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23 March 2017

Guest blog: Getting inspired by the UK

Hello Shenzhen participant Violet Su, resident at Makerversity, writes about her experience and learnings in the UK

Violet Su

The mould for artificial eyes

It's been two weeks since we arrived in the UK. There has been so much happening; a lot of events, meeting different people and being impressed, touched and inspired.

I don't even remember what my idea of the UK was before embarking on this amazing trip. However, there is no doubt I've enjoyed this whole process of exploration, getting inspiration from the communication and connection made during my time here.

I am not a typical maker (who makes physical projects), instead I'm interested in the culture and society, which is different in it's own fascinating way from what I've seen in China or other countries. I'd like to share some of my reflections below.

Definition of Pragmatism

Before coming to the UK, I had a preconception that Shenzhen makers have this built-in "startup spirit", which leads to their practical style, aka, always taking the market's need into consideration. And I imagined makers in other countries are mostly hobbyists who make just for fun, and practical use wasn't in their consideration. After coming to the UK, I realised that pragmatism doesn't have to apply to the market, it can also refer to many other things too.

"I couldn't help thinking if we combine the British-style pragmatism with Chinese-style pragmatism, what will be catalysed in this process?"

From the conversations and meetings with the UK makers in the past two plus weeks, I've noticed that many of them actually take practical use very seriously.

There are some really awesome projects that are user-oriented, aimed at solving a certain problem. They do not think about turning into a product and launching it to the market. However, it certainly changes a person's life. And YES, it counts for that specific person. And I was deeply touched by the UK style pragmatism in the maker community here. Here is one example.

We visited HackLab on 1 March, the very first day we arrived in Edinburgh. And at HackLab, a project that makes a mould for artificial eyes deeply impressed me. The makers make good use of the tools/materials they have available to solve a problem for this specific person in their local community. It doesn't have a large reach on a grand scale as other crowdfunding campaigns, however, I am sure it means a lot to the local person.

Violet Su

Brainstorm at Makerversity

Methods/Attitudes towards Education

Since I have a few years of teaching experience, and always bear a passion for education in my heart, I've also been highly interested in learning about the education in the UK, especially STEM/STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths vs. Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths) education. And luckily, while staying at Makerversity, Liza introduced me to a group of people dedicated to STEM education. I participated in a workshop organised by MakerClub, and went to the Old Palace Primary for a Design and Technology activity organised by DesignEducation.

The MakerClub workshop organised by MakerClub at Makerversity Fusion Lab was on a Wednesday afternoon. Five kids participated, and were encouraged to design a project to make; they then gave a presentation introducing this project, including "what it is, what tools/machines/materials will be used in making it, who will be using it?". Next they measured the design using Inkscape or TinkerCAD. In the next workshop, they'll actually make this project. The children are from 9 - 12 years old. Their performance amazed me. I noticed the two most important differences between the Chinese students I met and these kids here.

Firstly, British kids are very active in presenting their ideas and also very brave in asking questions. In my previous experience, many Chinese students (me included) think "please don't ask me to present". Secondly, these five kids are more independent: they don't need parents to be around to assist; they will search for their pals or teachers to help them when they come across problems. However, during the workshops we had in the past, many kids (aged 5 - 10, and even high school students) will have parents accompany them.

I don't think it's the kids who should be blamed. In a way, the parents are too careful in raising the kids. They have been too worried, and want to help as much as possible. However, parents can't be around forever, and being independent is a must-go path for everyone. The earlier we encourage kids to be independent, the better they'll develop confidence and the ability of independence. (I have no experience in parenting yet, but I hope this experience will help me be a better parent!)

With Liza's introduction, I met David from DesignEducation. David's passion for Design and Technology education was contagious! I was very lucky to get invited to join this activity at Old Palace Primary School by David.

The DesignEducation team have developed a very comprehensive guide for teachers. Kids from Reception to Year 6 will be making different wooden projects, from wooden number blocks to wooden framed mirror to a desk tidy etc. I was sitting with a girl named Katy, who told me "I don't want to have lunch." I asked her "Why?" Her reply was "Because I don't want to stop making this." How can we make all courses at school/outside of school so attractive to kids?!

My previous concept of STEM/STEAM education at current stage is that it is a privilege for some people only because the tools/materials are so expensive and inaccessible. However, this WoodDay event organised by DesignEducation changed my mind. The tools/materials they use are accessible to most people, what's most important is the content, the guide from teachers and of course the passion.

Products of Social Value

On the first day of our residency at Makerversity, Honggang was introducing a robotics project to Liza. After a lot of technological elements/ specifications, Liza asked:

"What is the social value of this product, what's the mission of this product?" These two questions gave me a lightbulb moment.

Many times, when we make a project or develop a product, we usually emphasise its specifications - the technology embedded in this product. However, we might not put much attention on its application situations, its social values. And without a clear mission statement, this product won't be able to appeal to potential users and the community. The technology/specifications won't mean much if its product isn't put into use.

Violet Su

Conversation: Jeff Gough and Honggang L

The other day, Liza introduced us to a member of Makerversity - Jeff Gough. My impression of Jeff is a crossover of design, arts and technology; passionate about making; and productive in making versatile projects. His projects include jewelry, robotics, electronics, furniture, and fashion. Some of the projects might be just for fun, and some are for solving certain problems. For example, with his partner Allen, Jeff is working on a project that helps students in arts/design or beginners to debug when they come across problems in Arduino programming. This project is what I need as well. As a newbie into Arduino, I can follow tutorials to learn, however, when a problem occurs, my hands are tied.

However, most of Jeff's projects are one-time things. He doesn't think about putting them into the market. I was wondering; what if he turns the projects into production and launches to the market? I am sure more people will benefit from these awesome projects! In this way, there is no doubt the making will have a larger social impact.

These two weeks of connection and communication with both the Makerversity team and the members of this community gave me firm belief on the saying: "a single conversation across the table with a wise man is better than ten years mere study of books." My residency is highlighted with the conversation of community builders, makers, educators etc. And with our efforts, we'd like to extend the conversation to a larger range: building a connection between Chinese and British makers. I can't wait to see what amazing collaborations will come out of the connection!

[As a pilot programme, Makerversity and Chaihuo Makerspace will collaborate to build connections between makers from the UK and Shenzhen through the following three aspects:

1. Making connections website and slack channels for makers from UK and Shenzhen to communicate, this is the online part. Offline, we’ll have makers joining Maker Faire Shenzhen for showcasing and further communication.

2. Membership exchange between members in Makerversity and Chaihuo Maker Space.

3. Resources exchange including Shenzhen electronic industries and UK design consultancy and maker in residence program.

And we are looking forward to hearing the inputs from both communities!]