Creative Problem Solving through Computer Science

At Embark Labs, we believe computer science is the perfect frame through which we can empower kids to become creative problem solvers, starting at a very young age. (Even as young as first grade!) To test this theory, last month we brought twenty 1st-4th graders together at the Google Garage in Mountain View to introduce them to the fundamentals of computer science through our hands-on, collaborative program.

Day 3- Designing original projects to build using Scratch

 

Over the past several years the ‘coding for kids’ space has become increasingly crowded, and we are constantly asked what makes our program different from the various other tools, games and camps out there. We could spend time crafting a long, detailed blog post about our differentiated instruction and project-based learning approach…but we thought the parents who participated in our Spring Academy at Google captured it beautifully.

 

Learn Code for What? Keeping Students at the Center of the Coding Movement

Spring Academy- Google Garage

This post was first published by EdSurge for their Kids Coding Guide

With all the hype about teaching kids to code, we must be careful not to forget the core aspect of any education movement: the kids. Merely stating ‘all kids should learn to code’ without providing real-world context actually limits the appeal and impact of this movement.

We must encourage students to see there is more to computer science than coding, and more to coding than becoming a software developer. Clive Beale of the RaspberryPi Foundation articulated this sentiment perfectly when he stated, “we’re not trying to make everyone a computer scientist, but what we’re saying is, ‘this is how these things work, it’s good for everyone to understand the basics of how these things work. And by the way, you might be really good at it.’”

As with any content area, if students see the connection to the real world and a broader set of future outcomes they will be significantly more motivated. This concept is best captured in the learning theory of “intent participation,” where children learn effectively through collaborative participation and easily gain motivation when they understand the purpose of the activity.

So how can we as parents and educators create collaborative learning environments where kids can see the purpose behind why they are learning to code? Ideally CS education efforts would include students in the curriculum design and decision making process.

AustinGagnier

What Do Students Want?

Amplifying student voices in the ‘learn to code’ movement is essential, which is why I was so excited to learn about Austin Gagnier, the 12 year-old in Canada behind the #CSforStudents initiative. Even though his school did not offer any CS classes, he taught himself using online resources like W3Schools. Inspired by the desire to create a tool his classmates and teacher could use, Gagnier created “The Ultimate Classroom,” a website where students can post assignments and have their own pages for their work. “I liked working on the app because it was experimental, some things would work and some wouldn’t.” Gagnier says, “I’m thinking of making a report card app for online report cards.

To connect with a wider group of students and educators interested in teaching kids computer science, Gagnier created the Twitter chat, which convenes on Tuesdays at 4pm PT, after being motivated by the #CSK8 chat his teacher had participated in. With support from his teacher, Mrs. Aspinall, Gagnier joined Twitter in 2014.

He is tracking his own CS education journey on his blog and hopes more students will follow suit and play a more active role in their learning process. When asked what he’d like to see, he shared, “I wish that we learned computer languages during language class.”

Encouraging Experimentation

Most of the renewed interest and investment in K-12 CS education efforts have focused on online apps and games. Yet research shows that offline instruction and face-to-face interactions are critical to the success of any online tools. All this to say, we do not need more online schools and tools. We need to empower educators and allow students to explore in their classrooms and learning environments. “All kids should learn how to code,” claims Rhea Nair, a Bay Area 5th grader, “it just needs to be in the right way. I took a class once where the tool we used was very cool but the teacher didn’t know how to help us. Everyone had to create the same project and go at the same pace. It was pretty frustrating.”

Embark Explorer- Rhea Nair

Creating a culture of experimentation is vital to designing effective computer science programs for kids. To encourage young learners to drive their own learning, it is essential we ask them guiding questions, such as “What problem do you want to solve?” or “What project do you want to build?” Nair does not know exactly what she wants to create with her newfound coding skills but she knows she wants to help redesign everyday items. “I’d probably build something to save people time.” Encouraging Nair to connect her ability to code to real world applications is essential creating deeper learning outcomes.

At Embark Labs we encourage experimentation by giving students open-ended projects that they can continuously tweak as their learning progresses. We aim to broaden the conversation beyond just coding to focus on teaching kids computational and design thinking. Coding is one way to build things, and only one part of a larger process of identifying opportunities and helping kids become creative problem solvers.

By working with educators to design our courses around students creating their own original projects and apps, we find students are incredibly engaged during our courses and are increasingly interested in continuing their CS education. Most students are drawn towards creating animations, games and stories, and many of them continue to work on their projects after the course is over. Nair shares that, “I went back and looked at the first project I created and it was really weird but I learned a lot from the project. Now I know I can do more than that.”

A big part of any learning environment are the educators and students themselves. The modern ‘learn-to-code’ movement runs the risk of losing it’s meaning if we don’t stop and ask our students, and ourselves, what’s it all for?

Look, Ma! I’m on TV: Embark Labs on YouTube


With an overwhelming number of summer STEM/coding programs for kids, we often get asked, “What makes Embark Labs unique?”  Yet, once parents and students participate in our programs they inevitably say, “Wow! I’ve never seen computer science taught in this way.” So in an effort to share those ‘Wow!’ moments with a broader community, we recently launched the Embark Labs YouTube channel.

Subscribe to hear parent and student testimonials, and get a glimpse into what we mean by teaching kids computer science in a hands-on, engaging way.

Embark Labs: Popping Up in Menlo Park

umelabIn 2014 Embark Labs partnered with some of the top schools and tech companies on the peninsula to deliver our innovative computer science program to hundreds of kids and families. Now we are thrilled to have a place to call home (At least for the summer.)

This June Embark Labs will be partnering with UMe, a vibrant play space in Menlo Park, to launch our first learning lab. Taking inspiration from our own experience at the Google Garage and other creative spaces (such as the iLab at Nueva and the Bourne Lab at Castilleja), we will be transforming the upstairs space at UMe into an exciting creativity lab for our students.  (To share our process with this community, we will be documenting the transformation and posting tips on how to design spaces that foster creativity and collaboration for kids. More on that in the coming months.)

Between June 22nd- July 31st we will offer both our Explore CS and AppInnovators programs. (Full details are on our Summer Calendar –Enroll by March 31st to save up to $100.) If you know any kids who want to learn real programming skills from credentialed educators in a hands-on, engaging way, this is the program for them!

Please help us spread the word! Follow @EmbarkLabs on Twitter and Like Embark Labs on Facebook.

Exploring Computer Science After School

Don Callejon School

After operating successful Embark Labs pilots at Google and Cisco last year, I’m excited to expand our programs through our first school partnership at Don Callejon School in Santa Clara. The Embark Explorers program introduces students to the fundamentals of computer science through offline activities (games and puzzles) and then guides them to apply that learning using online programming environments (LightBot, Blockly, Scratch). During this semester long experience Brian Van Dyck and I will have the opportunity to work with a group of 3rd-5th graders from January thru May. Our program culminates in a community showcase where students present what they’ve learned and built during the course. (I cannot wait to see what our students create and will definitely share the projects and process with this community.)

Creating vibrant learning communities is core to our mission and model. Given Embark’s focus on deeper learning outcomes, we are excited to work with the same group of students over an extended period of time. While it is inspiring to see increased attention to teaching kids technical skills, Embark seeks to expand the conversation beyond just ‘learning to code,’  by placing emphasis on creative problem-solving and critical thinking skills. It is also exciting to see that this method of teaching CS appeals to a diverse community of students, leading to an organic 50/50 split of boys and girls in our course.

Special thanks to the parents behind the Don Callejon School Community Organization for helping introduce Embark to this community. Check out our winter newsletter to learn more about upcoming programs.

 

#FamilyHackDay- Moms and Kids Building Together

FamilyHackDay Group

We believe one of the most influential people who can inspire future innovators is the first teacher in their lives, their mom.  That’s why Embark Labs teamed up with MotherCoders, an SF-based nonprofit that runs a tech orientation program for moms, to host our first Family Innovation Day — an interactive workshop for moms and their kids to learn computational and design thinking together.

FamilyHackDay2

Embark Instructor Joleen Diaz debugging code with a student

Learning By Design

Inspiring moms to engage with technology in a way that’s fun and potentially career changing was an objective that was embedded throughout our event, with both of our lead instructors — Sulekha Nair and Joleen Diaz — being tech-focused mothers themselves. Teams began the day learning how to apply the design-thinking process to  design solutions to help each other save for something special.  Then the afternoon session introduced everyone to the Embark method of teaching computer science in an engaging, hands-on way. The day culminated with kids writing code themselves using Code.org’s popular new Frozen tutorial.

FamilyHackDay3

Building hats on as teams go through the design process to prototype their ideas

More Than Mommy & Me

Our main goal for the workshop was to create a learning experience where moms and their kids could design and build things together. Our participating moms expressed that finding meaningful opportunities where they can work side-by-side with their child is key. Further motivated by the MotherCoders mission of creating a more inclusive tech economy, we were thrilled to have been able to offer scholarships to 3 families to attend the all-day workshop at a discounted rate.

The event was fueled by the generosity of NerdWallet.  Beyond offering their fabulous working space, food and fun schwag, several members of the NerdWallet team spent the day mentoring the mom-kid pairs, sharing their expertise and personal stories of how they got into tech.

We can still feel the energy from this experimental first event and gained some useful insights on how we can create more authentic learning opportunities for moms and kids to build things together. Excited for what’s to come in 2015!

Design_Code_Build: Introducing Girls to the Past, Present and Future of Programming

It seems that every week there is a new app or startup trying to teach people how to code which makes sense given how often we hear that ‘coding is the new literacy.’ However, I find far fewer learning opportunities that aim to teach kids the fundamentals of computer science, which I believe are much more important than writing lines of code. Teaching critical thinking and creative problem solving skills through CS is the core of what we are building at Embark Labs. So when I heard that the Computer History Museum was addressing this challenge through their Design_Code_Build program I immediately wanted to learn more.

IMAG1673

With support from the Broadcom Foundation, CHM has impressively put together 4 events in 5 months, reaching 400 middle schoolers in the Bay Area. Their final event this year brought together over 50 girls from various local nonprofits, including Girls Innovate, NASA SEMAA CoderDojo, TechGYRLS and BlackGirlsCode.

The all-day event, designed in collaboration with Engineers4Tomorrow, centers around teaching kids how to ‘think in code.’ The participants break into teams and rotate between activities learning about the history of programming, modern techniques using a RaspberryPi and how to program each other in an outdoor maze.

One of the unique elements of the program are presentations from a ‘rockstar’ in the tech community. At this event the girls were lucky to hear from Shuchi Grover, a Research Scientist at SRI focused on CS education in K12, who shared her experiences from the tech world, including some videos from her Computing is Everywhere playlist. Shuchi offered some kid-friendly thoughts about how (and why) the students can get themselves on a path towards a future in which they are creators of technology that addresses the ideas and issues that they themselves are passionate about — rather than just being consumers of tech that others create. (CHM will post her talk on their own YouTube channel soon.)

IMAG1677

My favorite element was this photo wall with props that allowed girls to imagine themselves in a variety of STEM careers. This is just one of the many signs that a lot of thought went into the culture and energy they seek to cultivate through these learning experiences. The events this fall were a very successful experiment and I’m excited to see how they grow this program in the coming year.

Learning to Code without Computers

Encoding/Decoding

Teaching encoding and decoding using a deck of cards

Over the past couple weeks I’ve spent a significant amount of time reflecting on the results of our first coding camp at Cisco and figuring out how to incorporate those learnings into future events for Embark Labs. Our mission is to design engaging opportunities for elementary and middle school kids to learn creative problem solving and computational thinking skills. Our first couple events have been amazing (thanks to partners like Google and Cisco) and I’m excited by the massive need/opportunity for learning experiences like this. I’m also deeply energized (and sometimes overwhelmed!) by the many directions I could channel this growing momentum.

In designing our fall pilots there are some key components to our approach that really stand out in my mind. Mainly, our program does not believe in the common ‘copy and past’ method you see in many games and apps that strive to teach kids to code. Over 5 short days our attendees (which organically happened to be 85% girls) were challenged with creating their own original projects in Scratch. One of our core goals is to teach kids how to think and explore diverse solutions to solve a problem, so it was essential that they were not just duplicating existing projects.

In order to get them comfortable with actually coding on their own, we spent almost half of our time offline, teaching the kids fundamental computer science concepts through games and activities. Seems a bit counterintuitive for a coding camp, but the time spent offline was vital for cementing the concepts we were teaching and to allow the kids to authentically work together.

Lego communication game

One of my favorite activities was a partner-based Lego game that illustrated the importance of clear, efficient communication as well as teamwork and basic debugging principles. I believe this time spent learning the concepts behind how to code, without using the computer, is what creates enduring learning experiences for students.

I’m excited to continue coaching these students and reaching new ones through our fall pilot events. If you want a VIP pass to our next event or want to help us grow, join our community or follow us on Twitter @EmbarkLabs.

Summer of Scratch- Teaching Kids to Code

Last week, Embark Labs partnered with Cisco to introduce 15 young hackers to the fundamentals of computer science. Our extremely generous host captured the essence of our work in this post, however, I believe this video speaks for itself.

 

 

Beyond Your Basic Hackathon

#BeyondHacks Teams

Students preparing for final presentations

At first glance, the Beyond Hacks event this past weekend at Facebook looks like your typical hackathon. Groups of young hackers chatting and plugging away on projects surrounded by energizing music and pizza. (Lots of pizza.) However, when you take a look behind the scenes, you quickly realize it was a rather unique gathering. The entire event was organized by a group of high-schoolers from East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy as part of their participation in the BeyondZ Program.

BeyondZ, which sprouted from the social innovation efforts of Teach For America, was founded by Aimee Eubanks Davis and is currently piloting programs in Washington DC, New York, LA and the Bay Area. Eubanks Davis shared that her passion for this work comes from a deep motivation to,

“ensure our nation’s next set of leaders can emerge from anywhere.”

She went on to describe the vision behind their programs is to create a “suite of opportunities that a young person needs, beyond traditional academics, to take some of the pressure off of schools to do it all.”

FB Tour

Taking a break to tour the FB campus

Building more than Apps

The Bay Area program, lead by Miki Heller, focuses on in-depth leadership and coding curriculum. The students develop leadership skills and build their networks through learning how to code their own website, connecting with popular tech companies, and creating a student community that will hear from experts in the industry from across the country.

Organizing the hackathon was the perfect way to combine their new-found passion for coding with developing those leadership and communication skills. When brainstorming possible locations, one of the organizers, Jurgen Arvayo, felt the answer was right in their backyard. “We should do it at Facebook,” suggested Arvayo, who was inspired by his participation in the Facebook Academy program the previous summer.

Under guidance from Heller, as well as Leah Weiser and Aly Mejia, two Beyond Z volunteers from Stanford, the student organizers, Cristian Jiminez, Paulino Lopez and Carlos Garcia, secured the space, contacted local vendors to donate the food and recruited over 50 attendees.

Trio from Buchanan High School, Fresno

Trio from Buchanan High School, Fresno

Building Authentic Experiences

I was especially impressed by a trio who made the trek all the way from Fresno. Johnny Tiscareno, Rahul Bekal, and Rushil Mehra won honorable mention for building a snapchat-like website that allows you to take a photo and share it instantly even if you don’t have a smartphone. They had a sense of what to expect having made the similar drive to attend CodeDay in SF this past May.”We don’t have things like this back home. This event has been better since the group is smaller and we actually get more time with the mentors,” shared Mehra. Another female participant echoed similar feelings, saying that,

“the best part of these events is getting into small groups and working on something over a sustained period of time. The fact that we are at Facebook is just a bonus.”

A promising sentiment for schools and libraries that are trying to create a coding culture.

The projects were designed around real-world challenges. The winning team built a fully functioning app that lets you take a photo of a receipt, categorize it, and email it to someone for reimbursement purposes, while second place created a Chrome extension to enhance functionality for School Loop, a website that allows students to track their grades.

The Next Rev

Moving beyond the hackathon, most (but not all) of the EPAPA students will spend their summer honing their javascript skills through a free summer coding program, CodeCamp. In designing the vision for Embark Labs I am constantly thinking about how we can create authentic experiences for students to learn relevant tech skills beyond just a super-long Saturday here and there. Opportunities for students to not only participate, but lead as well, and weekend events like this illustrate how engaging this can be for students.

These experiences are essential because as Eubanks Davis captures so simply, “education as we know it is not enough.”
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The BeyondZ team would like to express special appreciation to Facebook for their generosity in hosting the event, the engineers who volunteered their time (particularly Brian Rosenthal) and for donating four Macbook Pros as the prizes for the winning team.

 

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