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The learner is the educator

Many are familiar with the BBC micro:bit. It's a fantastic bit of hardware, but I have a few issues with it.

For one, on its own, it's usefulness is limited. There's really only a handful of simple projects you can do with it.

This is Naomi Wu, a Maker that focuses on Chinese electronic hardware. She is also a vocal promoter of technology education for women and children. Her work in the Open Source technology movement makes tools more affordable and accessible.

She's on stage at COSCon, an Open Source conference where she lives in Shenzhen, China. Her presentation glows behind her in on a massive digital screen, silhouetting her in a classic, black, A-Line dress and knee-high platform boots.

So companies make good money off progressively more complex and expensive add-on boards. Which is great if your goal is selling hardware, but less than optimal if you're trying to educate 200 million children. At a national scale, it makes implementing the micro:bit in China difficult.

When Germany needed a single board educational computer for their national curriculum, they forked the micro:bit project, and named it The Calliope mini. The Calliope mini, among other added features has motor drivers so it can easily be used to control a robot without additional electronics: a key feature to keep kids interested, and excited!

Still, there is one remaining issue with both the micro:bit, and The Calliope mini, for using it in Chinese education: they both have a 5x5 LED grid, which makes is incompatible with displaying Chinese characters.

Programming the device to scroll text across this LED strip is a typical starter project.

When I talked to one of the micro:bit developers he said: "there's no feeling quite like seeing that first "Hello World" scroll accross the screen".

But in a Chinese setting, what would Chinese kids feel if they see "Hello World" on the display? Nothing! Because it is in English, and not Chinese. You can't take it home and impress your grandparents.

To understand Naomi's drive for this project, it's worth pausing her presentation here for a moment, and use that time to dive a bit into her background:

Educational uses, teaching kids creative thinking and design principles. This may not be a big deal anywhere, but in China where our entire education system is based on rote memorization, empowering children to create whatever they want is incredible.

I started off as a self-taught coder. Three years ago, there was a window where pretty much anyone with basic skills in Ruby on Rails (a web development framework) could easily get work online.

Once you are used to learning online, the sky is the limit.

I have middle-school level shop/DIY skills, but I live in Shenzhen, the most ideal hardware fabrication ecosystem in the world for these kinds of projects.

With less than 40 years of age, Shenzhen is one of the youngest cities in China. The city is straight out of cyberpunk, on the cutting edge of tech, drawing in people from all over to change their life, and make their fortune, and it's growing at an amazing rate.

There's been a tremendous amount of thought, and resources put into fostering an environment of creativity, and innovation. More than anything I am the result of this supportive environment.

So, from coding, I became more exposed to the local hardware development scene, which, of course, ties into the Maker movement. 3D printers are one of the primary tools of the Maker movement.

I’m not a proper engineer, and my skills are still basic, but I have good stamina and can work long hours. I build everything myself.

Naomi's Youtube channel is filled with videos that show how she figures out how to make something new. Even though she's clearly skilled in 3D design software and behind a band saw, there's always trial and error. And they're always fun projects that motivate people with a lure of something unique that they'd want for themselves.

For instance, Naomi's Wu Ying ("shadowless" in Chinese) platform shoes, hold a USB keystroke recorder, a wireless router, a retractable Ethernet cable, a shim for opening padlocks, and a set of lockpicks. The concept also confronts the stereotype that tech gadgets are for hacker dudes, while winking knowingly at the subversiveness of hacker culture.

In another project, Naomi was inspired by traditional Chinese Sichuan Opera masks. These masks are used by a dancer to sway seamlessly between different moods and characters, by switching masks, in the blink of an eye, without the audience seeing how.

For this build, Naomi mounted a projector under a woven hat to display the patterns of Sichuan masks on her own face.

The mask projector is great gimmick for a Halloween costume, but it can also block facial recognition software using infrared projection, raising questions about privacy and surveillance. It's an example of the ambivalence Naomi experiments with.

From the Japanese Maker meetup last night after @MakerFaireSZ. A sneak peek of a new build I'm working on- it's a digital recreation of Biàn Liǎn 变脸- Sichuan Face Changing (and also a proof of concept for micro-projectors modified for short throw to counter face-recognition)

— Naomi Wu 机械妖姬 (@RealSexyCyborg) October 15, 2018

Naomi is known for highlighting gender-related assumptions with a twist that only technology can bring. The projects include 3D printed bikini tops, and Cyberpunk-inspired fibre-optic bustiers that glow her proud breast implants.

The main influence on me as a kid was Dolly Parton! I was bellowing in my house, singing Jolene. You know a lot of people look at her for her appearance, thinking she is dumb. But very soon you realise that she is actually smart. And that idea appeals to me, because tricking people in that way, and then finding out that they are actually really smart, that's what has influenced of my overall style.

She'll wear LED underlit mini-skirts at big international technology events, a sure-fire way for attracting attention for her cause.

If I show up at an event- no one misses me or mistakes me for a guy, everyone wants to know what “that girl” is working on and why she’s there. I’m very, very hard to erase or ignore. I’ve snuck into Maker events and squatted on the floor with my suitcase to show my work.

A couple of expatriate girls loved the idea but were a bit scandalized—partially by me, partially by the shortness of the skirt. When walking off, I heard one whisper to the other: “If she can do it, how hard can it be?”, which once I thought about it, was the perfect message for me.

Take away any excuse to not pursue greater technical competence. Tech is not just for your stereotypical geek girl or computer science graduate. These things are really within the reach of anyone now.

Playing "Bait and Switch" with boobs/"Any Woman can be Technical" may be a dirty trick, but it's worked so far to get the message to an audience that would have little interest otherwise, and is good fun.

Naomi publishes her technology projects online on Western social media, under the pseudonym SexyCyborg, by-passing the Great Chinese Firewall with an encrypted internet connection.

Among her many reviews of CNC machines, digital cameras and other maker tech, she reviews a "homework cheating machine", effectively a printer that uses pens to do handwriting and calligraphy assignments. The review, in English, explains that the Chinese education system relies heavily on rote memorisation and repetition, and she makes a case for the machine as an "alternative assignment in automation."

In Cantonese we say I am a héshìlāo, someone facilitating on both sides. On the one hand I can advocate for the customers from the West, because I use the same tools, and interact, and learn with them online. On the other hand, I have more advantage than foreigners when explaining things to Chinese.

I think no matter if you are in China, or in other countries, passing your knowledge to the next generation is a very important concept.

Westerners believe that Chinese companies won't accept Open Source, because we are too practical. And Chinese only hear the flowery language Westerners use to try to convince us. The challenge is to let each other know how Open Source is practical, profitable, and that people don't just Open Source things because they believe in altruism.

Her physical presence at events, combined with the rebellious, and slightly controversial girl-power nature or her projects, has built Naomi a considerable global following of technologists (according to her own claim having "the largest YouTube channel from a person living on mainland China!").

This global network was ready to support her in taking on the challenge of opening up the micro:bit to Chinese children. Naomi explains how it played out in the continuation of her presentation at the COSCon conference:

I tweeted, and said I wanted a micro:bit Calliope Mini clone for Chinese education!

The team of developers behind the Calliope mini project connected via Twitter. We knew each other, and I made a suggestion. I wanted to change the 5x5 LED matrix, to 12x12, because it then not only supports English, but also Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Arabic, and other non-Latin character-based languages.

The Calliope mini team was delighted that German education would help China, and offered advice along with all the source files.

Next, I had to convince a Chinese company to partner with me, and develop it. Convince them to design, and engineer something, and then give that IP for free!

I would say the most important first step to do convince them is to show that the community is there. Without an interested community in your source, without an existing dialogue, the chances of you seeing anything for your hard work is slim.

I was already established in Western social media, I had written articles for several hardware news sites. Make Magazine committed to publishing an article on the process of getting the board made.

So, even before sales of the sino:bit board, there was a substantial online community waiting to boost the public profile of whoever contributed.

Self-directed learners often build networks around themselves, whether this is for support, for advice, or for review of their work. Even though they lack expertise, they have connectivity to offer. In Naomi’s case, by sharing her projects, she started to have a following. Her natural instinct to reach within it or beyond it to ask for help developed a niche for her as a window to Shenzhen. She created an environment around herself that’s highly connected, and keeps growing and becoming more visible.

I ended up settling on a company called Elecrow to make the sino:bit. Because they had a Maker-oriented product line, I knew my way of promoting the product would give them a lot of exposure.

I told Elecrow that if they did the engineering, I would make sure that the publicity they got as a result would more than pay for it, by getting approval from the community.

Three months later, the sino:bit was released. It was instantly a huge hit with the overseas hardware community, and coders immediately began contributing to it.

sino:bit is open source, and you can find it on GitHub.

In the US, Limor Fried, founder of Adafruit (an Open Source technology manufacturing company), ordered a dozen, and paid her staff to start writing code so it would be compatible with other educational tools. Educators in India began adding support for Hindi.

Three months later again, I was on the cover of Make magazine, holding the sino:bit, and a full page was devoted to talking about Elecrow's role in the engineering.

Naomi is at the same time both Western and Eastern, vocally pro-women, but in some ways counter-feminist; modest, and an exhibitionist; a non-artist, and yet creatively expressive. She's practical and harnesses these dychotomies, rather than choosing sides, or trying to resolve them.

She is an educator/expert for some, but at the same time calling the community as a learner for guidance. A model student, teaching in the classroom of the future.

© 2020 Source Labs Ltd.