The Coding Generation: Increasing Diversity in Tech

Back in April, Eliza Ross, a junior at Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, CA reached out to me about a project to create a documentary about pop culture in the Bay Area. Given all the buzz around increasing diversity in the tech industry, Ross and her team decided to narrow their focus to women and girls in computer science. While countless people have covered this topic in a variety of ways, I am deeply impressed with the quality and thoughtfulness of their final product: The Coding Generation.

I hope you’ll enjoy this short film as much as I did and share with a young woman in your life!

Power to the Teacher

Amidst our current obsession with online learning it is important to remember that a good teacher can have a tremendous impact on student learning outcomes. Renowned education economist Eric Hanushek puts it best that,

the initiatives we have emphasized in policy discussions—class-size reduction, curriculum revamping, reorganization of school schedule, investment in technology—all fall far short of the impact that good teachers can have in the classroom.

We are lucky to have not only a good teacher, but arguably one of the best K12 computer science teachers in the state, Brian Van Dyck, on our founding team at Embark Labs.

Brian in action at our Google Spring Academy

Brian in action at our Google Spring Academy

I have learned so much from working with Brian and am constantly impressed by the energy he creates in any learning environment. And I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who has recognized this. In the past few weeks Brian has been featured in a couple articles that provide a glimpse into his teaching philosophy and the unique approach we are creating at Embark Labs.

InMenlo, a local Bay Area publication captured Brian’s 20+ year history working in this area while the Code-To-Learn Foundation wrote a fantastic profile on how he uses Scratch in innovative ways to teach kids coding and computer science.

We don’t need a special ‘appreciation’ day to celebrate the educators that inspire our children every day. As the school year comes to a close, this is as good a time as any to share your appreciation for someone who has impacted your child’s learning journey. My gratitude goes out to Brian Van Dyck.

(If you’d like to experience Brian’s magical teaching, there are a few spaces and scholarships still available for Embark Labs summer programs in Mountain View and Menlo Park. Enroll today!)

Inspiring Girls to Pursue Computer Science

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Future Self Project by 2nd grader

We constantly hear about the lack of diversity in the tech industry and are bombarded with stats about how few women and minorities are pursuing CS degrees. We started Embark Labs to not only combat that trend, but to inspire kids as young as 7 years old to explore computer science in a fun and meaningful way. If we are to really improve learning outcomes for students we must start early and provide guidance for kids to express themselves and become creative problem solvers through building things. Fred Wilson, a well-known VC and vocal advocate for CS education in New York City captures this well when he said,

We need to invest in STEM (or STEAM) programs that work in the K-12 system…from elementary school, through middle school, into high school, and we need to guide these young people to a pathway that can give them challenging work and a good income throughout their careers.

While most educators despise tests we really value authentic assessment that demonstrates student learning and mindset shifts. So naturally it made my day when a mother of an alumna of our Spring Academy shared the results of her 2nd grader’s ‘What do you want to be when you grow up’ project that she did at school. (I prefer calling this the ‘Future-Self’ project for many reasons, but I digress…)

It is amazing to see this 7 year old reflect on her experience at Embark Labs, mentioning real CS concepts like position, orientation and loops. (Take 30 seconds to read her report because it will bring a smile to your face.) Her mom goes on to share,

Your program has definitely left its mark in a most positive way, thank you so much for the work you do to bring this type of education to kids of this age.

We believe real education change happens one student at a time and creating transformational experiences like this have a truly lasting impact. While current employment stats may be bleak, feedback from our community shows us the future is bright!

(A few remaining spaces and scholarships are available for Embark Labs summer programs in Mountain View and Menlo Park. Enroll today!)

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.)

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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.

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