Late at night, hostile monsters roam through the dark. In addition to zombies, skeletons, and spiders, creepers lurk quietly in the hope of sneaking up on unsuspecting victims and exploding. Yet, before any damage is inflicted, a Minecraft player “mods” the creature’s artificial intelligence. Suddenly, the creeper is reprogrammed to defend the player—not blow her up.
Written with code, modifications, or “mods,” allow players to take the sandbox video game Minecraft into their own hands. It is part of the genius of LearnToMod, a computer science education software built by Lindsey Handley and Stephen Foster at ThoughtSTEM, the startup they co-founded in 2012.
“Anyone can write these smaller pieces of code that modify the game,” says Handley, ThoughtSTEM’s COO. “Our software makes it easy to put those pieces of code into the game, thereby teaching people to code through Minecraft.”
First launched in 2015, LearnToMod is designed for children ages 8 to 14. The software uses a series of tutorial videos that teach students how to construct Minecraft mods with a drag-and-drop programming interface. The mods are then transported to a private server where students can test their code and explore how it alters the game. The goal, Handley says, is to introduce coding to children in a familiar and fun environment.
LearnToMod’s innovative approach has caught the attention of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which has awarded ThoughtSTEM two Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants totaling $900,000. The grants fund the salary of ThoughtSTEM developers and allow the startup to share LearnToMod, free of charge, with more than 2,500 educators worldwide. An estimated 60,000 students have used the software, and this number is constantly rising.
It is an exhilarating experience for Handley, who only learned to code as a Ph.D. student at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Handley, a chemistry major at Trinity, studied biochemistry at UCSD, focusing on the proteins that regulate the blood coagulation process. Her lab work was satisfying, yet Handley and her husband craved something more entrepreneurial. The pair started ThoughtSTEM as a small tutoring operation that rapidly grew.
“As a graduate student in science, I had this feeling that I wasn’t in control of my own future,” Handley says. “As a Ph.D. student, you spend long days working hard in the lab and, to some extent, you’re just left hoping that someday your work will lead you to discover something worth writing a scientific paper about. Running this business was a way for Stephen and I to feel like we had control over our own success.”
At ThoughtSTEM’s office in San Diego, Handley wears many hats as the COO. One moment she is the accountant. The next, a project manager. No matter the day, though, there is one role Handley always shoulders proudly: educator.
“We are educators at our core,” Handley says. “I understand the plight of educators in terms of budgets, and so the NSF grants are really what allows any teacher to use our software for free.”
In addition to LearnToMod, ThoughtSTEM also conducts after- school programming, winter, spring, and summer camps, and weekend workshops. With a shrewd business sense, Handley is planning to grow ThoughtSTEM’s number of after-school program locations from 40 to 100 in the upcoming year. At any one time, a fleet of 10 to 15 instructors are deployed across the San Diego area teaching computer science.
To provide students with the best possible education, Handley is selective about the teachers she employs. She would rather hire a “fantastic educator and teach them how to code” than have a great programmer who cannot teach. In a novel approach, ThoughtSTEM is offering free coding instruction to teachers and adults with teaching experience in exchange for service in the startup’s after-school programs. Handley believes a free coding education in exchange for a teaching commitment will entice many young adults interested in a career transition.
“When I first started learning how to code, it was intimidating,” Handley says. “Coding is always going to be a challenge, but it is a challenge that anyone can face and then succeed.”
As Handley prepares for more rounds of grant writing, she is excited about ThoughtSTEM’s future. The startup is revamping LearnToMod’s built-in game engine, Vox-L, where students can test their mods in-browser. The engine does not require Minecraft to operate, potentially saving teachers the cost of purchasing the game for each student. The software runs on Chromebooks, which lets students code in a Minecraft-like environment without relying on the internet, enabling those in rural areas to code and explore.
The work, however time-consuming it appears, is invigorating for Handley, and the end goal—students well-versed in computer science—is certainly worthwhile.
How does she navigate life as a COO?
Caffeine, laughs Handley, in the form of a tall, dark coffee.
Follow Lindsey on Twitter at @LindseyDHandley.