Teaching to tech-savvy generation

Company sees bright future from roots in summer camps

NJBIZ STAFF//May 23, 2011//

Teaching to tech-savvy generation

Company sees bright future from roots in summer camps

NJBIZ STAFF//May 23, 2011//

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If it wasn’t for his 11-year-old daughter, Bill Zengel would have passed up an opportunity that led to him founding a company.

What started as one course taught by Zengel and school administrator Richard Ginn, grew into Black Rocket Productions, which teaches kids how to do everything from create fashion programs to design robotics.

“Children under the age of 15 are growing up in a world where everything they do is (mostly) digital media technology,” Ginn said. “So if you’re not teaching them from that approach, you’re not meeting them where they are (and) they’re not going to respond.”

The Freehold company offers after-school programs, but the majority of its work is summer camps for kids ages 7 to 17. Brookdale Community College has been a partner of Black Rocket’s since almost the beginning.

According to Linda Martin, Brookdale program administrator, the classes have been so successful that the college is looking at weaving Black Rocket’s values and teaching into a continuing education program focusing on technology and classroom management.

“We in the teaching role have to adjust what we do to the new reality of how kids learn and the tools that they are accustomed to using,” she said.
For Michelle Cohen’s children, classes with Black Rocket weren’t just for personal enjoyment, they’re shaping her sons’ futures. Both sons took what they learned from Black Rocket to get into Howell High School’s entertainment technology program, a specialized four-year program for high school students. Her eldest is going to Northeastern University in the fall to study interactive media and game design.

“Not only did the camps teach them something fun, but it sparked an interest and confidence in them to possibly (pursue) the technology path as a career,” Cohen said.

Next year marks the end of Black Rocket’s first expansion phase. In the last three years, it went from working in Monmouth County to all of New Jersey; it also has locations in New York, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. According to Ginn, the company is aiming to again expand its reach, and has been looking to draw the eyes of venture capital firms and angel investors.

“The single biggest thing that we learned in the last year is the importance of capital and cash flow,” Zengel said. “We have a very successful business model, but to go further, we need to get more money.”

Expansion also will mean more staff members, called Rocketeers. Last summer, Black Rocket employed 85 people. The teachers are either professional educators, like Ginn, or content experts, like Zengel.

That mix of staffers is one of the things that impresses Martin about the programs. Black Rocket is able to take technology experience and use it to teach almost any material, because of the experience the professional teachers have. And that’s one of the things that she wants to see in BCC’s Center for Teaching Excellence.

“I think this is part of the new world,” she said. “Kids have a different experience with technology. It’s woven into everything they do, which is very different from the generations before.

And one of those teachers is now 17-year-old Sarah Zengel, who has not only taught classes and written curricula for years, she has long-term growth plans for the company to see it as a national, if not global, company.

According to Ginn, Sarah Zengel eventually will take over the company, which was originally her dream. She’s currently in college taking business classes, and her father has big expectations for her.

“I think (Mark) Zuckerberg started when he was 20,” he said. “So she’s got three years on him.”