Seattle’s Foundry10 is a fascinating, enigmatic research organization that investigates learning and supports education through a crazy constellation of programs — which all makes sense when you learn who co-founded the effort.
Foundry10 helps kids practice and compete in hip hop. It supports an automotive program where high school students build award-winning electric drag racers.
The endeavor provides free virtual reality headsets and digital audio supplies to teachers and community groups internationally. It offers paid internships, mostly to high school students, to explore their passions in technology and the arts. The range of projects goes on, literally filling a giant whiteboard.
Housed in the former Brooks Running shoe lab on the north end of Lake Union, Foundry10 is co-founded and funded by billionaire Gabe Newell, president and co-founder of the gaming company Valve and an early Microsoft employee.
Bellevue-based Valve is a world-leader in video games and known for its unconventional, egalitarian management style that’s keen to empower employees to shape their own career paths while disinterested in tracking their vacation and sick days. A handbook for new employees describes it as: “A fearless adventure in knowing what to do when no one’s there telling you what to do.”
Foundry10 follows a similar blueprint.
The organization functions as a philanthropy, but instead of operating as a nonprofit, it’s an LLC, giving it more flexibility. It also has a “flat” management structure and employs people with diverse backgrounds and expertise.
Some have advanced degrees, others don’t.
There isn’t a set-in-stone 5-year plan to meet specific targets. Their goal, said Foundry10 co-founder and CEO Lisa Castaneda, is creating value for kids, supporting their learning and inspiring students and teachers.
“It’s such a unique opportunity,” she said, “to go out and do good things and make education better.”
The project launched 4 years ago. Castaneda was a teacher at The Evergreen School, a private school in Seattle, and had taught Newell’s children. She was finishing a master’s degree in education and interested in moving away from the classroom and into research.
Newell proposed they sit down for a conversation.
He told her, “’I think you do interesting things and I think you should do interesting things with learning, and I’ll fund it,’” Castaneda said. “He kind of gave the power to somebody who has a background in education.”
There’s no mention of Newell on the website. Castaneda said he helped set up the organization, but is largely hands off.
“He’s super supportive and willing to brainstorm, but he feels like it’s up to me what direction we go,” she said. “That is rare to have a funder who allows you to get into the community you’re working in and collaborate.”
Many of the group’s focal areas do, however, overlap with Newell’s interests, including VR, gaming and an exploration of successful works styles.
It’s the latest example of Newell quietly supporting projects he’s passionate about. He was previously revealed as the backer of a high-tech cooking startup called ChefSteps, based in Seattle’s Pike Place Market.
An important feature that sets Foundry10 apart, said Tom Swanson, who leads the group’s growth and outreach, is its focus on aligning projects with student-led interests — a bottom-up style reminiscent of Valve’s structure. While other organizations would begin by talking with principals and administrators when picking projects, Foundry10 often begins with students and teachers.
“We don’t really start a program unless we’ve talked to the kids and heard that it’s something they’re interested in doing,” Swanson said.
A group of 22 high school students is currently finishing their Foundry10 summer internships. The organization aims for a mix of arts and tech-focused projects, though this year ended up tech-heavy. The teens work with mentors who are experts in their project areas.
The students aren’t required to have prior experience in their topic. Rather, “we look for enthusiasm and passion,” Swanson said.
Both were on display during a recent tour of Foundry10.
“What we’re doing is centered around fighting apathy in the political process,” explained Vivek Natarajan, a sophomore at Skyline High School, located east of Seattle.
Along with Isa Lewis and Keya Roy, both sophomores at Issaquah High School, the trio are building an app to educate and connect those interested in politics, election candidates and legislation. They envision a clearinghouse of information as well as a space for dialogue. Their target audience is young people.
“It’s for the future voters and people who will shape our country in the future,” Natarajan said. “Even if they can’t vote currently, when they can vote, they’ll be at their most educated.”
Another team is trying to make cybersecurity issues accessible to the layperson. They’re building a website that explains the topic and steps for boosting website and other digital security.
Many of the interns are developing video games. One VR game puts the player on the deck of a fishing vessel where they need to sort desired fish from unwanted “bycatch” that are tossed back into the ocean, creating waste.
Beyond the entertainment value of the game, the student developers hope seafood consumers are inspired to learn more about sustainable fisheries, “to be conscious and make smarter choices that are less destructive,” said Peyton Lee, a senior at Bellevue’s Newport High School.
Another student, sophomore Praises Orji from Thomas Jefferson High School south of Seattle, is working on an app to help young people recognize and reduce their stress. Orji has a long commute including a Link light-rail train and the bus to get to Foundry10 each day, but she’s thrilled with the experience.
“This is such a great place,” Orji said. “I don’t think I’d have this interest in coding or be this excited to go to work if it wasn’t for this environment.”
The internships also include a research component for Foundry10. The students are interviewed multiple times during the process.
The researchers ask about the role of mentors in their work, their thoughts on self-directed learning, and the effects of more or less structure on their success — questions that tie into philosophies prized at Valve as well. Foundry10 researchers also interview the mentors to talk about the students’ growth and ability to collaborate.
Foundry10 also conducts research in local schools looking at VR and digital audio production.
One project asked kids to develop a video game and a traditional analogue, “table-top” game. The researchers found that the focus when creating a video game was about coding while students making an analogue game were more empathetic to the game’s users and focused on whether it was fun. A meeting with one school led to the creation of a kick-ball program that proved essential in building community. Many of the projects build from conversations and rough ideas.
“It’s organic, collaborative, word-of-mouth,” Castaneda said. “Kind of grass-rootsy.”
Foundry10 undergoes ethical reviews before doing research with students and freely shares the results of its studies on their website, Swanson said. “We do everything we can to make all of our data publicly available to anyone who asks for it.”
For the students participating in the internship, the technical and mentoring support, freedom to guide their own projects as well as financial support add up to an opportunity they can hardly believe possible.
“Holy cow, it’s so good,” said Noah Medina, an intern from Seattle’s Bush School, a private K-12. “It’s kind of surreal.”