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Summer Mode in Code

Rusty Greiff

Managing Director, Education Ventures, 1776
Coding for kids

The Next-Gen Camper and The New Digital Summer Experience


4th of July has passed and it feels like summer is finally in full swing. Lazy, timeless days. Snow cones. Sunscreen. And…full-throttle coding, gaming and robotics classes?

This generation is putting away their bathing suits and plugging in to coding camps to build next-gen 21st century skills. This summer, millions of elementary and high school students enrolled in STEM-focused camps across hundreds of universities and other campuses. But don’t mistake the tired clichés of helicopter parents in tech hubs like San Francisco and Boston as the only consumers leading the charge. National coding and gaming camps with multi-center reach like TIC camps, id Tech, Codecademy and Sylvan Learning are bringing STEM enrichment programs to rural and small town America as well. What was once a pop-up business model housed in a local school with a handful of outdated computers has developed into a highly sophisticated enterprise targeting girls, minorities, the affluent and the underserved.

TIC camps, based in the Mid-Atlantic, pioneered the coding camp model in 1982. Since then, they have seen the “specific type” of camper of the past evolve into a well-rounded, diverse group of boys and girls. Emily Riedel, TIC’s head, sees their success as a result of building a culture of creativity. “Coding is fun! It is inspiring to see so many kids who have evolved from simple users of computers to computer enthusiasts. I think children want to ‘get under the hood’ and really learn how to do it themselves, similar to the puppet versus the puppeteer. Who wants to play pong, when you can learn how to create your own original version?”

TIC camps have 75% -plus camper retention rates and are expanding to manage wait lists in the Washington, D.C. and Maryland markets.

As this market has matured and grown, new tech companies and A-list VC funds are investing in STEM and enrichment summer camp businesses.

“We are trying to create a transformative educational experience for our students. We’ve taught 300,000 kids to code, create video games, design websites—these are the kids that will grow to be teens, and eventually propel our country forward when they join the workforce,” says Pete Ingram-Cauchi, Founder and CEO of high-flying San Francisco-based startup iD Tech. Ingram-Cauchi’s company is redefining this camp experience by offering cutting-edge gamification—not just games—in over 100 campus locations across the country, including programs for 6-7 beginners at $399/week to more advanced camps for 13-18 at $3,699-$4,099/week. iDTech is seeing extraordinary revenue growth and attractive unit economics in addition to big wait lists in most of their markets.

Another example is Codecademy, an online learning platform and summer programming boot camp that recently closed $12.5MM in funding from Kleiner Perkins, Caufield & Byers, Union Square Ventures and other top-flight funds.

And even traditional tutoring companies, like Sylvan Learning, are seeing impressive growth through new product offerings. Jeff Cohen, CEO of Sylvan Learning, likes what he is seeing, “With support from Bill Nye, we launched Sylvan Edge this April to address the growing demand for supplemental STEM programs. As we continue to rollout across North America, we are excited by the response. We recently passed 10,000 enrollments with just half of our Sylvan franchise system up and running. We are clearly tapping a growing market and will continue to add innovative programs that drive tech skill engagement among elementary aged students.”

So why the explosion now?

First, it’s cool. Collaborative gaming, animation, and coding camps provide attractive alternatives for summer learners. Second, for many families, project-based learning camps offer critical enrichment for high-performing students. For students in underfunded or poorly managed schools, they help close the education gaps. The harsh reality remains that STEM education is still a giant hole for many American High School students. According to foundation reports, only 16% of American High School seniors are proficient in math and interested in STEM careers. And even among those who do go on to pursue a college major in the STEM fields, only about half choose to work in a related career. The U.S. currently ranks 25th in math proficiency globally and ranks 17th in science across the world.

Second, these high-growth companies are confirming what studies have claimed for years: that early-intervention in digital skills and coding – especially in dynamic fun environments like camps – can help drive teens to choose STEM college majors. According to recently released reports, twenty percent of STEM college students decided to study or play STEM games in middle school or earlier. Similar research shows that early adoption of STEM skills will lead to committed engineering, math and science work in college. Four in five STEM college students focused on STEM curricula in high school or earlier.

Finally, this next generation of 7-17 year olds and beyond is living in a fully integrated culture of technology, gaming, connected communication, learning and personalization. From mobile content blurring the lines between gaming, entertainment and learning, to Minecraft YouTube heroes and a new wave of Silicon Valley celebrities gracing the covers of Fast Forward, Forbes and Wired, geeks are more than ever role models.

But beyond the seduction of the tech billionaire narrative, there is corroborating data to show STEM skill development drives economic stability in a globally competitive and uncertain marketplace. According to the National Governor Association Center for Best Practices, STEM job holders earn eleven percent higher wages compared with their same-degree counterparts in other fields. And the top ten bachelor-degree majors with the highest median earnings are categorized in STEM.

Yet the critical upshot, especially with young learners, is not “job training” but creativity and growth. As TIC’s Emily Riedel believes, “Kids like to be in the driver seat. Our campers get the opportunity to really be themselves, sometimes for the first time, which creates an environment that allows them to grow and learn.”

iDTech’s Ingram-Cauchi’s agrees, “We collaborate in small teams of just 8 students per instructor.  This ensures a massive amount of 1-on-1 personalized instruction. Imagine if your kid’s classroom had just 8 students per teacher—how much more would they learn? Then layer in a heaping dose of fun, exploration, collaboration, outdoor activities, music…and the experience comes alive. It’s magical.”

So take the summer to plug in, get to know this market and start paying attention to what the kids are doing (because the VCs are ready to follow).

As part of a 1776 series on identifying innovative and scalable trends, evolving consumer demands and venture investing in edtech, Rusty Greiff, Managing Director, 1776 Ventures, looks at the national growth of coding and robotic summer camps.

Rusty Greiff

Managing Director, Education Ventures, 1776

Rusty Greiff is the managing director for 1776's education ventures. Most recently, Rusty served as Chief Strategy & Development Officer and co-founder of SF-based Learnist, one of the fastest growing…