Tuesday, February 2, 2016

"Learning By Doing:" Maker Movement Produces Positive Change in Chinese Educational Culture

The maker movement is a very positive development in education in China, and parallels the rise of innovation labs at United States colleges. For the past several years, schools like MIT, Stanford, and Harvard have touted themselves as hotbeds for entrepreneurially minded students. In the not so distant past, if you were a creator or an entrepreneur, you would be inclined to drop out of school. With stories about Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropping out of their schools becoming so popular, and more and more technological innovation on the horizon, institutions of higher education have had to find a way to keep pace.

Thus, these universities have created centers for entrepreneurship, startup accelerators, innovation labs, and other great resources to foster collaboration and creative thinking among the student body. While these are not exactly like the “maker centers” that are sprouting up across China, they too are platforms where students can satisfy their intellectual curiosity in a non-classroom setting and build something tangible. Recently, these schools have sought to admit students who fit the profile of an “innovator.” Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean someone from a technical background who designs products; rather, it means someone who is committed to the development of ideas and has the wherewithal to follow through and see those ideas to fruition. Those types of candidates are particularly impressive to admissions offices, especially when their ideas are unique and impactful. And, this isn’t just a short-lived trend. This will likely always be a strong way to impress admissions officers or even job interviewers. There is no better way to demonstrate your work ethic and ability than to actually make one of your ideas happen.

“Maker” education centers in China have marketed themselves to students of all ages ranging from 3 to 18 and including such tasks as soldering a wristwatch to building a robotic car with a Bluetooth control. Students are using “maker spaces” for any creative endeavor whether it’s 3D printing, robotics, or cooking. These centers, or “maker spaces” have sprouted up all over Chin and not just in Beijing and Shanghai, but also in Nanjing, Suzhou, and Chengdu, and many other cities. In 2014, the Chinese Ministry of Education sponsored a collaboration between Intel, Tsinghua University, and the Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchange, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang made a well-publicized visit to Chaihuo Makerspace in Shenzhen.  He commented on his visit that “Makers have revealed the incredible entrepreneurship and creativity of the people. . . this kind of vitality and creativity will be an inexhaustible engine for China’s future economic growth.”

Still yet, Chinese parents have been reluctant to buy into the principle of “learning through doing,” or in this case, “learning through making.” Many parents are singularly focused on results, and are impatient in allowing students to build up the kind of courage and resilience that will be necessary to their future success, and of course, the achievement of results in the first place. Results are not automatic, and there are no shortcuts to them. In the context of building a student’s candidacy for college admissions, this pressure mounts even more. However, parents who want to see their kids earn admission to the top schools in the United States should be patient with the process. Those parents need to remember that Rome wasn't built in a day.

For younger students, these types of classes are great ways to stimulate their intellectual curiosity and get them on track toward immersion in technical subjects. For many students, seeing tangible progress in their work and experiencing the feeling of having completed and built something that they envisioned on their own is priceless in triggering the kind of academic engagement that will make them standout students down the road. For another group of students (generally older students), maker classes represent another avenue by which they can attempt to produce something that is more than a simple line-item on a resume. It’s an opportunity to build something unique that is an expression of a student’s own individuality and passion.

The “Maker” movement builds on a timeless theory of education that is rooted in the Socratic method of not spoonfeeding students answers but rather providing them with resources and guidance to arrive at the answers on their own. This theory has seen a resurgence in the “experiential learning” movement in the United States, which has even found its way into government programs such as Learn and Serve America. Generally, classes that find a way to connect textbook knowledge to tangible achievement and real-world application engage students more and develop much deeper levels of interest.

The “Maker movement” very much comports with InGenius’s unique candidacy building philosophy, and can fit in very well with a student’s academic mentorship/internship plans. For instance, if one of our Candidacy Building students wanted to start building a robot at one of these Maker centers, his personal former admissions officer might suggest that he do so under the guidance of one of InGenius’s Academic Mentors who is a professor at MIT.

As the Maker movement continues to catch on in China, it is important to understand that reflection and engagement are critical components of “learning by doing.” Just showing up isn’t enough. Students need to think critically about what it is they are doing, why they like or dislike it, and how that interest might push them forward in other pursuits.