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.

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