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Here’s to the next 10 years

  Wrote on January 1st, 2021.

 A photo I took while I visited MIT’s the Ray and Maria Stata Center in 2015.

It was the Autumn of 2016. I finally met Prof. Gilbert Strang and audited his lecture at MIT campus. He was just affable and witty as he was in his lecture series. We briefly discussed my learning experience in China when I was in high school and the progress of the Chinese translated version of his book Introduction to Linear Algebra. This unforgettable rendezvous reminds me of my early days in high school, when I was a part-time translator of MOOC lectures, which had not yet become a phenomenon in China. I was responsible for adding bilingual subtitles to Prof. Strang’s Introduction to Linear Algebra lecture series. The experience of making high-quality MOOC resources accessible to fellow students in China was indeed a milestone for me. Self-learning and home-schooling became the ways I engage with the world and knowledge. The absence of a formal college education does not seem to extinguish my curiosity to learn but spark my interest to keep learning through practicing.

In high school, I did two things that have had profound impacts on me. During my first semester of 10th grade, I gathered a group of computer enthusiasts and started the only engineering club in our high school. As the founder, I wanted to create a platform where students could engage in hands-on programming and engineering of LEGO RCX/NXT robots using the LEGO Mindstorms NXT software and LeJOS. I also held regular sharing sessions with club members, introducing the (then) latest development of maker projects, which of course included many MIT Media Lab projects. This club marked the starting point of my maker life and motivated me to invite more like-minded high school students from all over the country to form a community of aspiring computer engineers. Later in my 11th grade, I founded the nation-wide Adolescent Developer Community (ADC), which is the first of its kind in China. I devoted much of my spare time to organizing the annual ADC conference, including inviting keynote speakers both from academia and industry as well as securing sponsorship from tech giants.

To date, the engineering club I founded is still a nice makerspace for young-generation students to learn the fundamentals of computer science and engineering. The ADC annual conference was later held for three years consecutively. I harvested friendship with like-minded students as well as developed budding leadership and entrepreneurship in the STEM field.

In the summer of 2013, when I received offers from several U.S. universities, a software engineer, Kenny, invited me to work with him at Opera Software. I was encouraged by his warm, tempting invitation and generous recognition of my skill set. If working with a group of brilliant engineers would be my future career, why would I wait till four years later? Why would I not pursue my dream now? At that time, I believed that computer science would be ultimately a skill-oriented subject and I should begin my journey on learning through practicing. I eventually made a decision of passing the ticket to college and working with Kenny at Opera Software. Admittedly, my perspective on college education might be naive and biased. But I was determined to pursue a career in the industry I love, which was just a different path for my future. I enjoyed my time at Opera Software and felt satisfactory with the projects I was involved in, which ranged from developing and testing Sphinx HTML5 Game Engine with the Game Engine team and building the developer relationship community for this project. Thanks to Fredrik and Kenny, I was able to learn from the best. After I left Opera, I focused my career on the field of product design. Later I set up my own design studio, which provided design services to many startup clients. In a word, my post high-school experience was nothing but rewarding and important to my decision of returning to school.

In 2016, I met Tony, a PhD student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. We shared common interests and visions in STEM education and we were both deeply inspired by such technological pioneers as Nicholas Negroponte and Marvin Minsky. The two of us just clicked immediately. I had acquired sufficient skill set from previous work experience and still entertained the idea of advancing the field of STEM education, which was a seed planted when I was in high school. Later Tony and I co-founded the ed-tech startup “CocoRobo”, a company that provides a one-stop solution for K-12 STEAM education.

Our mission is to create easy-to-use products that embody the concept of PBL curriculum for teachers and students in K-12 classrooms. Our R&D team developed a series of ed-tech products over the span of four years. The hardware part contains a set of plug-and-play electronic modules with B2B connector. There are currently two generations. The first generation focuses on STEAM education solution. The second generation centers on AI STEM education solutions, which consists of an IoT module and an AI module. The software platforms include CocoBlockly—an online visual programming environment, CocoCloud—a cloud platform for IoT data collection and visualization, and CocoEducation—an online education platform for our users. We also implemented aforesaid core technologies into a series of theme-based toolkits surrounding such topics as Creative Electronics, Robots & Mechanicals, and Human-computer Interaction, which have huge appeal to kids. In this year’s annual meeting of PyCon China, I shared with the audience my experience of implementing Python and MicroPython in K-12 STEM classrooms in the past four years.

Reflecting on the past four years of starting my own business in the field I am passionate about, I find myself establishing the skills beyond my imagination. Surely, my leadership and entrepreneurship transcended from a club founder to a conference organizer and then to a CTO of a company. Still, I have much to learn and achieve as a leader who is seeking innovative technology solutions for the world. This year, our company participated in a project called “Future Classroom.” We visited a secondary school in Enshi, Hubei province, which was one of the hardest COVID-hit regions in China. We provided our intuitive products to kids in Enshi and helped them to use our products to learn computer programming and the concept of design thinking. The whole idea of Future Classroom, or making education accessible to kids in every corner of the world, reminds me of my old days in high school. In Prof. Strang’s class and the engineering club, I benefited from approachable education and tried to put ideas into practice. I cannot help but ask myself what else I can do in the future.

My life has progressed from Introduction to Linear Algebra, yet I can trace my path back to that inspiring course I found online.