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James Simpson teaching at Litchee Lab

is a maker space in Shenzhen, China, a city known as a hub for entrepreneurial engineers and physical product startups. It was founded by Lit Liao as a space for engineers to work on their projects. Three years ago, James Simpson and Lit met at Maker Faire Shenzhen. After some discussion, they decided to combine the maker space with the maker education center for kids Simpson had been running out of his apartment.

Simpson explained the combination to me in an interview: “ Litchee lab is a place where engineers go to work on their projects, and also, on the weekends, kids go to learn engineering."

Helping Kids Create

Litchee Lab provides kids with a program that supplements their in-school education with creative, maker education, as well as giving kids access to the technology that allows them to build their ideas in reality.

The program is structured so that parents and kids can understand the student’s progress through the course, and identify the skills they have learned. “The skill tree shows all the skills that kids can learn at the maker space….We have a recommended path. We start out with a series of four programs and repeat that four times at increasing levels of difficulty,” said Simpson.

Kids will also get ideas in class, or in their clubs, and come to Litchee Lab for the resources and guidance needed to bring their ideas to reality. “For example,” Simpson said, “I had a kid in a robotics competition that wanted to build a robotic battery tester [that] has a little hand that reaches out and puts it in the right bin.” The student had a cool idea, but no way to fit it into the club’s curriculum, so Litchee Lab gave him a way to explore it creatively.

Fail Faster

Litchee Lab provides an environment where kids can be creative, while also learning engineering. Many school courses and store-bought robotics kits have very specific tasks for students to complete, and little room for creativity. Rather than following instructions, Litchee Lab teaches kids processes used in many startup communities, so that kids learn to “fail faster.” “Fail faster” is widely accepted as an effective strategy in the startup world, because it allows developers and makers to test prototypes without wasting time trying to perfect small details.

Simpson teaches kids to iterate through their ideas to get closer to a working prototype without trying to perfect every step of the process.

"So first you’re going to do a bad pencil drawing, because why waste time on a good one, when you don’t exactly know what you want?" Simpson says. “Then you’re going to do a paper model. And you’re probably not even going to use a ruler at that point, you’re just going to start cutting things out, taping it together.”

The process of developing the idea is more important than each individual step. “[You’re] trying to pull that from mental to physical, out of your head, so that you can start to share it with other people in a different way,” Simpson says.

“Speed to fail is important, and once they understand that they need to quickly fail, then it can be a little bit of a game. Ok, I’m gonna finish my prototype quickly so that I can get on to the next step.”

Getting to Design Fluency

Unlike with kit-based curricula, kids learn a lot more than how to use specific technology at Litchee Lab. “We’re using technology as a medium, but not really an end to itself. I’m teaching kids how to move their ideas between physical, mental and digital states. And having an idea, drawing it out in Adobe illustrator, printing it out with a laser cutter, making revisions–between each of those states is a type of translation. And if you can move between those states, then you’ve got some design fluency,” Simpson said.

Developing Creativity by Working Next To Adults

Simpson has been impressed by the creativity of his students, but it takes time to help them value their own creativity. “They need a couple of hours, three or four classes, before they understand that their creativity is being rewarded by both me as a teacher, and by the framework that we’re learning, that it’s advancing them toward their goals.” It’s helpful for students to have Simpson praising them for what they’re doing, but they need to see their products advance, too.

Whereas schools have environments that were purpose-built for learning, Litchee Lab is uniquely able to expose students to the practical applications of the very skills it teaches.

“We provide an environment at a maker space that’s as real as possible, by showing real engineers working on real projects, so we can walk over and we can see the 3D printer that one of our makers is printing on.” Simpson believes that showing adults applying the same skills the kids are learning helps to demonstrate their relevance.

Sharing Secrets to Spread Maker Spaces

Litchee Lab has created a system that works, and it’s eager to share that system with others. During weekdays, Litchee Lab does professional development for teachers to teach its methods. Litchee Lab also assists schools in buying the machines and materials to set up their own maker spaces without breaking their budgets.

“By teaching schools to run their own laser cutter programs, I’m not eliminating that industry for my business. I’m saying ‘you guys need to have level one skills, and we’re gonna come in, we’re gonna teach you level two, level three…There’s a very high ceiling on these skills.”

In fact, Litchee Lab wants to spread maker spaces further: “We would love it if we taught other businesses to create garden-sized maker spaces that combined both adults and students.” The “garden” Simpson refers to is the community center-like courtyard common in Chinese apartment complexes. Creating these local maker spaces would give kids kids and adults in countless communities access to machines and materials.

Simpson is excited to spread Litchee Lab’s vision and methods in an open framework. He explains, “In China, where a lot of times information can be perceived as very valuable, something that you don’t want to share, it’s nice to be involved in something that is by definition open and the openness creates sustainability.”

Brandon Green is a Consulting CFO and can be reached at

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