Learn. Link. Launch.



The Silicon Valley Education Foundation recently hosted their 5th annual #iHubPitchGames at Google. Through this home-grown version of an edtech accelerator, they have been iterating on the process of matching rising education startups with local schools to conduct ~3 month pilots, empowering teachers and students to provide direct and meaningful product feedback. In some ways this experience is a natural follow-on to more well established incubator programs, as several of the teams (Sown to Grow, Bird Brain, Peekapak and MathGames) are alumni of ImagineK12.

My favorite aspect of this event is the authentic focus on educator perspectives. School teams that applied for the fellowship were required to submit a ~60 sec video explaining how they believe technology can be used to improve a specific learning challenge they face in their classrooms. The event started off by sharing these videos to set the context for the 10 startups that then presented their products.

After watching the educator videos the entrepreneurs had 20 min to prepare a 2-minute pitch on how their products can address those learning challenges. The teams clearly knew how to present to an audience of educators, connecting their tools to the educators needs in the participating schools. After the pitch event, a subset of the companies are matched with more than 40 teachers selected from 11 districts across Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.  

While I haven’t had a chance to try out all the products, I was personally impressed with the project-based approach of Cashtivity (real world math challenges) and Cignition (neuroscience based math lessons). The flashiest software tool was clearly HSTRY (create interactive timelines), while MakersEmpire is helping schools unlock the power of their makerspaces.

The iHub program is one of the few structured opportunities for edtech startups to work directly with educators to get meaningful feedback during the early stages of product development. I’ll check back in with the teams in a couple months to see how the pilots are progressing.

The State of STEM Education in Silicon Valley

Under the warm sun shining through the San Jose City Hall Rotunda, the Silicon Valley Education Foundation convened a group of policy makers, educators, and business & community leaders to explore the “#StateOfSTEM: How to Fill Tomorrow’s Jobs.” The forum focused on advancing STEM education, to help our schools catch up to the innovation happening all around us.



San Jose Mayor, Sam Liccardo joined two local Superintendents and Tim Ritchie, the President of The Tech, for the first panel. The educators shared their school districts’ best practices in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and successful programs at their schools. The highlight from their comments was the idea of creating “city-wide learning labs,” that integrate schools, community-based organizations, parents and connected citizens. This notion of collective impact is not new and has shown early signs of success in other parts of the country.

The second panel included John York, Chairman/Co-owner, San Francisco 49ers, who is also the key supporter behind the 49ers STEM Leadership Institute. Through launching Embark Labs I’ve had the pleasure of working directly with that amazing team and students, helping them design a robust computer science program focused on creative problem solving through authentic projects.

Personally, I’ve taken a break from attending education events such as this, which often bring together very passionate and well-meaning citizens, yet rarely give audience members a chance to hear from educators and students directly. However, I was pleased to hear the conversations go beyond just STEM topics, to include structural reform issues such as teacher compensation, instructional time, credentialing challenges and much more.



Mike Kirst, President of California State Board of Education, recapped the event perfectly by saying,

“the State of STEM is in transition.”

As a passionate parent and concerned citizen, I’m sure many of you will agree with me that we wish those transitions were happening more quickly and reaching more students. However, the optimist in me is hopeful that our collective efforts are making a difference for students in our communities.

Coding with Kindergarten

Embark Labs is on a mission to inspire more K8 educators to bring computer science and computational thinking to their students. Back in December, we hosted a short workshop to show educators how they can take their students beyond the #HourOfCode.

One of our participants, Jenna Clarke, did just that by taking her kindergarten class on a coding adventure.

I attended the seminar, dreamt of coding, and the next day took what I learned and presented it to my class.

Stories like this not only make me smile but illustrate that with the right resources and support we can create truly engaging learning experiences for more kids. Thank you, Jenna!



Taking Educators Beyond HourOfCode


As many of you probably know, this week (Dec 7-13th) is Computer Science Education Week. Fueled by Code.org, students and teachers around the world are encouraged to participate in various HourOfCode activities.

Given our passion for empowering educators, we chose to commemorate HourOfCode by hosting a workshop for teachers and the feedback we received was inspiring.

It was fun to implement what I learned in my classroom the next day. The children enjoyed collaboratively working on the 3 x 3 grid prior to engaging in the Hour of Code (tutorials).
– 3rd grade teacher

In order to get more kids coding we must provide educators with resources and support to introduce computer science activities into their classrooms.

It would be great to see a more pedagogical approach to applying CS into the classroom. By scaffolding and integrating the subject into a unit based approach it would be a lot more effective for student learning and curriculum delivery. This currently is not really happening with anything I see out there right now.
– K8 educator
Embark Labs curriculum and workshops are designed directly in response to this feedback we hear over and over from educators. Our participants received this handout that highlights the free, web-based tools (such as Lightbot, Blockly & Scratch) that we use to reinforce math concepts.

If you know any K8 educators looking for professional development and support bringing computer science to their students, please introduce them to me.
And continue the #CSEdWeek celebrations with Embark Labs at our Adafest Family Festival at the Computer History Museum on Sun Dec 13th.


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 EmbarkLabs.com.

(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!