A recent Forbes magazine article asked whether Asheville could be “an emerging Silicon Valley.” And while some locals might wonder where the jobs that one might expect to come with such a claim are to be found, there’s little debate about the importance of getting young students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — commonly referred to as STEM — education to foster a brighter future both for them and for this city.
That’s the driving force behind an innovative learning center that’s coming to Asheville. On April 19, Zaniac Asheville, an immersive STEM facility offering after-school programs, summer camps and educational support for students, will hold a grand opening celebration at 1 Town Square Blvd. in Biltmore Park.
Using “game-based learning” featuring popular video games like Minecraft; an interactive, hands-on learning environment; and passionate young instructors, Zaniac aims to break down traditional stereotypes about STEM learning and foster a curriculum and atmosphere that excites, engages and, most importantly, delivers results to students and the wider community.
Franchise owner Reed Bilbray moved here from Dallas with his family six years ago, attracted by the area’s economic potential. “We saw the incubation of a lot of really forward-thinking, technology-focused businesses and people migrating here,” he says.
Last year, Bilbray and his wife decided it was time to get directly involved in helping realize that potential. “We set down three criteria,” he recalls. “One is our passion for children. Two is our desire to provide a good education to our two girls, and three is wanting them to understand and be part of this community.”
With that in mind, Bilbray reached out to longtime friend and business partner Paul Zane Pilzer, co-founder of Zaniac. Established in 2011 in Park City, Utah, the chain currently has 10 franchises in eight states. “We wanted to create a program that was a little more substantive for students, keep them engaged and increase the lifetime value of the lessons,” says company co-founder and CEO Sidharth Oberoi. “We have over 17 technology courses, from computer programming to 3-D printing and fashion design.”
Inspired by Zaniac’s mission and education model, Bilbray bought the local franchise rights. To help develop the Asheville campus, he brought in an array of educators and other residents, including Lynne Porter, Nancy Duggan, Colin Robertson, Dana Harris, Patricia Page and former Henderson County Public Schools Superintendent Stephen Page.
“Kids don’t realize that they’re learning: They might think they’re just throwing a cube around, but we’re teaching them about the dynamics of the architectural design, about Newton’s Law,” says Porter, Zaniac Asheville’s educational director.
Born in Britain, Porter worked as an educator in Barcelona, Spain, for many years. That experience, she says, helped her recognize a common theme among global educational systems: “Kids, from a very young age, are labeled as ‘smart’ or ‘shy’ or ‘not a math kid. The whole idea of Zaniac is breaking down those barriers. We all have a passion and driving force; it’s how we, as educators, bring that out in kids to inspire them to be the best they can be.”
Zaniac offers several curricula for students from kindergarten through eighth grade, including courses in math, robotics, app creation and even space exploration. An after-school program offers 90 minutes of instruction per week; weekly summer camps range from 15 to 35 classroom hours. Courses cost anywhere from $149 to $349 each.
Zaniac’s curriculum, says Porter, also helps students develop “soft-skill elements” like collaboration, teamwork, brainstorming and critical thinking, giving them “the confidence to make a mistake and learn from it. That’s how we get better.”
Instructors are often high school or college students with an interest or background in STEM learning, enabling them to serve as both teacher and mentor. “It’s really powerful to have a near peer there to be a role model they can look up to, particularly with girls,” notes Oberoi.
At the same time, the instructors gain valuable experience that can help them puruse their own career paths, adds Porter. “For those kids applying to colleges, to have experience with STEM education on their résumé is huge.”
In addition to the standard courses, Zaniac Asheville offers several support programs for students. Any child can get a free math assessment that their parents can take back to the student’s teachers or tutors. And the Edison Club, an after-school program, helps students with their homework while providing a safe, supervised space in which they can explore the campus’s various offerings independently, without the kind of guidance the courses provide.
Lessons from space
On April 19, the learning center is hosting retired astronaut John Herrington, the first Native American to fly in space. After a chance encounter with Herrington at Cape Canaveral, Porter says he was eager to get involved with promoting the sciences in the Asheville area.
“He asked what else can he do to help promote STEM within the community, aside from Zaniac,” Porter recalls. “He wanted to interact with actual students.”
Accordingly, Zaniac arranged to have Herrington speak to 700 students at Charles T. Koontz Intermediate School that morning. He’ll also be the keynote speaker for 25 to 60 educators attending a STEM educational symposium that afternoon. Zaniac will hold an open house April 20-23, giving parents and educators a chance to tour the new facility.
“While we’re obviously excited about the grand opening, we’re more excited and motivated by what our opening is going to bring to the community,” says Bilbray. “We consider this both our gift to the community and our obligation as citizens and business owners, to find ways to connect and add value that enriches everyone.”
Investing in the community
While workers put the finishing touches on the Zaniac Asheville facility, administrators are busy interviewing potential instructors and fielding a steady volume of inquiries. “We’ve generated interest from over 200 families just in the last three weeks,” Bilbray says excitedly. Following an intensive three-day training for instructors, after-school classes will start April 25, and summer camps will begin June 13.
Eventually, he and Porter hope to expand the age group they serve. In the meantime, they’re forging connections with other local summer camps, youth groups and clubs, as well as schools and the homeschooling community, to bring Zaniac’s resources to as many students as possible. “We have over $300,000 invested in our facility,” Bilbray reveals. “These are resources that, quite frankly, a typical family or school can’t replicate. We consider it our duty and obligation to make our investment of technical resources available to as many groups as possible.”
Bilbray also understands that many local families might not be able to afford Zaniac’s offerings. “With approximately 56 percent of Asheville area public school students on free or reduced lunch, we are highly aware of and sensitive to the challenges some parents might face when deciding on additional learning, enrichment and athletic opportunities for their children,” he says. “We’re committed to helping those students when and where we can, whether directly through course discounts or scholarships, working with our local schools, churches, youth groups and community organizations to facilitate field trips to our campus, or bringing our courses to them.”
But students aren’t the only ones who can benefit from having an innovative STEM center in Asheville, says Porter. “I’ve actually been approached by a real estate agent here, saying what a wonderful addition this is to the community and how it can be beneficial to them in attracting families and businesses.”
Shifting the paradigm
By encouraging students to get excited about STEM education, Bilbray hopes Zaniac can foster the growing local tech movement. “The more we can invest our resources and train our children in science, technology and math, the more higher-paying jobs there will be, so our children can continue to live here.”
He points to the substantial amounts of money designated for STEM programs in the Connect NC bond initiative as proof of the promise that this kind of education holds for the region. “The people who are living here, the businesses incubating here, what The Collider is doing, what A-B Tech, Western Carolina University and UNC Asheville are offering: We are the sweet spot for North Carolina.”
Oberoi agrees, saying STEM is the way of the future for both job growth and education. “We’re trying to shift the paradigm to get kids involved in creating the technology that others are using, rather than just being another consumer,” he explains. “Having that ability to inspire kids at a younger age and give them that exposure enables them to make more informed decisions, so they aren’t deterred when they get to college.”
Zaniac Asheville’s administrators are excited to carry that philosophy to WNC, says Bilbray. “We feel we have a social responsibility to be part of this area’s educational community and offer kids and parents more options, in addition to what they already get in school. With the passion and positive feedback we’re getting from so many people already, we’re quite excited about our prospects.”