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.

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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.)

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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.”
—–
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.

 

Cultivating Young Coders

ScratchDay Group

Scratch Day at the Google Garage

Amidst the coding-in-the-classroom craze I think many of the conversations miss the role that learning communities play in cultivating young coders. At Embark Labs we believe students need more than just exposure to computer science content in order to truly become excited about STEM concepts. This belief guides our mission to build a network of dynamic learning spaces where students can learn relevant tech skills in an engaging way, with passionate educators and mentors guiding their process.

This past Saturday we held our first pilot workshop to begin building this community and prototyping our teaching practices. We designed this event around Scratch (a free, visual programming language) as part of the larger global Scratch Day initiative from MIT. We were thrilled to partner with Google and host this workshop at the Google Garage, a collaborative workspace that embodies many of the design principles we aspire to implement in our spaces.

At the Heart from the Start

At Embark Labs, students are at the heart of our work and drive our mission forward. One of our core values is to create a student-centered community where students can teach and learn from each other. The workshop was designed for beginners, with participants ranging in age from 5-13 years old, so it was incredibly important to personalize the instruction as much as possible.

As students arrived they received a simple handout that introduced the basics of Scratch and they were encouraged to begin exploring on their own. Then our two energetic facilitators, Rafael Cosman and Shadi Barhoumi, took over and guided the students through basic programming principles and shared some beginner-level projects. Once students had the basics down they were encouraged to go off and build their own projects, such as Pong or MadLibs. This is an example of the project one of our 8 year old attendees created.

Cosman and Barhoumi, both CS undergrads at Stanford, are the founders of CodeCamp, a free summer coding bootcamp in East Palo Alto, and have a true gift for working with young hackers.

Students learning Scratch

Students learning Scratch

In addition to our two facilitators we had several mentors (half of which were students themselves) coaching participants as they completed their projects. It was amazing to see how engaged the students were, many of them choosing to continue coding rather than taking a longer snack break. Parents were equally excited and many were already asking about the next workshop. One parent captured our intent perfectly, sharing that,

“we have tried to introduce some coding apps at home, but it’s so different when they are all working on something together.”

The response to this pilot workshop was overwhelming and we are excited to channel that feedback and energy into future sessions! (More details coming soon.) We are just getting started so if you want to learn more, please join our community and follow us on Twitter to get updates on upcoming events.

(Re)Making Learning: Creating a Space for Young Makers

Many educators are looking for tactical ways to bring the buzz of the maker movement to their schools and classrooms. In an effort to support educators and open-source the implementation process, here is a glimpse inside how one community in the Bay Area is redesigning their learning spaces.

LosRobles Makerspace

Robert Pronovost, STEM Coordinator for Ravenswood City School District in EPA is bringing the maker movement to life through the Ravenswood Makerspace Collaborative.  In partnership with Mario Cuellar, After School STEM Coordinator, and with support from his district, Pronovost transformed a portable at the back of a school into a vibrant and engaging space for students to tinker and explore hands-on learning opportunities.

Prototyping a Pilot

This video depicts early user testing Pronovost conducted to get a sense of what the students were most interested in and how best to design the space and curriculum around those interests. In keeping with the open-source ethos, Pronovost shares much of the reading and research he conducted to fuel his efforts and adds that “‘Invent To Learn‘ by Sylvia Martinez & Gary Stager, Ph.D. is a must read.” The curriculum which serves TK-8th graders currently focuses on three main areas; coding, making and robotics, which clearly have overlapping activities and learning goals. Pronovost then adds a layer of design thinking concepts across these three content areas, introducing kids to empathy building, rapid prototyping and user-centered design. For a deeper look into this process he has documented details of designing the space and curriculum on his own blog, ElementaryEdtech.

The space is equipped with a couple 3D printers, a laser cutter, several chromebooks and a set of BeeBots. Add in carts with the standard prototyping materials (post-its, pipe cleaners, etc) and you’re ready to go. Maintaining materials is a work-in-progress and he shares a list of other tools/materials they would love to get donated.

During this pilot period students are free to tinker in the space during recess and after-school time, however, as this initiative secures more funding the plan is to hire a full-time instructor and expand the content offering.

Robert w/Kids

Next Up

What began as a pilot at Los Robles Magnet Academy this past January will scale to the 7 other schools in the district this fall. In addition to expanding the sites, the goal is to broaden the content offering to include all students and not just those that currently choose to attend. In exploring models from other schools, Pronovost is considering a 4-6 week ‘Intro to STEM’ course that all 4th and 5th graders would rotate through.

Beyond serving EPA, the Ravenswood Makerspace Collaborative was recently selected to join the small and prestigious group of makerspaces in Stanfords’s FabLab@School network. In participating in this program they will likely collaborate with students at another makerspace in Russia or Thailand.

To further engage the local community and share learnings from this early pilot, Pronovost will be hosting an Open Make Day in May. (Details are still TBD.) If you’re interested in learning more about building a makerspace in your community, a good place to start is requesting a free copy (downloadable pdf) of the Makerspace Playbook.

 

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