China’s maker movement takes root in the classroom

Image credit: Bailey Hu/TechNode

Thousands of visitors swarmed the broad array of tech-centered booths, interactive exhibits, and crafting workshops at Shenzhen’s most recent Maker Faire, held in early October. Among the crowds, which organizers estimate at around 50,000 people, a significant number of elementary school students were lured in by the promise of gadgets and new toys.

But if China’s government, forward-thinking educators, and perhaps most of all, parents have their way, children will be more than just admiring observers of new technology—they’ll be on the front lines of China’s still-growing maker movement. That, in turn, is part of a bigger push to rethink traditional education that’s still struggling to achieve widespread understanding and adoption.

Image credit: Bailey Hu/TechNode

Still, the movement has already come a long way since 2010, when the country’s first makerspace was established in Shanghai. Interest in the DIY philosophy first peaked in January 2015, when Premier Li Keqiang toured Shenzhen’s Chaihuo makerspace and declared makers “an inexhaustible engine for China’s future economic growth.”

A couple months later, the Chinese term for maker—chuangke (创客)—had surged from hundreds to over three thousand hits per week on the search engine Baidu. Shenzhen held its first annual government-organized Maker Week that year, and a report compiled by British foundation Nesta counted over 100 makerspaces in the country.

By the time Maker Faire Shenzhen 2018 rolled around, held in tandem with the official National Mass Entrepreneurship and Innovation Week, a citywide map created by event organizers tallied 236 makerspaces in Shenzhen alone.

Image credit: Bailey Hu/TechNode

A “highly-scattered” field

But the training of the country’s youngest makers has yet to become mainstream, despite continued government support and investor interest.

In the past five months, 10 Chinese “maker education” companies have received over RMB 600 million (roughly $90 million) in funding, according to ITJuzi.com, a database of startups and fundings. However, over half of those were only Series A or angel investments. In an August report on robot-kit manufacturer MakeBlock, just valued at RMB 2.5 billion, tech media platform 36kr commented that the STEAM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Art, Mathematics) education market is still “highly scattered” and has no clear industry leader.

In fact, the term “maker education” itself lacks clarity. In a Baidu search, top results showed programs where kids ages 3-18 can learn to write programs, build wonky-looking robots, or both. Even online education enterprises have gotten in on the action, with startups like VIPCODE—not to be confused with edtech giant VIPKID—springing up to offer “youth maker education” classes.

But according to professionals in the field, the concept is broader than that.

Leslie Liao is head of Maker Education Services for Chaihuo, the space that was highlighted by Li Keqiang’s 2015 visit to Shenzhen. On the sidelines of this year’s Maker Faire, he told TechNode that maker education is “methods and techniques combined with learning in order to solve problems.” In other words, “kids will get better skills to cope” with a constantly changing world.

American Carrie Leung set up a space for tinkering at Shenzhen American International School-Shekou (SAIS) well before the current boom, and also co-founded an educational maker organization called SteamHead. According to Leung, a maker education engenders “a mindset of being open to ideas… [and] understanding the stakes of failure.” It’s also about community and sharing solutions, although she admits the term is still “nebulous” in its common usage.

Image credit: Bailey Hu/TechNode

Re-making education

It may be vague, but startups like Shenzhen’s MG space have flourished due to demand for a maker education. The company began by selling boxed kits for kids to learn how to assemble their own toys and gadgets. It’s the kind of prepackaged product that, in its most cookie-cutter form, has received criticism for stifling creativity. But MG has come full circle: after it started offering classes, some students have used in-house parts to design and assemble their own creative ‘kits.’ One box for a “cross-country robot” contains a set of wooden parts and glue sticks, while another includes the basic hardware for a jittering, battery-powered buglike toy.

Image credit: Bailey Hu/TechNode

But it’s not just robots and electronics. On a recent afternoon, four students ages 9-11 gather in MG Space’s “product design room” to learn how to make a “mechanical fish.” The scene looks more like an eclectic carpentry class than an engine for economic growth: after scribbling measurements on the board, the barefoot instructor walks around addressing individual problems. On one end of a spacious work table littered with parts, two girls slice into wooden rods using a drill machine.

Image credit: Bailey Hu/TechNode

Tu Jing, the parent of an MG student, tells us her second-grader enjoys the classes and that it’s good for “fostering interest” in practical things. She thinks a maker education might be an “advantage” for the future.

Another parent, Rita Li, is much more enthused about the subject. In fact, she transferred her son from another school to SAIS precisely for its makerspace program.

Since eight-year-old Alex has always been “a hands-on learner” and an “active child,” she tells TechNode, she wanted to keep him interested in education while developing his critical thinking skills.

Li herself went through traditional public schooling as a child, which entailed intensive preparation for the national college entrance exams. Her son is now taking coding classes and recently crafted a spinning, light-up Christmas tree together with his mother.

Image credit: Bailey Hu/TechNode

“If I had a choice, I would have done this at his age,” said Li. “[With a maker education] he can create new things that are outside current modes of thinking.”

Li highlights a broader shift in public attitude.

“Before official support [in 2015]… it was challenging” for some parents to accept a form of schooling without homework and tests, Leung tells us. To outsiders, the experimentation involved in maker education sometimes “looks crazy and chaotic.”

While acceptance has yet to reach classrooms nationwide, she’s seen significant progress in Shenzhen schools, much of it “grassroots.”

For instance, the makerspace she helped found, SteamHead, is currently working together with Shenzhen’s Dongwan Elementary School to offer a maker club for its students, many of whom are the children of migrants.

Dongwan lacks the resources of public schools, and its teachers are paid an estimated considerably less than their counterparts. Nevertheless, it’s forging ahead with a program kickstarted by Leung, fellow Steamhead co-founder and American James Simpson, and local parent Linda Ming Jie.

Every week, Simpson tells us, he meets with a Dongwan teacher to talk about techniques their staff can implement in the classroom. Instructor Jane Liang gushes with enthusiasm when she talks about the initiative, which has seen 40 kids sign up so far: “in terms of acceptance and the hands-on aspects, the kids have been excellent.”

“It’s a very good resource, even if there aren’t results right away,” Liang adds.

Unlike at some other schools, where parents might lead the charge towards new ways of teaching, Dongwan’s students have taken the initiative to get involved with the program.

In return, Liang says, they’ve benefited greatly. “[It] opens up a new world for them.”