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.

 

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.

Cultivating Young Coders

ScratchDay Group

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.