Teenagers take part in the "Hour of Code" workshop on Dec 11, 2014 at the Apple Store of Xidan Joy City in downtown Beijing.
It starts with the idea that children must be trained early to prevail over robots in the workforce. Then it snowballs from there－,000 a year for tuition, 0 for a Lego robotics set, and ,300 to test the newly acquired engineering skills at a competition in the United States.
That's what Zhuo Yu is spending on her 10-year-old son for a so-called STEM education in China－a problem-based approach to learning that combines knowledge in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
The concept created in the US is now stirring a craze across China, where about 10 million students are being fast-tracked for STEM success.
That number is poised to swell to 50 million by 2020 as parents seek to give their children a head start in computer coding and robotics, according to consultant JMD Education. It predicts the demand will create a billion STEM-learning industry in China that's already attracted companies such as text-book publisher Pearson Plc, Lego Group, and Sony Corp.
"I don't have a cap on my budget," said Zhuo, who works in the internet industry in the eastern city of Hangzhou. "Yes, I'm investing a lot in his robotics education right now, but you have to take a long-term perspective and look at what opportunities it can bring him after he turns 18."
Her son, Wang Yizhuo, will enter one of the most competitive job markets on the planet after he finishes college. By 2030, China is predicted to have as many as 200 million graduates－more than the entire US workforce. As it is now, 40 percent of tertiary students in China obtain a STEM qualification, compared with less than 20 percent in the US and France.
Future-job angst has helped spawn at least 500 institutions or startups in China offering out-of-school tuition in coding, robotics and 3-D printing, according to Wen Jing, a researcher at Beijing-based JMD Education. It's an industry with little regulation or oversight.
That means parents often need to navigate a sea of choices－from legitimate providers to dodgy scammers, said Xiao Dun, co-founder of Beijing-based online education platform 17zuoye.com, which is introducing courses from Minecraft and Sony Global Education in China.
"Even classes that dig worms will tell you it's STEM education because, all of a sudden, it's a biology-related class," Xiao said. "People all think this is the fancy new thing, and there are a lot of rich parents who are eager to spend on their children."
Private education providers are helping to plug gaps in State-provided teaching. The world's second-largest economy lags behind at least 16 countries in Europe and the US in putting coding and robotics on the national school curriculum.
Nora Yeung, founder of Creative Coding in Hong Kong, said coding could become a basic required skill for the future.