Coffee Talk with Engineering for Kids: Bringing Their Educational Programs Online

We sat down with Mike Cavanaugh from Engineering for Kids to talk shop and see how they’ve adapted their offerings to keep the educational activities coming.

Helene Fleischer
Helene Fleischer
May 25, 2020 5 min read

Organizations in the education and afterschool space are needed today more than ever. With parents working from home, kids sheltering in place until the next school year – both groups will benefit from these organizations (albeit in very different ways!). The demand for educational programs and materials has not slowed down – in fact, they may have increased as parents are looking for ways to keep their kids stimulated and learning.

We sat down with Mike Cavanaugh from Engineering for Kids to talk shop and see how they’ve adapted their offerings to keep the educational activities coming. And how they’ve been working closely with their franchisees to keep their services going. Hearing about their experience (both good and bad), making sense of the pandemic and changing up their business model may be helpful for other organizations looking to support their students and their families in these times.

The process hasn’t been entirely smooth and pain-free, but each day gets easier and more streamlined (complete with a silver lining here and there!).

About Engineering for Kids

With their worldwide franchise locations, Engineering for Kids is all about helping elementary and middle school kids have fun in an educational way. By customizing scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematical activities that complement what kids are already learning in school.

About Our Interviewee: Mike Cavanaugh, VP of Operations

Mike has been working with EFK for 10 years, utilizing his marketing background to amplify the company brand and reach the community. Today, he works closely with franchisees to ensure their success in an operational capacity and beyond.

About Our Moderator

This discussion was moderated by our Marketing Manager, Caitlin Benn, in charge of all things go-to-market. Currently working from her apartment in Montreal and watching The Last Dance, the Michael Jordan mini-series on Netflix for a shelter-in-place sanctioned binge!

engineering for kids mike cavanaugh

CB: What have the common sentiments or reactions been with your staff, participants, and parents amidst all the COVID craziness?

MC: We take the livelihood of our franchisees very seriously, so we’re churning virtual programs out to help support them in these times. It’s been a learning curve for all of us, but the whole team has been working hard to effectively re-structure the business model -- from what we offer, to how we offer it, and to whom (e.g. shifting focus to a higher age bracket, because younger kids need more hands-on support or parental guidance).

“It’s been a mixed bag of reactions all around, but we’re working hard as a company to support our franchisees while we weather this together.”

CB: How/why did you decide it was time to take your classes online?

MC: We’ve certainly put a lot thought into different revenue streams over the years, from subscription boxes, to competitions, etc. This also included virtual classes, but the pandemic hitting really accelerated the process. The classes include a combination of pre-recorded and live -- at this point we have about 24 weeks of content that is fully virtual right now. There is value in both. Of course, live is closer to our traditional programs, but we’re allowing for some flexibility.

For live, we use video conferencing tools with Zoom, Join.me, and Hangouts. For pre-recording, some instructors have video cameras, but iPhones have been working great, too!

The franchisees in the network that use Amilia are still using the platform to manage registrations for both the recorded and live action classes. And Facebook is being used actively to advertise them! We've seen a huge uptick with people at home and spending more time online, consuming ads.

CB: How did you prepare your students, parents, and staff for the transition?

MC: It’s been an interesting transition to say the least, but all the schools across North America started jumping online immediately, so parents and kids were already used to the technological set up as we onboarded them.

We’ve also made sure to educate parents on the process overall – with scripted emails and resources to explain how the program works, what they can expect, where they need to login, and what to do to ask questions.

CB: Have you found any benefits from running your classes virtually that you weren’t expecting? Any pleasant surprises?

MC: We were surprised at the level of outcry that we experienced for our classes. Of course, figuring out how to push the classes online quickly was an all-in effort – and it continues to be!

One of our locations in California was already halfway through a 6-week electrical engineering course when the lockdown happened. It was a huge effort, but we were able to build out the rest of the course and put it online in a few weeks.

We’ve seen parents willing to go as far as cutting extension cords to tinker with the electrical components and get wires, so kids can do the projects.

“It’s been really validating to see how committed parents are to help get things together so the classes can go on. They’ve been incredibly willing to bend.”

There are some of our programs that require hands-on materials, so we’re looking at distribution strategies for supplying – like producing and shipping out kits (of the necessary materials) and/or leasing out equipment. Sanitized, of course! Stay tuned...

CB: Have you noticed changes in students’ level of motivation as the weeks have been going on? If so, how are you trying to keep interest levels up?

MC: We were pleased to see that, right away, we had a lot of early adopters getting onboard with the programs immediately. Now, there’s a new wave of parents that are realizing how long the pandemic will impact their kids’ activities, so they’re looking at options like EFK’s offerings.

“Education is typically something that parents prioritize, even in frugal times. So, demand is certainly still there.”

Parents are hungry for the material, and definitely want to keep their kids stimulated. They also want to free up some of their time too!

CB: Do you think COVID will have a lasting impact on afterschool / education organizations like yourselves? If so, what do you think those changes will be when things finally go back to ‘normal’?

MC: When schools start opening back up and kids are attending, we will be able to fall back into our normal operations, i.e. afterschool hands-on programs. Perhaps class sizes will be smaller if there is a requirement, but we’ll be able to adapt. We are keeping a close eye on what regulations are being put forth for schools, because we’ll follow a similar trajectory.

As an organization, I hope that the future is a hybrid of what we are doing now and what we did before. By broadening our offering to also include online classes, I think there is a real opportunity to reach even more kids down the line when things do go back to ‘normal’.

CB: Other than offering virtual classes, are there any other creative ways you’ve used Amilia to try and generate revenue in light of the current circumstances?

MC: We’re exploring the opportunity to do 1:1 tutoring sessions for kids. We can use the payment processing and the private lessons module in Amilia for that!

Like most organizations, we’re also looking at the process for providing credits for cancelations for a future time.

CB: Is your entire team working together remotely? Any WFH tips you can share that have been working really well for you? For your team?

MC: Our whole team is remote right now. To stay connected, we make sure to meet frequently and keep communications open by disseminating information as quickly as we can.

“My kids were just playing tag and running down the hall while we were having this conversation! Thank goodness for the mute button.”

We need to be mindful that, if we have kids at home during this time, that the experience is different for our coworkers with and without family. But, overall, the increased face time with the kids has been really good. We’ll look back on this with them like; “Remember that time we had to stay at home for an entire month?”. It’s one for the history books!

CB: If you could start again, what advice would you give yourself or to other people who are thinking of bringing classes virtual?

MC: Knowing what I know now about the status of lockdown, I’d start earlier by sending out sanitized supplies and educational materials.

But I think that it’s tough to respond to this question – because things change day-to-day right now. I would probably try to keep our class subject matter more general, so it can be used more cross-platform.

“Despite the challenges, I am proud of the quality of our curriculum and think kids get a lot of value out of it!”

CB: Knowing things can get a bit lonely with all this social distancing… What have you been doing to keep your spirits up? Any advice for people in terms of keeping their mental health in a good place?

MC: I know I’m not alone in the day-to-day shift in my feelings about the situation. Some days are better than others. Some States are more optimistic than others, which has been interesting to see, too.

To keep busy, we’re gardening and doing projects around the house. I built my kids a brand-new jungle gym, which was a big project! We also bought new bikes to make sure we get some outside time.

“This is all different and all new for us. For us, for our franchisees, for the parents, and the kids.”

MC: Our Founder and CEO, Dori Roberts, is very connected with the community and she’s been openly communicating with people from all over: jumping on webinars, and making sure people are socializing and learning from each other. That’s been an effective way to keep our mental state healthy and feel unified with others.


Summary for readers with a busy schedule!

  • Working swiftly is the name of the game to get courses online in one way or another, so the curriculum isn’t interrupted! Linking up with the team in an all-hands-on-deck workflow is what enabled EFK to get things moving quickly.
  • Communicate with parents, franchisees, and internal team to keep morale up and to keep everyone informed. EFK is working extremely hard to bring their curriculum online and part of making that happen is getting everyone is on the same page.
  • Combination of live-action and pre-recorded courses is what’s worked best for everyone so far -- using whatever tech is available out there to make it happen! The different formats make the programs flexible for franchisees and for kids.
  • The tech tools franchisees are using to make it happen. They’ve been using tools like Zoom, Join.me, and Hangouts for live sessions and video cameras and smartphones to pre-record courses. They’re also using Amilia to set up programs, registrations, and payments.
  • Education is a key priority for parents, rain or shine. Many will be face tough economic times, which will have an impact on household spending. But education is often one of the last things to be cut, especially in families with small children!
  • Online and offline education channels need to co-exist moving forward. This situation has brought on an opportunity to change the way we reach new audiences. The world is changing and adapting -- proving that a hybrid method of online and offline courses is indeed possible. Being prepared for it will better position educators for tomorrow.