Chi­nese par­ents mired by hefty costs for tech-fo­cused ed­u­ca­tion

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - BUSINESS - By BLOOMBERG

It starts with the idea that chil­dren must be trained early to pre­vail over ro­bots in the work­force. Then it snow­balls from there — $3,000 a year for tu­ition, $350 for a Lego robotics set, and $7,300 to test the newly ac­quired engi­neer­ing skills at a com­pe­ti­tion in the United States.

That’s what Zhuo Yu is spend­ing on her 10-year-old son for a so-called STEM ed­u­ca­tion in China — a prob­lem­based ap­proach to learn­ing that com­bines knowl­edge in sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, engi­neer­ing, and math­e­mat­ics.

The con­cept cre­ated in the US is now stir­ring a craze across China, where about 10 mil­lion stu­dents are be­ing fast-tracked for STEM suc­cess.

That num­ber is poised to swell to 50 mil­lion by 2020 as par­ents seek to give their chil­dren a head start in com­puter cod­ing and robotics, ac­cord­ing to con­sul­tant JMD Ed­u­ca­tion. It pre­dicts the de­mand will cre­ate a $15 bil­lion STEM-learn­ing in­dus­try in China that’s al­ready at­tracted com­pa­nies such as text-book pub­lisher Pear­son Plc, Lego Group, and Sony Corp.

“I don’t have a cap on my bud­get,” said Zhuo, who works in the in­ter­net in­dus­try in the east­ern city of Hangzhou. “Yes, I’m in­vest­ing a lot in his robotics ed­u­ca­tion right now, but you have to take a long-term per­spec­tive and look at what op­por­tu­ni­ties it can bring him af­ter he turns 18.”

Her son, Wang Yizhuo, will en­ter one of the most com­pet­i­tive job mar­kets on the planet af­ter he fin­ishes col­lege. By 2030, China is pre­dicted to have as many as 200 mil­lion grad­u­ates — more than the en­tire US work­force. As it is now, 40 per­cent of ter­tiary stu­dents in China ob­tain a STEM qual­i­fi­ca­tion, com­pared with less than 20 per­cent in the US and France.

Fu­ture-job angst has helped spawn at least 500 in­sti­tu­tions or star­tups in China of­fer­ing out-of-school tu­ition in cod­ing, robotics and 3-D print­ing, ac­cord­ing to Wen Jing, a re­searcher at Bei­jing-based JMD Ed­u­ca­tion. It’s an in­dus­try with lit­tle reg­u­la­tion or over­sight.

That means par­ents of­ten need to nav­i­gate a sea of choices — from le­git­i­mate providers to dodgy scam­mers, said Xiao Dun, co-founder of Bei­jing-based on­line ed­u­ca­tion plat­form 17zuoye.com, which is in­tro­duc­ing cour­ses from Minecraft and Sony Global Ed­u­ca­tion in China.

“Even classes that dig worms will tell you it’s STEM ed­u­ca­tion be­cause, all of a sud­den, it’s a bi­ol­ogy-re­lated class,” Xiao said. “Peo­ple all think this is the fancy new thing, and there are a lot of rich par­ents who are ea­ger to spend on their chil­dren.”

Pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion providers are help­ing to plug gaps in State-pro­vided teach­ing. The world’s sec­ond-largest econ­omy lags be­hind at least 16 coun­tries in Europe and the US in putting cod­ing and robotics on the na­tional school cur­ricu­lum.

Nora Ye­ung, founder of Cre­ative Cod­ing in Hong Kong, said cod­ing could be­come a ba­sic re­quired skill for the fu­ture.

“For them to get a job in the fu­ture it’s al­most like any lit­er­acy skill or lan­guage skill it’s go­ing to be­come a ba­sic need that they need to learn,” said Ye­ung. “We need to pre­pare these kids for jobs that don’t ex­ist yet.”

Bei­jing is test­ing the ben­e­fit of giv­ing par­ents an­nual sub­si­dies of about $60 per child to help fund pro­grams to nur­ture their chil­dren’s cre­ativ­ity. The money doesn’t go far though, as lessons can cost as much as $50 an hour in the na­tional cap­i­tal, Wen said.

Costs may con­tinue to climb, based on trends in Sin­ga­pore, where the value of a STEM-fo­cused ed­u­ca­tion has been rec­og­nized for years. The city-state this month topped a global ed­u­ca­tion sur­vey by the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment on sci­ence, read­ing, maths and col­lab­o­ra­tive prob­lem­solv­ing.

Ana Ow said she paid about $300 for five robotics lessons for her 8-year-old son—the cheap­est tu­ition she could find in Sin­ga­pore.

“I count my­self as a ‘tiger mom’ and I have worse ones among my peers,” said Ow, who be­gan send­ing her son to robotics and cod­ing hol­i­day camps three years ago. “I’m very well aware that dig­i­tal in­no­va­tion is the new fron­tier.”

The sen­ti­ment is shared by par­ents around the globe. US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama pledged $4 bil­lion in Jan­uary to aid com­puter sci­ence in schools. There were 1.02 mil­lion soft­ware de­vel­oper jobs in the US in 2012, ac­cord­ing to the Bureau of La­bor Statis­tics, which es­ti­mates that num­ber will jump 22 per­cent by 2022, spurred by “a large in­crease in the de­mand for com­puter soft­ware.”

Hangzhou mother Zhuo said get­ting her son to com­pete in con­tests has been one of the bet­ter ways to eval­u­ate and en­cour­age his learn­ing.

“He showed a real in­ter­est in robotics, so we told him, ‘why not fig­ure out where you stand via some tour­na­ments?’ ” said Zhuo, 37. “Be­cause com­pe­ti­tion comes with pres­sure, it re­ally forced him to think whether he wanted to de­vote more time to it.”

She had no ex­pec­ta­tions at the be­gin­ning, she said. Her son started putting in hours af­ter school to com­plete tasks, and be­came in­creas­ingly keen to ap­ply what he learned in class to his robotics projects.

That helped him work bet­ter with oth­ers, and his team fin­ished fourth in an In­tel Corp-backed RoboRave com­pe­ti­tion, which ne­ces­si­tated a $7,300 trip to the US, Zhuo said. The event that started in 2001 has at­tracted stu­dents from Mex­ico to Ger­many to In­dia to par­tic­i­pate.

A com­pet­i­tive fo­cus isn’t al­ways healthy, cau­tioned Reynold Ren, who has taught cod­ing to more than 1,400 stu­dents in Bei­jing this year and said he’s been ap­proached by some in­sti­tu­tions to help them win at all costs.

“This should be all based on in­ter­est, not some un­healthy way for stu­dents to im­prove their chances of get­ting into bet­ter schools,” said Ren, whose startup is in the process of cre­at­ing $29 ro­bots to en­able more fam­i­lies to buy them for ed­u­ca­tional pur­poses.

... and there are a lot of rich par­ents who are ea­ger to spend on their chil­dren.” Xiao Dun, co-founder of Bei­jing-based 17zuoye.com the num­ber of grad­u­ates China is pre­dicted to have by the year 2030

AN­THONY KWAN/BLOOMBERG

A stu­dent uses an Ap­ple Inc iPad Mini to con­trol a Make­block Co mBot ro­bot dur­ing a robotics class in Hong Kong.

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