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.

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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.

(Re)Making Learning: Creating a Space for Young Makers

Many educators are looking for tactical ways to bring the buzz of the maker movement to their schools and classrooms. In an effort to support educators and open-source the implementation process, here is a glimpse inside how one community in the Bay Area is redesigning their learning spaces.

LosRobles Makerspace

Robert Pronovost, STEM Coordinator for Ravenswood City School District in EPA is bringing the maker movement to life through the Ravenswood Makerspace Collaborative.  In partnership with Mario Cuellar, After School STEM Coordinator, and with support from his district, Pronovost transformed a portable at the back of a school into a vibrant and engaging space for students to tinker and explore hands-on learning opportunities.

Prototyping a Pilot

This video depicts early user testing Pronovost conducted to get a sense of what the students were most interested in and how best to design the space and curriculum around those interests. In keeping with the open-source ethos, Pronovost shares much of the reading and research he conducted to fuel his efforts and adds that “‘Invent To Learn‘ by Sylvia Martinez & Gary Stager, Ph.D. is a must read.” The curriculum which serves TK-8th graders currently focuses on three main areas; coding, making and robotics, which clearly have overlapping activities and learning goals. Pronovost then adds a layer of design thinking concepts across these three content areas, introducing kids to empathy building, rapid prototyping and user-centered design. For a deeper look into this process he has documented details of designing the space and curriculum on his own blog, ElementaryEdtech.

The space is equipped with a couple 3D printers, a laser cutter, several chromebooks and a set of BeeBots. Add in carts with the standard prototyping materials (post-its, pipe cleaners, etc) and you’re ready to go. Maintaining materials is a work-in-progress and he shares a list of other tools/materials they would love to get donated.

During this pilot period students are free to tinker in the space during recess and after-school time, however, as this initiative secures more funding the plan is to hire a full-time instructor and expand the content offering.

Robert w/Kids

Next Up

What began as a pilot at Los Robles Magnet Academy this past January will scale to the 7 other schools in the district this fall. In addition to expanding the sites, the goal is to broaden the content offering to include all students and not just those that currently choose to attend. In exploring models from other schools, Pronovost is considering a 4-6 week ‘Intro to STEM’ course that all 4th and 5th graders would rotate through.

Beyond serving EPA, the Ravenswood Makerspace Collaborative was recently selected to join the small and prestigious group of makerspaces in Stanfords’s FabLab@School network. In participating in this program they will likely collaborate with students at another makerspace in Russia or Thailand.

To further engage the local community and share learnings from this early pilot, Pronovost will be hosting an Open Make Day in May. (Details are still TBD.) If you’re interested in learning more about building a makerspace in your community, a good place to start is requesting a free copy (downloadable pdf) of the Makerspace Playbook.

 

Hacking the Future

HSHacks- Paypal

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.

STEM Expo: Not Your Typical Science Fair

If you’re a regular reader you know I’m a big fan of Angela Estrella and the community at Lynbrook High School. This afternoon I attended their annual STEM Expo, which Estrella describes as “a science fair on steroids,” and was blown away by the students and their projects.

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Pragna Upputri’s – The Application of Optical Lift on Micromotors

The STEM Expo is the school-level showcase event for students to practice their presentations before the Synopsis Regional Championship, which takes place on Wednesday, March 11th at the San Jose Convention Center. Lynbrook will have 90 students competing (full list here), 30 of which are members of the STEM Research class that was started 10 years ago by science teacher (and fellow Stanford alum), Amanda Alonzo. What began as an after school club with 6 students has grown into an award-winning program that introduces students to science, engineering and design thinking concepts. (Did you hear about the teenage girl, Eesha Khare, who invented a device that could charge your phone in 20 seconds? She’s one of Alonzo’s former students.)

Not So Weird Science

It is clear these kids are doing much more than tinkering in their science labs. One group conducted their research on gene synthesis at DNA 2.0 and many are coached by local experts and researchers from Stanford, Berkeley and Santa Clara University. The quality of the projects is so impressive that winners from the Santa Clara County regional competition bypass the state level and move directly on to Intel’s international competition, ISEF.

Having seen several startups and Stanford students try to hack the Kinect, I was impressed with Abhishek Johri’s Vision Kinection, which uses depth and RGB sensors to see how far an object is from a person without looking at the object. He described possible use cases for the visually impaired and the military.

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Johri, a senior at Lynbrook, explaining his Kinect-based project

She Blinded Me with Science

I immediately noticed the healthy balance between male and female participants. Though the initial group when she first started was all boys, Alonzo proudly shares that the number of female members over the years has grown steadily and this year there are slightly more girls than boys. “Girls have really excelled in this program since they seem less afraid to ask for help,” Alonzo adds.

The winner for me was Maitreyee Joshi, who is developing an automatic indoor mapping technique to create an indoor navigation system app for the blind and visually impaired. Joshi shared her passion for improving services for the disabled, which started back when she got involved in VIP soccer program that helps kids with physical and mental disabilities.

Developing an Automatic Indoor Mapping Technique to Create an Indoor Navigation System App for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Automatic Indoor Mapping Technique to Create an Indoor Navigation System App for the Visually Impaired

Through her research she learned that visually impaired people can take 30-40 tries orienting themselves to a physical space before being able to navigate comfortably. Her app creates a virtual simulation which dramatically improves that experience and cuts down on the time it takes to become familiar with a space. She has already collaborated with Google on how wifi strength fingerprinting and depth sensors can be used to automatically generate maps of indoor spaces and ideally create this simulation for any space in real time.

I wish I could have seen Ruchi Pandya, who developed a carbon nanofiber electrode based sensor for cardiac health monitoring, but was at another competition during the time of the Expo. Alonzo shares that the microchip she designed measures distinct protein composition and can detect one’s chance of having a heart attack.

Beyond the impressive ideas I was struck by the professional level of execution. If these children are the future, I am confident we are in good hands.

Creating a Culture of i-Can

Where was this when I was young? I’ve been researching various STEM learning programs and recently came across Imagineerz, a design-thinking focused summer camp for elementary school kids.

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Imagineerz is the brainchild of Vaibhavi Gala, a fellow alum of the Stanford Graduate School of Education (ICE ’00), whose high school dream was to create a student-centered learning experience focusing on creativity and confidence building. Once her own children were in elementary school she knew the timing was right to explore her inner entrepreneur.

In March 2011 Gala decided to take the plunge, quitting her comfortable job in corporate training to focus on creating an experience for kids ‘to become positive and confident makers.’ The first program started in the summer of 2011 and in their 4th year of programming this summer they will serve approximately 75 students a week for four weeks in July. Building on her Stanford experience, she often recruits interns from the GSE to help her with the ongoing program and curriculum design.

As the camp and community grows Imagineerz is looking to deepen engagement with parents and kids during the year through a series of books and apps. With all the recent attention on the maker movement (the White House just announced their first MakerFaire), it would be amazing to see this type of programming become part of the K12 experience.

LDT Expo: Keeps Getting Better

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything as I’ve spent the past couple months enjoying time at home after the birth of my second daughter. However, I decided to venture out last week to check out the masters projects from this year’s Learning, Design and Technology (LDT) cohort. Every August Stanford hosts their LDT Expo and I’m increasingly impressed with the level of sophistication of the event as well as the ways in which the students approach their learning challenges and solutions. Last year I had the honor of attending as one of the reviewers so I had the chance to get a deeper look into many of the projects. This year I just saw the teams at expo and it was interesting to see that none of the teams chose to tackle a traditional K12 topic, but rather focused more on informal learning.

Kirti & DesignDuo

Kirti Patel sharing her project- DesignDuo

I was particularly motivated to attend to see DesignDuo, a DIY toolkit designed to get dads and daughters to build things together to drive engagement and interest in STEM, which was created by a friend of mine. You can read about all 12 of the projects in this nice overview piece from EdSurge. It was also great (for both the LDT Program and the Stanford School of Education) to see this press coverage (~2min video) from ABC Local News. I hope all these teams will continue this work in some way and am curious if any will launch this as a real product.

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.

Accelerating Diversity

Update (2/18/12)- You can find an extended version of this post on Women 2.0.

Demo Days can be pretty exhausting experiences of information overload as you try to capture the energy of the various pitches & teams (YC has 65 this round) while chatting with old and new connections. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the StartX event last night, which began with quick pitches from their 9 startups followed by dinner and plenty of time to speak with the teams and others in the room directly.

For me, the most impressive aspect of the event was the diversity in the room, from the teams to the investors to alumni. More than enough has been said about ethnic and gender diversity in Silicon Valley, and I don’t wish to add to any of the complaints. I’d much rather focus on the solution and I believe that StartX exemplifies some of the progress that we need by selecting, supporting and launching a diverse group of energetic and brilliant entrepreneurs. Almost 50% (4 of the 9 teams) had female co-founders, as well as representation from several degree programs (not just CS) and age groups. With a mission focused on developing founders through experiential education, I believe recruiting a diverse cohort deeply improves the StartX experience for all and hopefully inspires increasingly diverse applicants in the future. In furthering that inspiration, I spoke with several of the female entrepreneurs about presenting to and mentoring programs that help encourage young girls to explore STEM fields and opportunities, such as the Technovation Challenge.

For anyone trying something new it is vitally important and deeply motivating to see people like you creating opportunities and success for themselves. (This is definitely true for first-generation college bound students and I imagine it’s the same for first-time entrepreneurs –it helps if someone is blazing the trail with you.) I’m thrilled with the role StartX is playing and am anxious to see how they will scale this to other universities and communities in the years to come. Just Start It!

Google Edu Efforts

Google recently relaunched its site targeted for educators and MindShift wrote a great overview of all the new changes and features. My favorite aspect of Google’s education efforts is their Computer Science for High School Program (c4hs), that provides grants for universities around the world to help “promote Computer Science and Computational Thinking in high school and middle school curriculum.” They are currently accepting applications until March 3 for their 2012 grants, so if you know anyone who might be interested, please encourage them to apply.