Since 2009, Tiny Techz has been connecting youth to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education opportunities through K-8 curriculum, after-school programs, special camps and even birthday parties. Based in Columbia, South Carolina (two hours from one of the most important STEM universities for women, according to Forbes), it was founded out of a need for STEM, especially in the rural, impoverished communities around the state that lacked resources, opportunities or even perspective to encourage youth in these technical fields. In the past seven years, the company has grown from serving one rural school system in South Carolina to serving thousands of STEAM (STEM plus the arts) scholars from Kindergarten through 8th grade all across South Carolina and North Carolina. We talked to Chris Williams, the company’s cofounder, to find out more about this interesting venture.
Q: What can you tell us about the areas that Tiny Techz serves and why the work you’re doing in them is so important?
A: The areas are less fortunate. Technology is very limited and
Q: Why South Carolina? Did you grow up there?
A: I’m not originally from South Carolina. I attended the University of South Carolina. But in business you identify a niche and you start a platform around it. When we first started, we did what most startups do, cold call. Marion County, a rural area, was the first place to provide us a break. Since then, we’ve expanded to inner city areas, too.
Q: It’s no secret that minorities are under-represented in STEM fields. Is that a deterrent to someone like you or a student who might be interested in the field but who looks around and doesn’t see many familiar faces?
A: No, it is a motivation to continue to push harder and do what I’m passion about. Opportunities will always be there, it is about informing scholars about those opportunities. The main issue is knowing that we have a platform and how to use that platform to reach scholars who some may say could not be a video game developer, a graphic designer or engineer for a major corporation. We have to provide scholars the opportunity to think outside the box and not conform to the typical career pathways.
When you are trying to level the playing field, often STEM is not one of the first topics in most communities. If you look at industry trends, education is changing, careers are changing, but we are introducing it all too late. STEM has been around for years, but not a focus. Today if you visit an underserved area or school, you will not find STEM as a common denominator and therefore scholars are not being introduced to specialized areas like crash and safety engineering, ballistics engineering, video game development, 3-D printer repair.
A: Yes, we participate in those. We offer a program called STEM Mania similar to Maker Faire, and we have robotics programming, as well, but our only concern with that is most people stop there. They do not show the true STEM behind robotics and how to solve problems. They focus on just the coding aspects of it. Our focus is showing how robotics solves problems..
Q: What have been some of your biggest growing pains over the years?
A: Introducing a product to areas that are not familiar with true STEM and educating them on the meaning. And funding is always tricky. In 2009, we were a startup with no seed money or investment capital. We are a for-profit company so that means either we take on investors or acquire debt. We have been just working at the business to continue on the cutting edge and niche services.
Q: Where do you see Tiny Techz in five years?
A: We’re working to become a household brand in South Carolina. Helping grades K-8 educators understand the importance of integrating STEM into their classroom as well as outside the academic four walls. We are in the process of launching new programs, such as an after-school academy for minority girls. Our continued focus will be South Carolina and creating a major footprint in that area with the intentions of developing a stronger brand and company.