Watch out, super villains.
The barrage of comic book blockbusters about run-of-the-mill kids who transform into superpower-wielding heroes has had a mighty effect on one Chicago-based laboratory, who is looking to create an army of young superheroes.
But forget about radioactive spiders, mutations, and vats of toxic waste. Galvanize Labs has something else in mind entirely. Instead of teleportation or telekinesis, Galvanize Labs wants to arm young people with a different cache of superpowers: coding and tech literacy.
In order to do so, they’ve introduced Taken Charge, a bundle of four browser-based games that introduce kids to technology.
“We wanted to start with a much more progressive learning model and do everything from hardware and software to operating systems and networking,” said Galvanize Labs president and CEO Moira Hardek. “If you’re going to give someone a skill like this, it’s like a superpower, and you’ve got to teach them to do good instead of evil.”
Hardek said the game and its successors stress digital citizenship, safety, and protection as users move progressively into educational gaming sessions about coding, 3D modeling, digital music and digital photography.
We sat down with Galvanize labs to to learn more about the mission of Taken Charge—and the mastermind behind it all.
Meeting the mastermind
Moira Hardek knows tech, and she knows how to teach tech to kids better than just about anyone.
She’s clocked in over ten years working for the corporate headquarters at Best Buy, where she spearheaded Geek Squad Summer Academy— a program to help get kids engaged with technology. During her tenure, she saw over 15,000 kids graduate the program and established more than 200 camps around the country.
That experience illuminated some problems with the way people go about training kids in tech. Hardek said that oftentimes, students are expected to jump right into coding without ever learning the basics. In short, kids were being overlooked.
“It was like teaching math and starting at long division, and completely skipping over addition and subtraction,” Hardek said.
After spending time with developers and working with kids trying to learn tech, she saw specific pain points—and a unique opportunity to fix them.
In 2013, she ditched Best Buy to create Galvanize Labs so that she could produce Taken Charge, the first and only ISTE accredited tech education video game in the world.
Teaching kids to take charge of tech
Taken Charge focuses on what Hardek calls ‘BC (before coding) education,’ or teaching kids the fundamentals of product technology before moving on to more advanced concepts, which Hardek is certain kids can completely grasp.
Kids are ostensibly tech-proficient, but Hardek said there is a sizable difference between being comfortable navigating a console and actually understanding the technology behind it.
“Just because my niece knows how to unlock a smartphone and watch her favorite video on YouTube doesn’t mean she’s going to be a software engineer,” she said.
With Taken Charge, Hardek hopes to bridge that gap. She and her team of about 11 full-time employees hope to “demystify” how technology works in order to get kids engaged with tech at progressively deeper levels.
The game series is targeted toward 3rd to 9th grade students— a 30 to 35 million strong market, even before counting high school students who could also benefit from the game.
“Coding is a tremendous skill,” Hardek said. “Kids at a really young age can completely grasp coding, but it’s frustrating watching how it’s introduced to these kids."
Chicago—Hardek’s own Gotham
Even though Hardek is a Chicago native, she considered a number of different markets when it came to founding her company.
“We talked with the Valley, and we heard a lot about the ‘Midwest mentality.’ I believe it was meant to be an insult,” she said. “But I was like, ‘Damn right, midwest mentality! I want to do this in Chicago.’“
Hardek moved back to the city and rallied some of her old colleagues from the Geek Squad Summer Academy to get to work here at home.
But the bootstrapped company sees something more in Chicago than just midwestern mentality.
They’re also committed to remaining accessible in an urban market. As more and more educational games go app-based, Taken Charge was developed in the Unity engine and is rolling out in the WebGL to make sure they are completely browser accessible for users who might not have a tablet or smartphone at home.
“For us, it’s all about users. It’s about access and getting in as many kids as we can,” said Hardek. “I’d love to put 50,000 kids on here—particularly here in Chicago. I really want to bring technology education more to the forefront here. Everybody talks about it—let’s actually do something about it.”
Taken Charge is the very first game to go to market on WebGL.