An ed-tech startup developing software to help students learn computer coding principles through Minecraft has been awarded a $750,000 grant through the National Science Foundation.
San Diego-based ThoughtSTEM received the award earlier this month through the foundation’s Small Business Innovation Research program. The National Science Foundation gives out more than $190 million a year to small businesses, through about 400 separate grants.
“Our goal is that after they go through the software program, students will know the basics of computer science and coding,” said ThoughtSTEM co-founder Lindsey Handley. “They’ll get the key concepts you’d expect from an introduction to computer science class.”
Online game Minecraft allows users to create, build and explore virtual worlds using 3-D building blocks and it has become the most popular game in the world. Microsoft is particularly popular with educators, who say it builds problem-solving and critical thinking skills.
In 2014, Microsoft purchased Minecraft from Mojang, the Stockholm, Sweden-based company that developed the game for a reported $2.5 billion. Earlier this year Microsoft purchased MinecraftEdu, the educational version of the game, and in June released Minecraft: Education Edition free for the summer.
The educational version has added security features. It allows teachers control over the creation of non-player characters and permits them to guide students through the game. Players can explore science, engineering and history through the game.
ThoughtSTEM’s educational Minecraft software, LearnToMod, allows students to create new creatures, tools and mini-games within Minecraft using a drag-and-drop programming interface and coding language, Handley said.
ThoughtSTEM was launched in 2012 by computer science graduate students at the University of California, San Diego who began tutoring students in the subject. The company added after-school and summer programs as well, all in the San Diego area, and has since worked with more than 50,000 students.
However, Handley said she and her co-founders sought to widen the company’s influence. “We’ve found we can reach a larger audience by creating educational software that can be used around the world,” she said. “This allows us to focus on a larger scale.”
ThoughtSTEM also created CodeSpells, which allows users to craft magical spells on online gaming platform Steam.
In 2015, the startup company received a $150,000 award from NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR, program to build on the idea of LearnToMod. That infusion helped the company prototype the software and test it out on students. So far, students have produced more than 1.5 million Minecraft mods, or modifications, Handley said.
The more recent $750,000 grant will allow the company to “dig in and make LearnToMod really cool. We can build out the features that kids are really engaged with,” Handley said.
The Small Business Innovation Research program at NSF focuses on 10 areas for awards, including educational technologies and applications. The grant essentially acts as seed funding for startup companies, without taking an equity stake.
The NSF program “supports small businesses with the most innovative ideas across all areas of science and technology,” said program director Glenn Larsen, in a statement. “The educational technology companies funded … inspire students and others to study STEM in fun, innovative ways, and ensure that America’s future workforce is well-prepared for careers in a globally competitive marketplace.”
Grantees receive an initial phase I investment, up to $225,000 and can receive up to $750,000 through a second, phase II grant. Also in phase II companies can garner a supplemental grant of up to $500,000, to match other investments the company might receive.
Other ed-tech startups that have received the grants include zyBooks, a maker of interactive STEM textbook “replacements” for college students which feature “less text, more action,” according to its website. Another is Choosito!, which helps teachers and students sift through resources and web sites—as an online librarian—to curate the best resources.
However, numerous federal agencies have their own Small Business Innovation Research programs, including the U.S. Department of Education, which prioritizes a long list of ed-tech products. But many entrepreneurs aren’t aware of the grants available through the SBIR program. Currently federal officials are on an “SBIR Road Tour,” traveling to states that typically don’t have a lot of applicants for grants, to spread the word.
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Photo courtesy of ThoughtSTEM.