SPICE’s Stanford e-China program successfully completed its fall 2020 inaugural course, “Technologies Changing the World: Thinking into Action.” Enrolling top students from both public and private high schools throughout China, the Class of 2020 came together to explore cutting-edge technologies amid the global pandemic and increasingly fractious relationship between the United States and China. As countries closed borders and schools closed doors, Chinese students, Stanford professors, and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs engaged in direct and candid discussions about global forces shaping a common future.
The Stanford e-China Scholarly Team
Tackling an immense topic in whirlwind time, the students, scholars and entrepreneurs met together in virtual classes that covered the wide-ranging themes of green tech, fintech, health tech, and artificial intelligence. For each class, students completed preparatory assignments in high-level English, prepared questions for the respective experts, and consistently awed them with complex and thoughtful inquiries. Class discussions flowed into online discussion boards where students sparked debates with each other and formed a tight-knit cohort.
U.S.–China Tech Relations
Dr. Richard Dasher, Director of Stanford’s U.S.-Asia Technology Management Center, opened the course with an overview of U.S.–Asia tech relations and the importance of U.S.–China competition and collaboration. Stanford e-China was launched just as consulates were dramatically shut down in both countries due to U.S. accusations of Chinese espionage, and as the United States revoked many Chinese student visas, sending shockwaves through China’s academic community.
The students raised a myriad of issues, among them the threatened Tik Tok ban and trade sanctions on Huawei, as well as the feasibility of economic “decoupling” as China and the United States consider separate technological systems and supply chains due to national security concerns. In this context, Dr. Dasher’s perspectives on U.S.–China scientific exchange and the positive influence of competition on global innovation provided invaluable reassurance to the striving Chinese students with dreams of studying abroad.
Dr. Mark Thurber, Associate Director for Research at Stanford’s Program on Energy and Sustainable Development, focused on green tech. He challenged students to envision a world with high shares of renewable energy and low-carbon infrastructure. Students asked questions about the challenges of battery storage and the promise of pumped hydro, smart grids and green cities, solar and wind intermittency, and pressure on the world’s two largest CO2 emitters to collaborate on climate change. The excitement over technology’s potential was exemplified by one student’s proposed vision of a solar space station closer to the sun, a logical notion that prompted a significant lesson for the class: technology indeed has the potential to accomplish amazing feats; ultimately, however, it must also be cost-effective.
Dr. Karen Eggleston, Director of Stanford’s Asia Health Policy Program, delved into e-health in China, a robust topic amid the context of COVID-19 and the radically different responses of the two countries. Class discussions touched on health data privacy, ethics of genetic engineering, issues of empathy and liability in medical AI. Also raised were the digital divide between rural-urban healthcare access, economic development’s impact on population control policies, and comparative U.S.–China attempts to provide universal healthcare.
Further broadening the discussion, Dr. Fumiaki Ikeno, a cardiologist engaged in Stanford BioDesign and international advisor to medical device industries, spoke about med tech innovation in Silicon Valley and the slogan, “Fail fast, fail often, and fail forward,” a concept of entrepreneurial risk which inspired thoughtful exchanges among the students.
Expanding on the theme of entrepreneurism, Roy Ng, Co-Founder and CEO of Bond, a fintech venture based in Silicon Valley, shared his inspiring journey as an immigrant from Hong Kong, through the launch of Baidu (a Chinese company similar to Google) and other global enterprises, into the heady world of successful startups. As urban Chinese students are already dependent on cellphones, QR codes, and digital currency apps like Alipay to navigate daily life, they quickly plunged into questions about blockchains and fintech as influenced by giant Chinese tech companies like Ant Financial (an affiliate of Alibaba and world’s highest-valued fintech company) and Tencent (China’s version of Alphabet and Facebook with over a billion users on WeChat). In comparison to China’s thriving fintech realm, the United States seemed outdated.
Due to U.S.–China tech rivalry as AI superpowers, artificial intelligence pervades all the other technologies discussed in the course. Matt Sheehan, fellow for the Macropolo think tank at The Paulson Institute, presented riveting graphics and research on AI data, talent, semiconductors, and policy. Introducing The Global AI Talent Tracker, Sheehan broke down and animated data revealing that, of the top AI research talent in the world, more researchers (29%) did their undergraduate studies in China compared to in the U.S. (20%), a fact that surprised and impressed Stanford e-China students. Those numbers shift significantly when factoring in graduate studies (a whopping 52% of top AI talent studies in the United States while only 9% remain in China). Sheehan emphasized that since the majority of top-tier AI researchers ultimately work for American universities and companies, the ability of the United States to attract international talent has been critical to its innovative success. The majority of that international talent originates in China. Students also grappled with the concept of breadth versus depth in AI development. China’s advantage in producing big data is based, in part, on its massive population and expanding digital and facial recognition systems. Its disadvantage, compared to the United States, is its relative lack of ethnic diversity.
Interestingly, a highlight of the course for most students was actually Design Thinking—a creative, problem-solving mindset which stands in contrast to more structured methodologies encountered in China’s traditional education system. The design thinking framework is grounded in human-centered design, focusing on need-based (versus tech-driven) innovation. Providing an overview, fellow SPICE instructor, Dr. Mariko Yoshihara-Yang, facilitated small-group activities that emphasized empathy as a crucial step in the process. Students then practiced applying the five steps of design thinking—empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test—throughout the course and ultimately to their final projects. Designing Your Life, a book by Stanford Professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans based on the popular Stanford course, was also an important resource to help students practice the methodology on a topic they know better than any other: their very own lives.
To conclude the course, the students were asked to propose any challenge based upon personal interest that impacts one of the technological fields. They analyzed their selected topic from an empathetic, human-centered point of view in order to define it as a need-based problem. This led to the ideate and prototype steps of the design thinking process, which each student documented in a slide presentation of their proposed solutions.
The application of design thinking to a technological challenge in a virtual environment was original and untested curriculum. The students wrestled and ran with the assignment, producing compelling results and a remarkable span of research questions. For example:
- How can Asians and Africans be correctly represented and analyzed in facial recognition algorithms?
- How can online text disinformation be suppressed using AI?
- How can Chinese teenagers facing academic and social pressures reduce their anxiety and depression by tracking their wellbeing data?
- How can neurodegenerative diseases be more conveniently and accurately detected?
- How can old buildings in China be retrofitted to be more energy efficient?
- How can we debate the multifaceted ethics of human genetic engineering?
The ultimate goal of the final project was to expose students to the technological challenges defining their academic and professional futures. At the same time, the application of the design thinking process enabled them to practice breaking down complex issues into smaller steps leading toward solutions.
U.S.–China Student Collaboration
Stanford e-China students eagerly collaborated with American high school students studying China’s history, culture, politics, and economic development in SPICE’s China Scholars Program (CSP). With the support of CSP instructor Dr. Tanya Lee, the Chinese and American students worked together in small groups on WeChat and Canvas to apply design thinking to an environmental challenge in their respective communities. In the process, they figured out how to bridge different time zones, tech resources, learning styles, and cultural perspectives.
Laying Tracks Across New Terrain
Instructor Carey Moncaster framed the course as a prototype itself and considered the inaugural students as co-founders. Together they laid tracks across uncharted terrain. The Stanford Canvas platform was new to most Chinese students and WeChat was new to most collaborating U.S. students. Zoom hosted all the virtual classes and provided an apt symbol of the course given it was founded in Silicon Valley by CEO Eric Yuan who was born and educated in China.
Stanford e-China’s spring course begins February 2021.
Stanford e-China is based on the foundation and inspiration of SPICE’s 18-year history of offering virtual learning programs for students. The launch of Stanford e-China would not have been possible without the generous support of Emma and William Vanbergen, BE Education in China, and Amanda Minami and David Chao; and the insightful support of Julia Gooding, formerly with BE Education in China. I am greatly indebted to Dr. Gary Mukai for supporting this invaluable opportunity and thank all of my colleagues at SPICE for their support throughout the development process. My special gratitude goes to Dr. Mariko Yoshihara-Yang, Dr. Mark Thurber, Dr. Karen Eggleston, Dr. Fumiaki Ikeno, Roy Ng, and Matt Sheehan for engaging students so candidly and generously in the virtual classes. Their active support for international research and collaboration both reassured and inspired Stanford e-China students. Stanford e-China Advisor and Stanford alum, Liyi Ye, is our invaluable partner in Shanghai. She and her team at Third Classroom are the bedrock of student recruitment, program promotion, and SPICE’s on-the-ground presence in China.