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A Conversation with ThoughtSTEM co-founder and co-author of Learning to Mod for Dummies, Sarah Guthals

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Sarah Guthals

San Diego, Calif., Dec. 06, 2016 – When University of California San Diego alumna Sarah Guthals (Computer Science BS ’10, MS ’12, Ph.D. ’14) got into the pre-med program at UC San Diego, she thought she was prepared for a lot of hard work.

“I was working three jobs at the time to pay for school,” said Guthals. “Part way into my time at UC San Diego, I was taking chemistry with 500+ people, and I crashed.”

This is not for me, Guthals thought.

“My friend told me to take a computer science class,” said Guthals. “I had no clue what computer science was. This was in the days of MySpace, and I didn’t even know how to edit my profile colors.”

Guthals took her friend’s advice and quickly fell in love with the subject. She switched majors and began working with computer science and engineering professor Beth Simon.

“It was such a great experience,” said Guthals. “I would go into the basement labs and say, ‘I can’t figure this out’, at 11 p.m., and three people would run over to help. It wasn’t like that in pre-med.”

Inspired by the excitement of fellow students, Guthals founded SAGE, a student organization for volunteer tutors.

“As a tutor myself under Professor Simon, I developed new curriculum for an introductory computer science course,” said Guthals. Soon after, she applied for a five year program combining a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, where she developed a passion for teaching kids to code. She then received an graduate fellowship from the National Science Foundation, which allowed her to continue her research in UC San Diego's Ph.D. program with Simon and computer science professor Bill Griswold.

“As the eldest daughter of a low-income single-mother from South America (who is now a fourth-grade teacher), and someone who never truly grew up, my love for teaching, learning, and kids cannot stay buried for long,” said Guthals. “Combining that with coding is my passion. Watching kids be creative and make things happen that I could never even imagine, that is what inspires me to work hard every single day.”

As a Ph.D. student, Guthals met co-founder Stephen Foster, who was also interested in teaching kids to code. Together, they started coding classes on weekends.

“Stephen suggested that we form a company,” said Guthals. “That’s when Lindsey Handley joined to form ThoughtSTEM in 2012.” All three were Ph.D. students at UC San Diego at the time.

“We started with weekend workshops at UC San Diego,” said Guthals. “Soon, parents and teachers asked us to do after school programs.”

The team participated in the NSF I-Corps program in 2013, for which the von Liebig Entrepreneurism Center at UC San Diego is now a site. They also took part in the mystartupXX accelerator program through the UC San Diego Rady School of Management.

“Through I-Corps, we learned that our customers are kids, parents and teachers, and they all have different perspectives,” said Guthals. “We discovered that the biggest thing kids wanted was to learn to mod Minecraft.”

Guthals and her co-founders created software called LearnToMod that teaches kids to program while playing a simulated version of Minecraft, the popular computer game. The software is essentially an interactive textbook that covers introductory programming concepts. Students begin programming in a block-based language and can move into coding in languages such as JavaScript.

Soon after launching the software, Guthals and her co-founders developed a course for teachers. Currently, over 2,000 educators world-wide are using LearnToMod in classrooms.

Now, ThoughtSTEM is on the road to getting acquired, and Guthals has moved on to GitHub. GitHub's software enables engineers to build and collaborate without having to be in the same physical location. Guthals’ role will be to bring GitHub to kids under 13, in a new form.

“GitHub is working on ConnectHome – bringing over 200,000 kids Internet in their home for the first time,” said Guthals, who will be helping develop curriculum, raise funds, and travel around the country to host Internet workshops for kids in these lower-income areas.

When she’s not working for Github or Professor Simon, Guthals is also writing For Dummies books. She’s already finished three, “Minecraft Modding for Kids”, "Modding Minecraft" and "Building a Minecraft City".

Guthals also spoke at SD Hacks 2016, San Diego’s student-led hackathon. She encouraged students to consider the many career paths that computer science offers. “There are many ways you can use [computer science] to contribute to our world. That doesn’t just mean working for a software company.”

When asked what advice she had for current students looking for a job, Guthals said:

“Go to the career fair; I’ve had companies call me a year later. Tutor so that you get practice talking about engineering in a way people can understand. Just because you choose an area doesn’t mean you have to stay there – and it doesn’t have to be one-dimensional.”

Watch the video here.

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Media Contacts

Deborah Jude
UC San Diego Center for Microbiome Innovation
Phone: 858-534-8390
djude@ucsd.edu

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