio Tec, a competition to develop technical projects designed to reactivate their communities after Covid-19. In so doing, they were given the chance to practice their vocational training while putting their skills to use in creative ways.

This experience let the young people see themselves not only as students but as people capable of imagining and producing new things.

After identifying the pandemic-related issues they wanted to address, students worked in groups of four to seven—along with one or two teachers—to develop their projects. Teams spent approximately four months, some coming back to the labs at their schools and others working remotely. As part of the experience, they had to justify their choices, conduct research around the issue, use surveys to validate their ideas within their communities, develop a prototype (either digital or physical), and then share the whole process in a virtual presentation to their school community, other teams, and industry representatives. Finally, 11 teams exhibited their prototypes at a virtual fair. Surrounded by worktables, wires, buttons, and lots of other diverse materials, teams were judged by a remote jury of local and national experts.

According to one judge, “This experience let the young people see themselves not only as students but as people capable of imagining and producing new things.”

Students appreciated and benefited from the opportunity to refresh and apply their technical skills to a concrete project, engage with the industrial sector for the first time, and regain self-confidence.

Their innovative final products ranged from automated disinfectant systems for classrooms to minicomputers designed to facilitate internet access in remote zones. The winning project was a face-mask disintegration machine developed to avoid Covid-19 contamination and propagation related to poor waste management.

Despite the challenges posed to education by Covid, students appreciated and benefited from the opportunity to refresh and apply their technical skills to a concrete project, engage with the industrial sector for the first time, and regain self-confidence. In the end, they became more enthusiastic about the role they’ll play in addressing future challenges.

“We learned a lot from this experience about time-management, teamwork, creating a schedule, designing surveys to validate research, report writing, and of course designing and presenting our prototypes,” said Jose Rosario, one of the participants. “Also, we were just really happy to see each other again.”

Desafio Tec is a component of Equip Youth Panama, an IYF program implemented with the local support of Consejo del Sector Privado para la Asistencia Educacional (COSPAE). 

Judith Hermosillo Lozano is Program Manager, Mexico & Colombia