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Friday, September 20, 2019, 12:19
Propping up a culture in HK STEM education
By Pamela Lin in Hong Kong
Friday, September 20, 2019, 12:19 By Pamela Lin in Hong Kong

Editor’s note: With STEM education taking root in Hong Kong and the SAR government actively promoting it in schools, a local startup is on a mission to cultivate a habit of creative thinking among local students at a young age and to promote mass entrepreneurship.

(BILLY WONG / CHINA DAILY)

Having a whole set of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education programs at students’ fingertips is what a Hong Kong startup has set out to do.

CocoRobo, founded by a group of Hong Kong “drifters”, aims to solve the pain points in implementing STEM education. 

Since its inception in 2016, the company has built up a suite of STEM education products for elementary and secondary-school students with tools like electronic modules and kits, online learning platform, as well as, with the help of advisers from Faculty of Education of The Chinese University of Hong Kong, the curriculum structure. 

The market threshold for STEM education is actually high as you need to know about education, technology, commerce, as well as training. It’s actually a comprehensive business

Tony Xin Haiyang, co-founder and chief executive officer of CocoRobo

Inspired by the “maker culture” — an extension of “Do it Yourself culture” that combines technology, innovation and practice to cultivate creative tinkering — Tony Xin Haiyang, chief executive officer of CocoRobo, and two other co-founders aim to enlighten students about science and cutting-edge technology.

“Mass entrepreneurship and innovation promoted by our country are relevant to ‘maker culture’ which should be fostered at a young age,” said Xin. He realized that nurturing the habit of thinking creatively and developing hands-on experience should start from youth. 

Seeing himself as someone who reflects on what traditional education is, Xin was fully aware of the absence of STEM education during his student days and wanted to improve on it for today’s students.    

While on an exchange study program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Xin was inspired by his peers’ practical skills and theoretical knowledge. “It’s not common in Asian countries,” he said, realizing it’s something that has to do with the abundant educational resources provided for students to learn and play with when they’re young. 

On his return to Hong Kong in 2015 to continue with his doctorate in information engineering at the CUHK, Xin pondered about starting a business that could help make up for what’s lacking in the city’s education setup.

CocoRobo has so far created 20-odd basic kits with a variety of electronic modules whose combination can be applied to different scenarios. The newly developed Artificial Intelligence of Things kit includes an audio spectrum analyzing module and a LED matrix module which can be converted into a light controlled by voice. 

Students can set up the model by dragging graphical preset programs into logical flow on CocoRobo’s online programming platform. The corresponding coding is shown on the other side for reference as well. 

Teacher community

The startup took root in cooperating with local schools to introduce its STEM education products and put flesh in their teaching. “One of our springboards is to make sure that teachers at schools who use our products consider them practical and useful,” said Xin, adding that the CocoRobo has teamed up with about 100 elementary and secondary schools in Hong Kong and on the Chinese mainland.

Providing comprehensive guidance for teachers on integrating STEM education with their classes, CocoRobo aims to create a community where teachers can discuss and share their insights on how to enforce STEM education more effectively. “We collect feedback from teachers and optimize our products,” said Xin.

CocoRobo holds at least two workshops monthly to ensure that teachers have a grasp of their products and to facilitate communication on both sides. 

Based in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, CocoRobo initially targeted the Hong Kong market. 

“For commercial education, Hong Kong is market-oriented and pretty open to new things that are a good start for us as it tells us to focus on the product itself to stand out,” said Xin. 

The Hong Kong SAR government has been actively promoting STEM education and providing education allowances for schools in recent years. “The hard cash provided by the government allows schools to reach out for STEM products to integrate into their daily classes,” Xin said. 

Currently, CocoRobo only works with schools and organizations, but it’s open to the retail sector in future. “Adopting the ‘business-to-business’ model helps us to tap into the market quickly and test our products,” he explained.

‘Started from scratch’

Admitting that the company’s team members are still “laymen” in the emerging STEM education industry, they need to work harder to upgrade their products.  

“We’re typical ‘drifters’ who started a business from scratch in Hong Kong,” said Xin, recalling that his team members had initially pooled their own money for early research and development. It wasn’t until 2017 that CocoRobo secured its first round of funding to the tune of HK$500,000 from the government’s Technology Start-up Support Scheme for Universities under the CUHK. 

Last year, CocoRobo closed its angel round of funding and it’s about to get another round off the ground. “We can now make ends meet. We don’t need to rush and this prevents us from being easily replaced by other market players,” said Xin. 

“The market threshold for STEM education is actually high as you need to know about education, technology, commerce, as well as training. It’s actually a comprehensive business,” he said. 

Groping its way toward finding the best solution for STEM education, CocoRobo hopes that, in future, teachers can choose its electronic modules just like picking the pieces at a Lego store to make a creative toy model.

But, at CocoRobo, it’s to assemble them for teaching props themselves.

pamelalin@chinadailyhk.com


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