Maker Education: Thinking Inside the Box

Living Research delegate Gemma May Latham explores the makerspace education models witnessed in Chendgu and Xi’an

Piles of VEX Robotics Kits at an educational Makerspace in Xi’an | Photo Jon Flint

It could be said that makerspaces in Xi’an and Chengdu are diversifying from the understood, standard ‘makerspace’ model, with many choosing to focus on particular aspects of making, such as education or talent incubation, and are no longer simply providing space for DIY makers. The range of educational programmes and models being offered through makerspaces was a big eye opener for me.

Currently in the UK, making is being “vigorously framed as an educational practice” (Perrotta et al, 2017:1) with the maker community acting as a network for knowledge exchange and educational support, both formally and informally. Some of this is happening through makerspaces set up within schools and libraries, but it would be fair to say that young people are not seen to be actively engaging in makerspaces outside of these categories. Much of the active community support for this ‘educational practice’ exists through code clubs, STEM networks and events, Maker Faires, and, increasingly, at digital events arranged through cultural spaces such as museums and art galleries, rather than in facilities dedicated to young people. As such, children in the UK rarely have access to their own community of like-minded makers.

During Living Research we witnessed a range of makerspaces in both Chengdu and Xi’an, that were dedicated to maker education through various models. As discussed in our blog post on the effect of government policy on making, 2015 saw a major shift in policy through which a push for ‘mass entrepreneurship’ and ‘mass innovation’ led to the support of makerspaces as sites for making and learning. In our blog post on terminology (to be published soon), Ingrid and I talked about a conversation with Hongmei Liao from Makerfun , who commented that prior to 2015 the definition of ‘maker’ was as it is in the UK, referring to “people who do DIY [making]”, but after 2015 the term ‘maker’ changed. As a space that combines incubation for start-ups alongside supporting the local maker community and running informal education programmes, we asked Hongmei Liao if she had noticed any difference in children coming to Makerfun before and after the 2015 shift in terms of their enthusiasm towards making, and whether parents attitudes had been affected. She stated that there was now “more and more focus on such education” where there previously was none:

“It has not been so systemic. But now it’s on the school curriculum gradually system government support is in the curriculum. Parents think it’s useful and beneficial for kids in their future career having knowledge in programming, 3d printing coding etc.” Hongmei Liao, Makerfun

Makerfun has developed to become more educational now than perhaps it was at first, but this is not its core focus. We did, however, witness a good proportion of other makerspaces in both Chengdu and Xi’an, that were focusing specifically on educational models. These varied in nature, from offering courses for young people, from primary to high school age (who were collectively referred to as ‘teens’) through weekend and holiday courses, through to working in collaboration with schools and other spaces specifically developing training courses for teachers.

We could classify these varied educational makerspace models into three key types of spaces and strategies:

  • Teacher training
  • Maker education at scale
  • Smaller dedicated education makerspaces

In part one of this blog, we will consider the first two of these categories.

Teacher training

Our first visit upon arrival in Chengdu was to Chaihuo, a makerspace that focuses much of its activity going out to schools and delivering teacher training. Here we met Melody (Director of Chaihuo, Chengdu), who discussed the programmes they deliver at Chaihuo with us, and their approach to maker education focused on Problem Based Learning (PBL). She explained that some of their work takes place in primary schools working directly with children to deliver teacher training which includes teaching them “to know the maker movement”.

As a space they employ 20 people (from variety of backgrounds including biology and civil engineering) to train 100, 200 or even 300 teachers in a single session. Melody explained that the “the china education system is very test orientated” with teachers knowing very little about maker culture, and ‘making’ is treated as extracurricular. The teachers employed by Chaihuo are predominantly computer oriented science teachers, but Melody emphasised that the most important thing is promoting a concept of design thinking and real life problem solving.

In conversation with Melody from Chaihuo Makerspace | Photo Jon Flint

Chaihuo have now started sharing their courses across the whole of China and see maker education as the most important thing for them to carry on and continue in the future. Although initially supported by their partner Seeed studio, funding now comes through schools who pay for the courses directly and Chaihuo is now self-sustaining as a business, although, as Melody tells us, “it is difficult”.

Maker education at scale

With parents now recognising the value of making outside of formal education, we saw companies who were seizing the opportunity to develop maker education courses as extracurricular activities. One such example of a profit based, large scale business developing specific educational strands that we met was Suanier, a company founded in 2014, owning multiple sites across the city. We visited several of their spaces which ranged from Suanier Tech, one of Suanier’s core businesses focusing on developing 3D scanning units for clinics and gyms, to Maker Beta, a video content production company producing videos showcasing how to build props and fun projects.

Amidst a large site that combined business offices, start-up spaces, and a dedicated kindergarten, we were shown two makerspaces that were focused purely on maker education. The overall purpose of these spaces felt very much as businesses driven by profitability with little passion for working with young people coming across. This isn’t to say that the staff were lacking enthusiasm for teaching, there was just an overall sense of courses being designed around existing STEM kits, despite there being a highly present R&D team.

Maker buffet at Suanier Education Space | Photo Jon Flint

The first of the two spaces, was reasonably standard in scale and did show some creative promise with it’s ‘maker buffet’ of items for children to pick and choose from for solving pre-set challenges. In the second of the two spaces, we saw a high use of branded lego kits for very young ages alongside VEX robotics kits, including an all singing all dancing assault course style set up, for high school children. These spaces both had large proportions of staff dedicated to R&D work to develop workshops. At first we were curious how they justify high numbers of staff, especially considering the reliance on existing kits. Querying further, we learnt that these spaces run a large number of courses for children over the year for which parents pay a generous price. Suanier also claimed to have five similar education spaces across the city.

In contrast to the teacher training and larger scale maker education spaces we also visited some smaller scale education focused makerspaces. These spaces seemed to either focus on delivery of coding and programming courses with electronics hardware, or they had much more of a creative agenda.

Coding and hardware focused

These smaller spaces concentrated their courses on teaching code and hardware, such as Arduino, with little creative exploration encouraged outside of these.

Screwbrothers in Xi’an is a space working with primary and secondary school children through a team of six people. The kids attend courses and workshops in their space on the weekends (paid for by families). They are currently unable to charge schools for their courses but they do support some for free on weekdays as they feel it helps promote their work.

In Chengdu, we not only visited a teen makerspace called XMaker, but I was invited to run a workshop for their members. I chose to deliver a PatternCraft workshop, a session I run regularly in the UK using an analogue to digital punchcard reader that I have developed and knew this would provide an opportunity to directly compare the engagement of young people in the UK with China.

Gemma demonstrating how her punchcard reader works at Xmaker | Photo Mariam Syed

As a space purely set up for young people, XMaker run weekend and holiday courses, predominantly teaching coding and computing using the Arduino platform, with a slightly larger team than Screwbrothers, with 25 employees and occasionally additional volunteers. The model is similar in that families pay for the weekend and holiday courses but Xmaker are paid by some schools to deliver sessions also. The ‘teens’ that we worked with during the PatternCraft workshop were highly inquisitive and very keen to understand the inner workings of the device I had taken along.

Asking questions like “can we see inside?”, “can we see the code?” and having long discussions about the Raspberry Pi I was using alongside, I found their understanding of the coding and hardware environments for 11 years olds to be exemplary. I rarely get asked such questions in workshops in the UK (granted many happen in more informal settings), but I think it is testament to the quality of the courses being run at XMaker in terms of coding. There was, however, little evidence in the space of creative projects that had been developed beyond the programming platforms, but the simple desire to understand how something works was promising.

Creative agenda focused

One maker education space with a clear creativity agenda was DMT in Xi’an. This space ensures that there is creativity behind all its projects from animation to crafts. During our visit we witnessed a teacher using the space to film a craft education video for her students. The space gets very little support from the government, but the manager of the space, who defines himself as an artist and a maker, not a businessman, says that in his eyes his space is doing something different to those who are receiving funding. Here they are aiming to combine space and workshops for children alongside adults who might be interested in creating a start-up.

One thing that was clear here was the development of sessions that combined digital and traditional tools and materials with little reliance on kits. For example, they showed us how they had developed a fabric printing activity using 3D printed stamps that they had created.

3D printed stamps at DMT makerspace in Xi’an | Photo Jon Flint

Out of the box thinking

Educational electronics and STEM themed kits, like the ones we witnessed in China are not uncommon in UK either, with companies such as Tech will Save Us producing a vast array of educational maker kits. These kits are a fantastic starting point and provide an accessible entry point to learning digital skills, but, as we saw, there is a risk that the end users won’t progress past this initial ‘completed’ stage and their use in makerspaces, should perhaps be limited in favour of more open exploratory projects. As Rock Zou of Bigger Lab (必果科技) stated in a recent Technode article on education start-ups: “Making for the sake of making, which is what most [maker education startups] are doing, shouldn’t mean more than playing with a special kind of toy”, when referring to the vast quantity of maker workshops revolving around kits.

The reliance on kits is perhaps something we all need to be wary of, including in the UK. I myself use existing items, maybe learn from kits, borrow ideas but rarely use something just from the box. As an artist/maker, I am in a position where I push the use of these tools to fit within the context of my practice, which often takes place in relation to heritage settings or archival material. As I further develop PatternCraft, a kit in itself, I need to be wary of how it could be used and find ways to encourage its creative use beyond the kit.

At XMaker, it was great to see young people with such a high knowledge of the coding environment and curiosity of how things are made, but where is this knowledge being applied? We did not see much in the way of creative products being created using these skills in this space. The innovative thinking that the Chinese government are hoping to foster in these young people requires more than understanding the technology, it needs thinking and creativity to develop outside of the actual box of parts.

The Living Research programme is a partnership between the British Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

In China, the British Council has partnered with MakerNet to co-develop the project in Chengdu and Xi’an.

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