Power to the Teacher

Amidst our current obsession with online learning it is important to remember that a good teacher can have a tremendous impact on student learning outcomes. Renowned education economist Eric Hanushek puts it best that,

the initiatives we have emphasized in policy discussions—class-size reduction, curriculum revamping, reorganization of school schedule, investment in technology—all fall far short of the impact that good teachers can have in the classroom.

We are lucky to have not only a good teacher, but arguably one of the best K12 computer science teachers in the state, Brian Van Dyck, on our founding team at Embark Labs.

Brian in action at our Google Spring Academy

Brian in action at our Google Spring Academy

I have learned so much from working with Brian and am constantly impressed by the energy he creates in any learning environment. And I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who has recognized this. In the past few weeks Brian has been featured in a couple articles that provide a glimpse into his teaching philosophy and the unique approach we are creating at Embark Labs.

InMenlo, a local Bay Area publication captured Brian’s 20+ year history working in this area while the Code-To-Learn Foundation wrote a fantastic profile on how he uses Scratch in innovative ways to teach kids coding and computer science.

We don’t need a special ‘appreciation’ day to celebrate the educators that inspire our children every day. As the school year comes to a close, this is as good a time as any to share your appreciation for someone who has impacted your child’s learning journey. My gratitude goes out to Brian Van Dyck.

(If you’d like to experience Brian’s magical teaching, there are a few spaces and scholarships still available for Embark Labs summer programs in Mountain View and Menlo Park. Enroll today!)

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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?

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.

 

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.

 

 

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.