#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.

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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.

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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!

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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

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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

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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.”

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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.”
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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

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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.

Hacking the Future

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Getting ready for the final round of judging

Inside the High School Hackathon Scene 

My ongoing exploration of coding opportunities for kids led me to the HighSchoolHacks event this past weekend at PayPal HQ.  I felt this invigorating energy as soon as I walked in and to some it probably represented the ideal high school of the future. Beyond the space itself, the organizers clearly have a strong grasp of how setting the right tone and expectations is an important aspect of building a healthy hacker community.

Having supported #HackLynbrook, a student-organized hackathon at a local high school, I had a general sense of what to expect, however, this event blew me away.  According to HSHacks Founder, Shrav Mehta, there were over 1000 students present throughout the course of the weekend, with 550 staying overnight and 150 teams presenting their projects. (You can read about some of the specific hacks in this post from VentureBeat.) Between the impressive list of sponsors and judges (including usual suspects Pearson and Amplify) there was no shortage of support for this event.

One of the judges captured the essence of the event perfectly, telling the room full of students that “you’re challenging  teachers to do more and I’m taking that message back to them.” As schools explore how best to integrate computer science into their curriculum, it is essential that they consider the role of space and culture on teaching kids to code. However, it was clear that as K12 schools struggle with introducing authentic CS learning opportunities, many students are already figuring it out themselves.

NCLB: No Coder Left Behind

Witnessing the energy and enthusiasm these students put into their projects over the course of the weekend was inspiring, but the lack of diversity in the room illustrates how efforts like this often perpetuate the digital divide.  The lack of girls present was stark, and not surprisingly the male attendees were predominantly Indian and Asian. This reality makes programs that help bring under-represented students into the hacker community, like GirlsWhoCode, TechBridge and CodeNow, even more important.

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Wendy, sharing their app Pen, which turns any web page into a shared document

I tracked down a few female participants, including Michelle Yeung, who started the GirlsWhoCode chapter at Lowell High School in SF and recruited fellow members to join her for this event.  Wendy (pictured above), who made the trek all the way up from Irvine, was one of the only girls to make it to the final round.

The team with the highest energy was definitely the trio from East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, who also took  the opportunity to promote CodeCamp, a free summer camp and after-school program they run to teach kids to code.  The impact of these authentic hacker experiences, especially for new coders, is profound. Shadi Barhoumi, one of the CodeCamp instructors shared that “our kids were so focused and excited to code today after the hackathon, because they finally understand why coding is cool and useful and fun.”

It was amazing to see the level of student engagement and learn how attendees keep that energy flowing beyond the weekend. Resources like Hackers Under 20 and StudentRND are just a couple that support young hackers. While education policy wonks debate the best way to teach kids to code and if CS should take the place of a foreign language, many students are ready to hack their future and are clearly not going to wait for schools to figure it out.

Coding in the Classroom

If you’ve been paying attention you know the latest buzz in edtech is a push to teach kids to code, with much credit for the recent surge in publicity going to Code.org and their Hour of Code efforts during Computer Science Education Week last December. However, I have been curious to see how schools are pushing past the challenge of just introducing ‘learn to code’ apps to create more authentic experiences for students to gain exposure to computer science concepts. My research recently led me to Summit Public Schools, a charter network with six schools that is already fairly well-known for their innovative blended learning practices, where all students have their own Chromebook and spend time daily progressing through their personalized learning plans.

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Beyond experimenting with blended learning approaches, Summit created their Expeditions Program to encourage more interest-based activities for students throughout the school year. Over each two month period students spend 6-weeks in their normal class schedule and then 2-weeks participating in expeditions that they select from a menu of options designed around their interests.  I sat down with Greg Ponikvar, Director of Expeditions, who manages this aspect of the curriculum across 6 schools and approximately 1700 students. He shared some details about their current STEM offerings as well as plans for the next school year. 

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Warm-up exercise– translating code screen (which in this case is the white board)

Summit currently offers a computer science elective course for 25 students at 4 of their 6 campuses through at partnership with the Miller Institute (LearningTech.org) and are looking to expand that offering by hiring their own full time CS teacher next year. Ponikvar is exploring how to require at least one week of exposure to CS related topics for each student, which includes visits to local tech companies like Google.

During my visit I got a chance to observe Sam Strasser, Platform Architect on the Summit tech team, who is currently leading an expedition to introduce students to basic web design concepts, specifically html, css and javascript. Strasser is designing the 2-week curriculum himself, leveraging free online tools like Codecademy and JS Bin with emphasis on teaching debugging strategies and getting students comfortable finding answers themselves.

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Always comes back to paper and pencil– Strasser diagramming jQuery selectors and functions

While he is the first to admit that he doesn’t have any formal teaching experience, Strasser did a great job creating an environment where the students were teaching and learning from each other. With the vast libraries of resources, a core aspect of teaching kids to code is empowering them to troubleshoot their own issues, building confidence and learning how to get unstuck.

With the growing number of free online tools like CodeHSTynker and ScratchEd, I’m hopeful we will see more efforts like this to get coding into classrooms and make it relevant for students.

Hacking the Future of Learning

What an awesome weekend! In partnership with Mike Lee, co-founder of edShelf, and local educator Rob Rinsky, I hosted my first education-focused hackathon, RemixEd K12, at 500 Startups in Mountain View, CA. Mike posted some great reflections on the edShelf blog, sharing more about hackathons in general and some of the questions and challenges we faced.  There are more pictures and information about hosting RemixEd in your community on TeacherSquare. I storified some of the tweets and you can see them all at #RemixEdK12.

As I continue to develop my scope and vision for TeacherSquare, it is clear that hosting events like these to bring together teachers, students, designers and developers to think about challenges and opportunities in the K12 space are so valuable to all involved. This quote really captures the educator experience beautifully.

“I felt like such a student. I learned so much this weekend.”

The teachers were thrilled to have a platform to share their ideas, collaborate on the very early stages of product development and then present their findings to the diverse audience. (I’m always surprised at how teachers, who spend their lives speaking in front of groups, get nervous addressing crowds outside the typical school environment 🙂 I’m convinced that if TeacherSquare can get more educators to participate in events like this they will be inspired to bring these new practices and a culture of experimentation to their schools and classrooms.

Not surprising, the students were the best part. They jumped right into the activities and their energy (as well as a Saturday afternoon zumba break) kept the teams going.  While this was a successful inaugural event, of course we have a growing list of how we can improve for next time.  For one, I’d definitely like to be more explicit about students sharing their ideas in advance and also include them as coaches and/or judges. (And there were clearly some avoidable tech and presentation issues.)

Audrey Watters, a friend and well known edtech blogger, showed her support throughout the weekend and dives deeper in the role and potential for these types of events in her post on Designing Education Hackathons. I optimistically see this collaborative learning format as part of the classroom of the future. This type of event is the embodiment of project-based learning (PBL) and I’d love to explore how to bring elements of this directly into schools and districts.

I’d like to express tremendous gratitude to our panel of judges, all education practitioners themselves, who not only provided feedback to the teams but also helped coach Mike, Rob and I on how to continue creating opportunities like this for teachers and students. And we couldn’t have done any of this without the generous support from our sponsors, especially New Schools Venture Fund.

We are continuing to gather feedback and there is so much more to share, so keep an eye out for a follow-up post on best practices for hosting an education-focused hackathon. This is just the beginning and as we collectively explore the potential of the flipped classroom I hope others will think about bringing this format of project-based learning to their schools. I’m thrilled to see all the enthusiasm to carry this work forward. Onward!

Cultivating Entrepreneurs of the Future

I was honored to be a judge at the Technovation Pitch Competition today at Microsoft and was truly blown away by how much the program has grown over the past 3 years. Iridescent founder, Tara Chklovski, kicked off the event by sharing some startling statistics about how 6th grade girls actually score better in STEM content areas but somehow once we get to higher ed communities in a room of ~30 engineering students, only 3 will be girls. I wish that every person who has ever talked about the lack of diversity in the startup community would have been in the room today, not only to hear these stats, but to see a program like the Technovation Challenge that is determined to change the ratio.

If only all Demo Days embodied this level of energy and authentic enthusiasm. 10 teams had 4 min each to pitch their Android App and then respond to questions from the judges. The ideas ranged from medical/healthcare apps that allow you to easily share your general medical history to food discovery apps for people with allergies or dietary restrictions (vegans) and games that teach marine biology in a fun and engaging way. The winning team from our session was an app designed to reduce teenage pregnancy and STDs by providing preventative care information in a format that is appealing and compelling for high school students.  The pitches were great, however, what was most impressive was the demonstration of what the girls had learned about what it really means to make something out of nothing. During the poster session I spoke with several of the teams who shared their experiences with customer development, co-founder disagreements, sizing the market, brainstorming distribution strategies, outlining business models and perfecting your pitch. These are the exact same topics that I discuss with startups that I work with in various incubator programs in Silicon Valley and it’s inspiring to see high schools girls learning these processes and techniques that they will hopefully carry with them as they continue their education and professional careers. This is what authentic STEM education looks like. This is what teaching entrepreneurship really means.

Towards the end of the event I was asked what I’d like to see come out of this type of program over the next several years. Ideally, if we say we want to educate our children to be the innovators of the future then I strongly believe this type of program needs to be integrated into the K12 curriculum. Shouldn’t all students have an opportunity to gain these necessary skills during the traditional school day?

The winning teams from today and the other regional challenges will come together at Intel in Santa Clara next Thurs, May 3rd for the National Pitch Competition. Tickets are free so if you’re available and are interested in seeing what empowering young girls to develop an authentic desire for coding and entrepreneurship looks like, I highly recommend you attend. Kudos to the entire Iridescent team for a fabulous event today and for empowering high school girls all over the country to design their futures.