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Startup Founded by UC San Diego Alumni Receives $750,000 NSF Small Business Grant

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Students at Adams Elementary School in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego learn how to code in Minecraft with LearnToMod.
Photo: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications

ThoughtSTEM develops LearnToMod, a Minecraft Modding software with the potential to teach millions of children computer science

San Diego, Calif., Aug. 2 -- The U.S. National Science Foundation has announced it is awarding $750,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant to Thought STEM, a startup founded by alumni of the University of California San Diego in 2012.

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

"This project has the potential fill the gap of the severe projected deficit of students in computer science,” NSF reviewers wrote. “Further, US jobs are moving toward more computer based skills and this will improve US employment overall."

ThoughtSTEM’s game development studio, Multi-Dimensional Games, first launched LearnToMod in early 2015.  At that time, the software contained a series of tutorials videos that taught students how to craft Minecraft mods with an easy-to-use drag-and-drop programming interface.  Each mod taught students a basic computer science concept—but in a fun way.

In mid-2015, the National Science Foundation awarded ThoughtSTEM a preliminary $150,000 award to improve the software 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 Stephen Foster, CEO of ThoughtSTEM and recent PhD graduate of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at UC San Diego, created new tools to assist teachers using LearnToMod in classrooms.

“The potential impact that Minecraft could have on computer science education in this country is huge,” said 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.”

Currently, over 2,000 educators world-wide are using LearnToMod for free in classrooms. “Mods allow kids to make their mark on their favorite video game,” said Lindsey Handley, the COO of ThoughtSTEM, who is also a UC San Diego alumna. “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.”

Pricing for LearnToMod is $29.99 per year, for which students get access to over 350 Minecraft modding tutorials (over 80 hours of educational content), a secure, easy-to-mod private Minecraft server, and, of course, access to web-based Minecraft mod editors.

ThoughtSTEM founders have deep ties to the leadership and entrepreneurship pipeline here at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego. Foster and fellow co-founder Sarah Guthals, now at Github, participated in the NSF I-CORPS program, for which von Liebig Entrepreneurism Center at UC San Diego is now a site. They also took part in the mystartupXX accelerator program, which is aimed at empowering the next generation of women technology entrepreneurs.

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Media Contacts

Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering
Phone: 858-822-0899
ipatrin@ucsd.edu

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