The Art of Teaching is the Art of Assisting Discovery

The incredibly inspiring story of Aydan Meydan, a teacher from Bosnia Herzegovina, and the winner of the first ever Inspiring Educator Award at the Google Science Fair. I was absolutely blown away by the students and projects at this year’s event, but the highlight was meeting Aydan. Her passion is infectious– Share this with a teacher that has ignited the passion in you.

Addressing the STEM Teacher Drought

VIP tour of the Computer History Museum

Embark Labs Teachers getting a VIP tour of the Computer History Museum

Recently, there are two topics circulating within the edtech community that I find interestingly at odds with each other.

The first is the announcement from the Mayor of New York City, the largest school district in the country, that all students beginning with elementary to high school will have access to computer science instruction within the next ten years. It’s an exciting and audacious goal, and one that I foresee many other regions/districts taking on in the coming months. (We have already seen similar declarations from Chicago and San Francisco.) While there are many challenges in implementing an initiative like this effectively, what stands out is the massive effort to prepare and support the number of educators needed to make this work.

The city (NYC) estimates that it will have to train close to 5,000 teachers to meet its pledge to provide the instruction at every level of schooling. Some might teach computer science exclusively, while others might be traditional elementary school teachers who will learn to incorporate it into the curriculum.

This leads directly into the other piece of news making the rounds on the edtech wire– we have a serious STEM teacher shortage. Earlier this month The Education Trust West released this detailed report on the Cracks and Disparities in California’s Math and Science Teacher Pipeline. While this report focused on CA, we know this is a problem facing many districts and states.

EdTrust-West Infographic

So, while many of us are excited by the prospect of better preparing our kids for the future by introducing them to computer science and coding, who exactly is going to teach them?

This challenge is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about while building Embark Labs. We began as a program for kids to learn computer science in a hands-on, project based approach. While we create vibrant learning experiences for kids from diverse backgrounds to learn together, we quickly realized that in order to bring this program to more students we have to work more closely with schools and educators. Through an amazing partnership with the CalStateTeach Teacher Preparation program we are able to train pre-service teachers on how to introduce computer science (and more so, computational thinking) in a project-based approach. By working with teachers as they are getting their credentials we demonstrate how to build a climate of inquiry and culture of collaboration within their classrooms on day one.

During this past summer we trained 20 teachers and are on track to more than double that next summer. While Embark Labs provides educators with a pedagogically sound curriculum for teaching kids computer science, our bigger focus is to instill a level of confidence in teachers, building on their existing classroom skills and ability to differentiate instruction.

I’m hopeful as we see more announcements like those from NYC, SF and Chicago, that we will also see more teacher preparation programs think strategically about how they are preparing teachers to meet the demands of the modern classroom.

Redefining Success: Most Likely to Succeed

Thank you Girls Innovate for hosting screenings of the documentary “Most Likely to Succeed” in the Bay Area. Everyone, not just edreform-minded folks, should see this film. They make a strong case for why our school system should move to project-based learning approach, by taking the viewer inside the culture and community at High Tech High School in San Diego.

Most Likely to Succeed Trailer from One Potato Productions on Vimeo.

I especially appreciate the call for parents to stop and ask themselves why they are pushing their kids to jump through all these hoops to get into a top college, which perpetuates the false reality that good college = good job.

We must all stop and ask ourselves what is it all for? What do we ultimately want for our children?

It is worth 2min to watch the trailer and hopefully you can find a viewing in your neighborhood.

Fewer Tools. More Teaching: A Practical Approach to Improving K12 CS Education

ExploreCS at Computer History Museum

ExploreCS course at the Computer History Museum

These days it seems like one of the most popular solutions to preparing kids for the future is teaching them to code. While we are bombarded with statistics about the gap between the number of computing jobs and qualified candidates, we do not have much visibility (ie. data)  into how schools are addressing this challenge.

To remedy this, in 2013 Google commissioned Gallup to research the state of computer science education at K-12 schools across the US. Last week they released their findings in the landscape study, Searching for Computer Science: Access and Barriers in US K12 Education. This report is part of Google for Education’s ongoing efforts to improve computer science instruction through research-based strategies.

Many media outlets covered the release of the results, choosing the fairly obvious headline that there is a disconnect between what parents want schools to teach and what schools actually teach. To anyone who has spent any time thinking about K12 curriculum, it is known that most of those decisions are driven by standardized tests, which don’t include CS. However, the real issue is that schools and teachers do not feel adequately prepared to teach computer science in an effective way.

Conflating Computer Science and Coding

First I must call out the common misconception that CS and coding are the same subject. While writing code is one aspect of computer science, there is much more to CS than coding. That said, it is not surprising to me that the report finds that,

“even in schools where computer science learning opportunities exist, the curriculum does not necessarily include programming/coding.”

My frustration with the modern ‘everyone should learn to code’ movement is the narrow focus on teaching kids to code, rather than computational thinking. Just focusing on coding misses the larger point that computer science as a whole can be an authentic and effective way to teach kids how to think and become creative problem-solvers. Simply copying and pasting lines of code or dragging blocks around a screen does not develop critical thinking skills.

Getting to the Root of the Problem

Amidst all the facts and findings, what struck me is that,

“Few principals and superintendents mention a lack of computer equipment and software as the main reason their schools do not offer computer science.”  

In software-centric Silicon Valley, it is easy for many to gloss over this point. But we shouldn’t. If most entrepreneurs abide by the mantra, “build something people want,” then anyone working on education products, especially related to instruction, should hear that schools are saying they do not want or need more software to solve this problem.

The real need (ie. opportunity) is finding qualified teachers and helping them effectively use all the tools we already have.

“Forty-two percent of principals and 73% of superintendents say that there are no teachers available at their schools/in their districts with the necessary skills to teach computer science. The inability to hire and/or train teachers to lead computer science classes also prevents many schools/districts from offering computer science;”

This is largely due to the reality that someone with a CS degree is not very likely to go into teaching. The data reinforces that CS education in K12 schools is a people and implementation problem, not a software problem.

The fact that many teachers do not feel supported is actually one of the factors that’s driving a broader, national teacher shortage. According to a recent Washington Post article, educators share that the main reasons they are leaving the industry are “low pay, insufficient classroom resources, and so many testing requirements and teaching guidelines that they feel they have no flexibility and too little authentic instructional time.” (Again with those darn testing requirements.)

Girls-Only ExploreCS in Menlo Park

Girls-Only ExploreCS course in Menlo Park

Authentic Instructional Time

Teaching computer science has the potential to create engaging learning experiences for both educators and students. This belief drives much of our thinking at Embark Labs. Our project-based approach to introducing students to computer science focuses on creating a culture of collaboration in the classroom. In addition to our innovative curriculum we provide educators with in-person professional development and on-going coaching so that they have the resources and support they need to teach CS effectively.

Through a growing partnership with the CalStateTeach Teacher Preparation Program we are equipping new educators with the curriculum and the confidence they need to teach computer science and coding to kids in a hands-on, project-based way.
To learn more about our programs, visit

(Thanks to Sharan Ghai for reading a draft of this post.)

Building the Future by Exploring the Past

ExploreCS at CHM

Explore CS at the Computer History Museum

And just like that, summer is over. As kids grab their backpacks and review bell schedules, we can feel the parents around us breathe a collective sigh of relief. At Embark Labs we love the buzz of back-to-school which just adds to the energy from our amazing summer courses. Over 8 weeks we explored computer science and built Android apps with ~150 kids, of which over 50% were girls and students from backgrounds underrepresented in CS. Given our deep passion for increasing diversity in the tech field, we have a growing scholarship program that allows us to work with students who otherwise would not have access to these dynamic learning experiences.

Punch card programming

Punch card programming

This summer we had the unique opportunity to partner with the Computer History Museum to offer two sessions of our Explore Computer Science course. This was the perfect collaboration given our emphasis on computational thinking and hands-on exploration. It was so powerful to introduce a concept and then provide students with the historical perspective and connect it to real people and companies. After our instructors introduced binary coding, students walked down into the galleries to see some of the original binary switches. And after we engaged students in an activity about encoding and decoding, they hand coded their own punch cards.

As we moved on to the design-thinking and project development process, students pushed their thinking to prototype creative solutions to real-world problems. This is just one video of the creativity and energy the students brought to this project.

We are thrilled to bring CS to life for our students in this way. If you want to see more, check out our photo gallery or YouTube videos.

As we continue our partnership with The Computer History Museum, and their inspiring education team, we will share more about future programs soon. (Maybe your child can join us next summer!)

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


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.


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?


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