Silicon Beach veteran launches Zaniac to put kids on the path to STEM careers
By Christina Campodonico
Few people want to go back to school at age 45, but the classroom was the first place Tracy Williams wanted to go when she retired from her marketing job in the gaming industry.
Williams was halfway through the process of joining Teach for America when she was pitched an exciting idea.
While taking part in a panel about startups at the Techweek LA conference in Santa Monica two years ago, Williams discovered Zaniac, a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) afterschool program for K-8 students.
Even after a long career in tech working for such companies as Phoenix Technologies, Motorola and THQ, Williams had always wanted to be a teacher. She saw Zaniac as a way to combine her passions for teaching and technology.
“All my stars aligned,” Williams says of starting a Zaniac franchise in Santa Monica.
Zaniac Santa Monica, the first Zaniac franchise in California, opens on Tuesday, Feb. 9.
Its initial courses include computer programming and design, robotics, game modding (altering videogame content to perform different functions), chess, orbital mechanics, hardware tinkering and Zane Math, which is a customizable math education program for children.
Courses meet for six 90-minute sessions per week and cost between $279 and $399. Classrooms are equipped with high-tech tools such as iMacs and Android devices — there’s even a 3D printer — so that students can directly interface with the technologies they’re learning about.
Kid favorites like Legos and the computer game Minecraft are also used to demonstrate essential concepts. For instance, to learn about how a city disposes of and recycles its waste, a student might learn how to program a trash-collecting Lego machine or a recycling machine so that she can conceptualize how city planners manage trash in real life.
“Our whole concept is learn the concept, apply the concept,” Williams says.
The student to teacher ratio is also small: 5 to 1. Classes are taught by Zaniac-trained STEM high school and college students, whose combination of youth and expertise makes them strong mentors for Zaniac students, says Williams.
“We make it hands-on and personal. We want you to feel like you’re learning from your older brother, so you take it seriously,” she says.
Williams sees Zaniac as an opportunity to expose more children to STEM-related fields and open doors to career paths that require strong STEM education. She doesn’t think of Zaniac as a tech-industry fad or a replacement for traditional in-school math and science education — more like an educational supplement to answer a growing interest in STEM fields and an increasing need for STEM-educated workers.
“I think [Zaniac] is a great augment. I think we’re having a hard time in America teaching basics in our schools. Places like us can do the rest,” says Williams.
Williams also feels that Zaniac is a way to give back to Santa Monica and the larger Silicon Beach community, which has afforded her many opportunities throughout her career. In addition to running the franchise in Santa Monica, she hopes to host free seminars and demo workshops around the Westside.
“We don’t have to move to San Francisco,” she says. “We can have technology communities and give back right here.”
Zaniac Santa Monica launches with a grand opening celebration from 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 9, at 3201 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 101, Santa Monica. Call (424) 330-0008 or visit zaniaclearning.com.