As a veteran management consultant, Fran Maxwell noticed a shortage of employees with technology skills. For many of his past clients — Fortune 1000 companies that yearned to fix their problems — the issue was coding.
But the Scottsdale entrepreneur has 9-year-old son Braeden to thank for his latest venture, iCode Kids, a private educational service that teaches technical skills like game design, coding and robotics to children in grades K-8.
“He asked me if he could learn about (coding). That’s when I got the idea,” said Maxwell, who launched iCode Kids last year.
Maxwell started by offering one class, which drew 15 students. He was taken aback by the demand and quickly launched more. Today, there are six classes that are held in the afternoon and evenings throughout the school year. There are also summer camps that combine coding and robotics. More than 500 students have enrolled in iCode Kids since its inception, Maxwell said.
Weekly classes are 75 to 90 minutes long and extend over an eight- to 10-week period, where students work on various projects. These cost $249 to $279.
Maxwell partners with schools and municipalities to put on the classes. As a result, the afternoon sessions are available to students who attend that school only. But evening classes are open to the public.
Summer camps are one week long and consist of daily four-hour sessions. Tuition for summer camps is $319 to $349. These are also open to the public.
Tech lessons with a social-responsibility theme
Gearing lessons toward what’s appropriate for certain age groups and maturity levels is part of the curriculum. For example, the K-2 classes use Scratch Junior, a program that is visually based rather than syntax-based. One lesson may involve a main character who is being bullied; students create a story and project around that storyline that involve repercussions and actions, Maxwell explained.
“Instructors bring in that social aspect that helps them teach,” he said.
That social-responsibility theme continues into the older grades. Starting at the fifth-grade level, students are introduced to not only more sophisticated programs but also themes that emphasize internet safety. A social-media etiquette component touts how to deal with what happens if they don’t gain as many followers as a peer or if their post or photo doesn’t garner a “like.”
“Kids put a lot of meaning into this. We let them know that not everyone is going to like everything they put out there, but it doesn’t mean you aren’t popular or not a good person,” he said.
It also touches on online gaming and making sure students are thoughtful about the kind of personal information they reveal on these sites, Maxwell said. This includes exercises that get students to practice a cooling-down period before they post or react on social media.
“It’s not like when we were kids and you made a mistake and people didn’t know or forgot about it. Now, kids know about your mistakes through social media, so they need to be thoughtful about how they post and what they post,” he said.
Getting the basics down and growing from there
Having tech skills is a lucrative asset. Tech-industry workers earn an average wage of $105,400, 104 percent more than the U.S. average private-sector wage, according to the Computing Technology Industry Association. Spending on worldwide information technology is projected to reach $2.3 billion this year and $2.5 billion by 2019, according to the market research firm International Data Corporation.
Yet, according to Glassdoor, there were approximately 263,000 unfilled IT jobs posted by U.S. employers as of December 2016, worth a total of $20.1 billion.
Dave Delvecchio’s son’s dream of having one of those jobs as a creator of video games is what led Delvecchio to iCode Kids. His son Bruno, 10, has taken three classes and plans on taking more.
Delvecchio, of Peoria, said Bruno has put together some of his own games and is learning to be more savvy on the computer overall. Delvecchio has noticed how more advanced Bruno is than his peers and sees him teaching them new things. He credited iCode’s personal attention.
“They really pay attention. It’s more personalized. He gets his questions answered and gets one-on-one help,” said Delvecchio.
Seeing his son’s face after a class, however, is what’s rewarding for Delvecchio.
“I just love when he gets in the car when I pick him up, seeing that smile on his face. He’s doing something he really enjoys,” he said. “What iCode Kids is doing is making these kids feel special and showing them skills they can use in the future, which is huge.”
Maxwell, who still works in management consulting, said that a number of students enter with the expectation of developing the next Mario Kart or Minecraft. But iCode aims to broaden those aspirations by letting students see they are capable of more than authoring the next “it” game or gaming software.
Sometimes, students want to jump ahead. But instructors make sure they stick to the program.
“We need to do our job of educating parents and students around setting expectations on what they’re going to get out of the program. You need certain basic foundational skills,” he said.
In these times, most iCode parents feel it’s crucial for their children to have a healthy understanding of technology, a subset of STEM that does not get a lot — if any — time in the traditional public school classroom.
“Our parents want our kids to have a leg up on the others. Our education system is not designed to be quick and innovative. A private company like ours is designed to be unique,” Maxwell said. “Our commitment is to our students and to continue to enhance and evolve our curriculum.”
Where: 515 E. Grant St., Phoenix
Interesting stat: The U.S. tech industry accounts for 7.1 percent of the overall GDP and 11.6 percent of total private sector payroll, according to the Computing Technology Industry Association.
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