April/May 2016 Issue
Fayetteville tech-education firm Nerdies has big
plans for boosting STEM education in the state.
Photography by Beth Hall
Top Photo: Children and teens have the opportunity to take classes in
robotics, computer coding and more outside the classroom at Nerdies.
Minecraft, by itself, is far from an essential building block to Arkansas’ economic future. The massively popular computer game has no official role in Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s plan to inspire 6,000 students to take computer coding classes in the next four years. The game’s signature task of pushing around textured cubes will not propel Arkansas into any technological leadership positions nationwide, and no local chamber of commerce will pitch this to any major software firm it courts for relocation.
Still, don’t underestimate Minecraft as a tool.
The game provides a way to hack far deeper into students’ interest than most conventional pedagogical means to help prepare this state for the demands of a rapidly evolving 21st century economy. As Fayetteville businessman Brad Harvey sees it: “No 10-year-old kid wants to learn Java, but if I say ‘Hey, let’s learn Mods for Minecraft,’ they have to learn Java to do it.”
Harvey runs Nerdies, an education business based in downtown Fayetteville catering to the intersection of children’s technological and entertainment interests. Through year-round classes, special sessions and summer camps, it teaches a variety of skills, from app making to BattleBots construction and moviemaking, to web design, 3-D printing and comic book creation.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, “Mods for Minecraft” (short for “Modifications”) was the class getting underway. Harvey settled into a chair beside sixth-grader Nicholas Calhoun to explain how to design special custom features that can be used in the game’s essential activities of building with cubes, collecting resources, exploring, making crafts and fighting. Calhoun said he is keen to spend the once-a-week hour session building a sword thousands of times more powerful than the game’s pre-installed version.
Harvey goes over essential steps in the computer programming language Java, first checking his own laptop, then Calhoun’s. Both talk syntax and peer at the flickering code. In the darkened room, their faces are illuminated by six white rice paper desktop lamps and the two screens’ glow.
This space, one of a few rooms in the Nerdies studio, hosts the kind of one-to-one, in-person collaboration Harvey had in mind when opening the company in June 2014. The 41-year-old father of three daughters had seen plenty of tutoring centers in Northwest Arkansas for children struggling with learning and believed the market needed a business to provide supplemental, accelerated learning.
During the school year, parents pay about $125 per month for weekly lessons in the different tech classes. Some students may get reduced rates through scholarships. About 60 percent to 70 percent of the revenue comes in summer when weeklong camps go for about $450 per week. Harvey also rents out a video game room for birthday parties and special events. In all, he estimates the company annually makes roughly $200,000 in revenue while paying up to 20 part-time instructors at once and roughly $33,000 in rent and utilities.
Planning for a Franchise
An ultimate goal for Nerdies is expanding its footprint throughout the region, Harvey said. One obvious strategy is franchising to nearby metro areas like Little Rock, Dallas or Houston, from where Harvey moved in 2005. His job in Northwest Arkansas with Sprint entailed managing data systems for global wireless communications.
When it comes to his new business, Harvey still thinks mobile. He points out one California-based company with similar curricula, iD Tech, eschews fall and spring classes to focus on weeklong summer camps in big cities across the nation. And its fees are two to three times higher than Nerdies’.
“While a year-round location is great, unfortunately the economics of this business aren’t really set up well for that scenario,” he said. So, Harvey also considers taking his show on the road.
“Maybe we do camps here in Fayetteville, we do camps in Little Rock, we do camps in New York City and just simply travel around and pull those off. But as you can imagine that’s kind of a logistic nightmare because you’ve gotta find locations you can rent for the summer and so on.”
Other funding opportunities come through grants and school partnerships. Nerdies’ corporate mission, after all, coincides with the goals of many schools eager to expand on the recently passed Arkansas Act 187 of 2015, which mandated every public and charter high school in the state offer at least one computer science course starting last fall. Students in the state’s more urban areas, anchored by large universities and more highly educated demographics, have been better able to take advantage of this Science, Technology, Engineering and Math push than others. Areas like Little Rock and Northwest Arkansas host multiple festivals and events to promote coding and computer science.
This isn’t the case in many of the state’s rural areas. Take Blytheville in Mississippi County, where 10 of KIPP Blytheville Collegiate High School’s 240 students take a computer course in the form of codeacademy.com lessons led by Matt Perrin, the school’s special projects manager. Perrin knows bits of the programming languages he teaches through online academy’s self-guided lessons.
“I’m staying about a month ahead of my students and they’re each working on their own, getting help from each other, getting help from me if they can’t help themselves,” Perrin said. He adds only four of the 10 sophomores really wanted to learn the material coming into the class, but that number could skyrocket if the predominantly low-income kids in this area were exposed to more adults who earned good livings through tech skills.
Making It Mobile
Harvey believes his company can help here. He envisions a Nerdies touring mobile bus with instructors rolling into smaller towns across the state. “I would love to just pull up in the parking lot of a school for a day, have that thing decked out with TVs and computers and all of that and just be able to bring the kids out and teach them on that level, for a day or once a month or something like that.”
Perrin loves the idea, saying such a visit would help spike interest in STEM among his students.
Such a venture likely isn’t possible without grant money, so Harvey is learning more about how to apply for grants with nonprofits and which bigger grants to target. Through smaller grants, he’s already begun to partner with local public high schools. Girls from Springdale Har-Ber High School, for instance, were scheduled to learn how to code at Nerdies on two Saturdays this spring.
Sarah McKenzie, executive director of the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas, praises Nerdies’ smaller, more democratic learning environment.
“Public schools, even the great ones, can’t offer that degree of individualized and really technology-based instruction,” she said. Over the last two years, McKenzie has watched her own son Carter take classes and become more confident in himself by developing problem solving skills to a degree not possible had he tried to learn all his coding online in a virtual academy setting.
Fourteen-year-old Carter McKenzie has made such strides that since last summer his family no longer pays for his classes. He pays his way by working as a Nerdies instructor, often mentoring students his own age. It’s likely one day Carter too will serve as mentor in a “Mods for Minecraft” class, sitting in the same chair as Harvey, tending to his own students’ love of building entirely new worlds piece by piece.