Chinese parents are notorious for enrolling their children in a multitude of co-curricular classes, and now the rise in innovation-driven tech investment has yielded yet another option: 创客课程 or ‘maker’ classes.

“We are committed to the principles of experiential learning and project-based learning,” states Join-In (卓因青少年创意工场), one of many ‘maker’ education companies in China. They have an extensive repertoire of workshops for children aged 3 to 18, from soldering a wristwatch to building a robotic car that can be controlled remotely through Bluetooth.

In maker education or ‘learning through making’, learning is supposed to happen as part of the student’s experience as they tackle hands-on projects on their own or with peers. Ideally, teachers take on the role of facilitators and guides. Their job is to lead students towards certain learning goals and revelations without giving away the answer.

China’s Burgeoning Maker Movement

The term ‘maker’ is a hot buzzword in China. Though it’s often used to describe hardware projects, ‘making’ can refer to any creative endeavor: painting, cooking, knitting, 3D printing, robotics, hydroponics.

China’s maker movement follows in the footsteps of similar movements in Europe and the U.S, where makerspaces, or communal spaces where makers can share tools, knowledge, and projects, started emerging in the early 2000’s.

In 2010, China’s first makerspace, Xinchejian (新车间), was founded in Shanghai by David Li, Min Lin Hsieh, and Ricky Ng-Adam. Since then, makerspaces have sprung up all over China, not only in first tier cities like Shanghai and Beijing, but Nanjing, Suzhou and Chengdu, among others.

In the December 2010 a TV show called 我爱发明 or “I Love to Invent” (our translation) launched. Each episode features inventions by different Chinese people, as well as real-time demos and analysis by the show’s host. In 2014, China’s Ministry of Education sponsored the first China – U.S Youth Maker Competition, with Intel, Tsinghua University, and the Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchange as organizers. Last January, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang made a high profile visit to Chaihuo Makerspace (柴火创客空间) in Shenzhen, and was named Chaihuo’s first new member of 2015.

“Makers have revealed the incredible entrepreneurship and creativity of the people,” commented Mr. Li. “This kind of vitality and creativity will be an inexhaustible engine for China’s future economic growth.”

The government’s avid support of China’s maker movement is not surprising. While many Chinese companies and institutions focus on the educational merits of maker culture, the Chinese government has primarily viewed it as a stimulus for entrepreneurship.

Homegrown innovation will become an imperative in the coming decades as China’s working-age population is expected to reduce by 16% by 2050, according to a report released last October by McKinsey. In the eyes of the Chinese government, China’s maker movement could drive – at least partially – the country’s radical shift from manufacturing to startups and innovation.

Disputes Around Maker Education

“Making for the sake of making, which is what most [maker education startups] are doing, shouldn’t mean more than playing with a special or different kind of toy,” says Rock Zou, the founder of Bigger Lab (必果科技), an educational startup aimed at high schoolers in China.

He’s referring to the plethora of maker classes that revolve around kits. For example, Shanghai-based robotics and open source hardware provider DFRobot sells over forty different kits of varying difficulty levels. For beginners, there’s the “4-Soldering Light Chaser Robot Kit” which only requires simple circuitry and soldering to assemble a robot that responds to ambient light. In more advanced kits students have leeway over their end product. Kits involving Arduino microcontrollers, for example, are more open-ended and enable students to build their own interactive hardware.

DFRobot sends its kits to schools all over China and trains teachers on how to run maker classes. According to Luna Zhang, a community manager at DFRobot, these training sessions are also meant to instill the “maker spirit” in teachers.

Mr. Zou concedes that kits offer some kind of educational value, but believes that they don’t challenge students enough intellectually. “You’re not pushing any boundaries,” he says. “It makes a difference whether you ask the question of why we make things, or what should we make.”

Bigger Lab’s classes focus on design thinking, user research, and rapid prototyping.

Last July, during their first round of workshops, Bigger Lab students stayed at a youth hostel in Shanghai and interviewed their tenants. The goal was to create a prototype that was designed to address one or more pain points of staying at the hostel. Over the course of the month, students learned various design thinking principles, as well as technical skills such as 3D printing and lasercutting, to help them with come up with a final product. At the end of the month, the students presented their projects at Xinchejian.

One group of students created a prototype of a machine that scanned tenant handprints and printed them onto postcards. “Our group decided to work on how to keep the memory of the hotel,” wrote one of the students in his blog. Another group created an interactive game that worked like human Tetris, but with anime characters in different poses instead. Inspired by their interviews at the hostel, the group wanted to help tenants get to know one another.

“They really [didn’t] like talking to humans, especially strangers,” Mr. Zou says. “But the problem is, if you don’t do it, you risk making useless stuff and wasting resources and time.”

Results, Results, Results

It can be difficult to persuade Chinese parents to buy into the principles of ‘learning through making’. After all, learning through making necessitates a kind of courage and resilience towards failure.

“I was more idealistic in the beginning,” laughs Ms. Han. “We wanted students to know that it’s okay to fail. In life, you’ll have to face failure eventually. But parents can’t accept that.”

Like Mr. Zou, Ms. Han disagrees with curricula designed around kits. In her previous job, Ms. Han marketed robot kits for Senfu Robotics Education Institute. That experience pushed her to create Join-In in 2015. “The end product doesn’t always represent the educational value,” she says. “What if you took away [the kit]? Would students still know how to build?”

However, Join-In has had to compromise to appease parents. Every class, which usually consists of four workshops, ends with tangible product. It’s the result of a kit that Join-In puts together, plus some customizations from the student for a margin for creativity.

“Chinese parents are really focused on results,” says Ms. Han. “At the end of workshops, parents will ask their children: ‘Were you able to finish? Did you put it all together?'”

Join-In has also started organizing robotics competitions to convince parents of their program’s value. These competitions appeal to parents because students can bring up their award during their xiao sheng chu (小升初) interviews, which are part of the national xiao sheng chu exam deciding what middle school students can attend. Multitudes of education companies have rushed to cater to this need to stand out.

For Bigger Lab, parental pressure is less potent as its target audience is Chinese high schoolers, specifically those with ambitions to study abroad. “In the college application process, [local] awards rarely mean anything,” explains Mr. Zou.

In 2016, both Join-In and Bigger Lab plan to expand their businesses and apply for investment funding. Specifically, Join-In will start by connecting schools in 2nd tier cities and build brick-and-mortar outreach centers to find more students. In addition to recruiting more teachers, Bigger Lab will build their own space that will be used as a classroom and workspace for students.

Image credit: Bigger Lab

Update (1/16/16) 13:05: We updated this post to add Join-In’s Chinese company name, 卓因青少年创意工场.