Stephen Foster ’09, Distinguished Young Alumnus
- Carlos Barron
“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 and two of his colleagues founded ThoughtSTEM in 2013 as part of their mission to offer young people a state of-the-art computer science education. Early on, Foster and his colleagues noticed their students’ passion for manipulating, or “modding,” the video game Minecraft. That year, Stephen began developing a software called LearnToMod, which makes Minecraft modding accessible to students as young as 6 years old. Previously, this type of modding was only accessible to seasoned software developers. Thanks to a $750,000 grant received last year from the National Science Foundation, ThoughtSTEM was able to accelerate its development of LearnToMod. The program has now taught computer science to over 50,000 students, and more than 2,000 educators worldwide are using LearnToMod for free in their classrooms.
With a computer science program for children in full swing, Stephen then noticed that adults also needed access to affordable computer science education. Ever the creative problem solver, Dr. Foster launched CodingSchool.io (CS. io)—a program that allows adults to learn computer science for essentially free. Stephen teaches these CS.io students undergraduate level computer science; during the same timeframe, the CS.io students share their newly gained knowledge with elementary and middle school children that enroll in ThoughtSTEM’s after school programs around San Diego. The CS.io students earn back all the fees they pay for computer science classes by teaching computer science to local children. It’s a model that works for adults who want to transfer careers and works for the community.
One of these adult students says that “without having met Stephen, I would not be able to provide for my family in the capacity that I currently can. He has promoted me and believed in me through times I didn’t feel I deserved it… He’s been a pivotal mentor for me, shaping my computer science skills and career.”
Stephen Foster’s passion for computer science education has its roots in his own education. He 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,” he says. “I’m always grateful.”
When Stephen’s life partner and ThoughtSTEM co-founder, Lindsey Handley, met him, they were both undergraduates. She noticed right away that he was “someone who pushes himself to be the best person he can be. That summer, he was doing a deep dive into computer science research, writing a novel, and trying to push himself to socialize by learning social dancing.” Another friend adds that “Stephen is a well-rounded character. You’ll always see him improving some odd skill such as creative writing, martial arts, or guitar.”
It seems Stephen Foster has a boundless energy for the pursuits he finds most worthy. People of all ages have benefited and will continue to benefit from his passion for computer science education. Handley says that “one of Stephen’s driving axioms has been a vision of the future: a future where coding is just like reading, writing, and arithmetic. A future where everyone knows how to code, and everyone is able to use computers to solve the world’s problems, together.”
For all he is doing to make this vision a reality, the Southwestern Alumni Association presented Stephen Foster with the 2017 Distinguished Young Alumnus Award.