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Startup Founded by Southwestern Alumnus Receives $750K NSF Grant

  • ThoughtSTEM

National Science Foundation awards Small Business Innovation Research grant to ThoughtSTEM for its LearnToMod technology, a Minecraft Modding software.

Stephen Foster, Ph.D. graduated from Southwestern in 2009, and is now the CEO and co-founder of a computer science education startup business known as ThoughtSTEM, located in San Diego, Calif. The Southwestern alumnus announced today that his startup has been awarded a $750,000 grant. The award will be used to accelerate the development of ThoughtSTEM’s Minecraft Modding and Computer Science software, LearnToMod.

“The potential impact that Minecraft could have on computer science education in this country is huge,” says Foster. “We have a CS education phenomenon on our hands: millions of kids who love Minecraft are interested in learning how to mod. With the National Science Foundation’s help, we have big plans to make LearnToMod the most cutting-edge platform for CS education.”

Foster and two of his colleagues founded ThoughtSTEM in 2013 as part of their passion and mission to offer children a state-of-the-art computer science education. The three have spent their careers exploring the most effective techniques to both challenge experts and introduce novices to the world of computer science. LearnToMod is an example of an educational software that could help create qualified professionals for the 60 percent of tech jobs that remain unfilled.

“Teaching kids how to build software will enable them to help potentially millions of people in the future, as the audience for life-enhancing software grows daily and technology spreads across the globe,” says Foster.

Foster says much of what he learned at Southwestern has been instrumental in propelling his career forward.

“The philosophy and computer science professors at Southwestern deserve a lot of the credit for what I’m doing today,” says Foster. “I’m always grateful.”

To date, LearnToMod has taught computer science to over 50,000 students, and students using the software have produced over 1.5 million Minecraft mods. This new grant funds the development of software features that will entice even more students to learning coding with LearnToMod.

ThoughtSTEM’s game development studio, Multi-Dimensional Games, first launched LearnToMod in early 2015, after it was featured in WIRED. At that time, the software contained a series of tutorial videos that taught students how to craft Minecraft mods with an easy-to-use, drag-and-drop programming interface. These mods were ported directly to private Minecraft servers where students could test how their code affected Minecraft gameplay.

In mid-2015, the National Science Foundation awarded ThoughtSTEM a preliminary $150,000 award to improve LearnToMod further: Minecraft educators at ThoughtSTEM crafted new tutorials for teaching students Minecraft modding in Javascript, software developers revamped LearnToMod’s built-in game engine, Vox-L, where students can test their mods in-browser, and Foster created new tools to assist teachers using LearnToMod in classrooms.

Currently, more than 2,000 educators worldwide are using LearnToMod for free in classrooms.

“Mods allow kids to make their mark on their favorite video game,” says Lindsey Handley, COO and Co-Founder of ThoughtSTEM. “They can let their imaginations run wild and come up with an incredible idea, then, bam, program it, and see it appear in the game. So it really energizes kids to learn about computer science, more so than if you taught coding in a more traditional way.”

LearnToMod gives students access to more than 350 Minecraft modding tutorials (over 80 hours of educational content), a secure, easy-to-mod private Minecraft server, and access to web-based Minecraft mod editors.