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.

 

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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.

 

SparkTruck: Making Educators

The K12 Lab at Stanford’s d.school has designed a series of CreativityBoosters for Educators, to explore experiments in teaching & learning and building creative confidence. On Saturday in collaboration with MakerState, SparkTruck hosted a session on how to incorporate hands-on activities into lessons.

In true d.school fashion the brightly-colored post-its and creative juices were flowing. Inspired by the truck itself, the SparkTruck team created the session on a framework of IT BEEPS Identity, Teamwork, Brainstorming, Prototyping and Storytelling.

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They did a terrific job modeling how to conduct activities like this with students and emphasized the d.mindsets that fuel their work: radical collaboration, bias to action, building to think, show don’t tell and overcoming stuck points. We began with a group activity centered around a common problem that has been frustrating teachers since the beginning of time–

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Groups jumped into the brainstorming process, moving on to prototyping and then went around and shared what they had made. Then MakerState took over and set up several stations around the room where participants could practice different maker-focused activities, such as creating a pop-up book or a 7sec stop-motion animation.

What was most impressive is the diversity of educators and enthusiasts that attend these events. In my own work with TeacherSquare I know how difficult it can be for educators to take time out of their schedules for sessions like this, no matter how engaging or relevant they may be. It is clear that schools that create a community and incentives around these experiences reap the most benefits.  For example, a group of teachers and their principal made the trip down from Tiburon together, and I’m sure it helped that they were all being compensated for their time and participation. However, I doubt everyone in the room receives that type support from their schools.

I’m optimistic that collectively we can change the face of PD by creating more opportunities like this for educators to put themselves in the place of students in engaging experiences and be compensated for their time and energy.

Wan to see for yourself? The next sessions are on March 8th and April 12th- RSVP here.

Meograph: Storytelling as a Service

Meograph for Edu
Storytelling is the oldest form of communication and such an essential aspect of our communities. While anyone can tell a story, as an art form, it significantly improves as the storyteller is coached and inspired. Meograph seeks to empower each of us to tell our stories in a digitally rich way without requiring deep knowledge of complex and expensive creative products. Current SF resident and founder Misha Leybovich has always been a natural storyteller (at one point in his career he was a clown at kids’ parties), but struggled using the existing creative tools.  So he founded Meograph, which he refers to as ‘Adobe for anybody,’ to help tell his own stories and make this rich digital storytelling process accessible to everyone. (You may recognize him from his pitch at the January SF Edtech Meetup- Teacher Tank.)

With the surge of interest in the ‘flipped classroom,’ Meograph saw many teachers bringing this tool to their classrooms, creating content themselves as well as assigning projects for students to craft their own stories. This student created story on the ‘Causes of the Civil War‘ is a cool example of some of the projects created using Meograph.

This step of simplifying the creation process is critical to ensuring widespread adoption of project-based learning strategies, where studente take control of their own learning, document their progress and demonstrate understanding. While Meograph didn’t intend to be an ‘edtech’ startup they have responded well to the significant interest and feedback from the educator community on how this can be used as a learning tool.

Beyond bringing life back to current presentation methods, the larger vision is to power some of the Maker Movement rhetoric by simplifying the creation and sharing process. Striving to be the next suite of creative tools, Meograph is working on creating an authoring tool that can be embedded on other websites. Next steps for the team is to figure out deeper classroom support such as connecting these stories/projects to lesson plans and creating a rubric for grading and assigning project. You can learn more and connect with the team on Twitter @Meograph or email them at meograph@meograph.com.

(And if you happen to be at SXSW this week check out their pitch during the Startup Accelerator on Monday March 11th. Good luck!)

Re-engineering Summer Camp

The most exciting (and challenging) aspect of flipping the classroom is figuring out how to bring real hands-on learning activities back into the school day. Khan Academy, often at the center of the flipped classroom conversation, is exploring some interesting project-based learning efforts during their Discovery Lab Summer Camp. A few members of the team are in the middle of running 3 2-week long sessions at the International School of the Peninsula for middle school students and I got a chance to stop by for a bit this week and observe their lesson on reverse engineering.

The ~20 students in the group were asked to bring in pretty mundane household items, ranging from an old-school telephone to a toaster (one student even attempted to take apart an iPhone), to reverse engineer. One of the newest KA team members, Karl Wendt, shared his example of deconstructing a hair dryer and identifying the various parts, their functions and the materials used to construct the object.

While it is difficult to draw too many conclusions from a brief observation session, it was clear to see the students were engaged in the work and doing some interesting research to understand the mechanics and history of their products. Creating this experience in a 2 week summer camp environment reaching ~ 100 kids is great. Integrating these projects into classrooms across diverse schools and communities during the school year is a massive challenge.

People have strong feelings about Khan Academy, and even the assumptions behind the flipped classroom model. (I think we should acknowledge that people often have strong feelings about a lot of things and move on to what really matters.) To appropriately address this massive challenge of making learning engaging and relevant for all students, we need to continue to attract all forms of energy and talent to create solutions.

I think the best ideas often come from diverse teams bringing new and creative ways of approaching the problem. This is what excites me most about the recent surge in energy and attention focused on the education space, which has brought more people into the conversation who typically wouldn’t want to take on the massive challenge of fixing what’s not working in schools right now.

Personally, I am drawn to solutions that come from entrepreneurial teachers, however I believe we should embrace that diversity of perspective, focusing more on the solutions and their potential for future impact, rather than rejecting approaches that come from ‘non-traditional’ sources. I think that’s the best way for us to collectively re-engineer the future of education.

Making the Classroom of the Future

The Maker Movement is rocking the education world in a big way.

Kudos to EdSurge for organizing all the activities in the Education Pavilion during this year’s Maker Faire, modeling the classroom of the future. From Thursday’s educator meetup to Saturday’s ongoing interviews with Steve Hargadon, that team and extended community of volunteers really kept the Maker-Education conversation buzzing. The several hours I spent there this morning flew by and I have a feeling that even if I were there the whole weekend, I wouldn’t have had the chance to absorb all the amazing creativity, art and energy flowing in this community. While I spent most of my time in the DIY Learning: The New School area with usual edtech suspects like Motion MathRoot-1 & Educreations, I’m glad I got to catch a glimpse of some of my favorite new tinker toys in action, especially LittleBits and Roominate.

As amazing as this weekend was, the dream is to figure out how to truly make classrooms of the future that embody all the making, doing and learning that is at the essence of Maker Faire. Of course, for me the highlights were initiatives that are trying to bring these types of experiences to communities beyond our own.

SparkLab was there showing off their newly suped-up SparkTruck, channeling the energy from their Stanford d.school class and successful Kickstarter campaign. They are kicking off their summer road trip over the next few weeks, on a mission to spread “the fun of hands-on learning and encouraging kids to find their inner maker.”

Friend and current Harvard Ed Doctoral Fellow, Karl Wendt, was demonstrating some of his creations from his newly launched non-profit, Discover-Create-Advance (DCA), trying to bring project-based learning (PBL) to all students. They are “currently focused on building a library of highly motivating projects, providing alternative funding for great projects, and posting a series of videos that assist teachers and students in facilitating project based learning.” By empowering teachers, through instructional videos and funding, this effort gets at the core of what makes it so difficult to really bring PBL to every classroom. His video deconstructing a hair dryer is one of my favorites and I cannot wait to see what comes next from DCA.

Ideally, newly launched efforts like the Maker Education Initiative will help channel all the inspiring energy from Maker Faire and other DIY/PBL initiatives to bring these learning opportunities to kids all over the world. The classroom of the future will be whatever we as a society want… so we just have to Make It Happen!

Fabulous FabLab

Spent the weekend at the Stanford FabLab for their workshop on Digital Fabrication in Education. It was really fabulous to connect with so many educators from the Bay Area and beyond that are thinking about how to bring some of these tools and lessons into their STEM and PBL focused classrooms.

Surrounded by sophisticated tools like 3D printers/scanners, laser cutters and simulators, it was really amazing to hear from the student panel that some of their favorite tools to use were the hot glue guns and hammer/nails. This really speaks to the essence of building something cool and that you don’t need really expensive/shiny technology to create a fun, fabrication-focused environment. Any school can create their own design lab using simple tools (few pairs of scissors, card board, post-its and sharpies…) — It is more about developing a culture that embraces the project-based learning practices.

I really hope that SUSE will continue to create workshops and resources like this that are closely tied to classroom practice with real-world applications for K-12 teachers. It really was fab!