Meet the Instructor: Brian Van Dyck
Embark Labs teaches kids to code by creating real projects and solving real problems
By My Nguyen
Brian Van Dyck is on a mission to empower young people to become creative problem solvers.
As Director of Curriculum and Instruction and a Google Certified Teacher (MTV 08) with over 20 years of teaching experience in middle school classrooms throughout the Bay Area, Brian is the exuberant energy behind the unique, pedagogically-sound approach Embark Labs has to teaching computer science and coding.
At Embark Labs, instructors embed fundamental computer science concepts into the program, so students have a deep understanding and a strong foundation when they begin coding.
According to Founder & CEO Jessie Arora, Embark Labs is one of the only programs truly aimed at teaching applied CS — both theoretical and actual programming skills — to elementary and middle school kids. The goal is to inspire young people to have an authentic interest in computer science by introducing it in a fun and engaging way.
To do this, Embark Labs uses the visual programming language Scratch.
The Scratch Foundation recently spoke with Brian to learn more about the distinct vision behind Embark Labs, and to ask what benefits a veteran CS educator sees in learning how to code with Scratch.
Tell me about Embark Labs. What is your position and what does it entail?
Embark Labs is on a mission to improve the quality of and access to CS education for all young people. We believe computer science is the ideal framework to empower young people to become creative problem solvers and prepare them for the jobs of the future. Embark Labs is intentional about shifting the current “learn to code” movement to focus more on creative problem solving and critical thinking skills. Beyond coding, these are the skills that all students will need to be successful in the future no matter what career or discipline they choose to pursue.
I am the Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Embark Labs. I take all of the curriculum that we provide and try to keep it fresh and new, and on the forefront of what is emerging in the world of computer science and coding. I consider how we can make that content not only fun and engaging, but also accessible, so that students from the ages of 7–17 can really dive deeply into the understanding of the material. My position also entails hiring credentialed teachers and giving them that same training, so that they can pass this experience onto students.
How did you become involved with Embark Labs?
I have been a teacher in Santa Clara county California for 20 years — all middle school — focusing on mathematics, science and technology. I have been an early adopter of technology and implementing technology into learning for students for many, many years. I am a member of CUE (Computer Using Educators) where I present regularly on the culture of the digital classroom, as well as the implementation of technology into the learning experience for students.
In 2010, I was hired by Google to help develop and create a program called CAPE, Computing and Programming Experience, for 8th grade students who were heading into high school. Fifty students from different locations across the United States were invited to Google to spend five weeks of their summer at Google, totally immersed in the culture of Google. They were introduced to the fundamental concepts of CS, as well as project management, leadership, and development.
All of those things led me to follow through with the idea of Embark Labs. I wanted to reach as many kids as possible.
How did you become interested in Scratch?
I became interested in how technology could open doors to make content more accessible to students. Especially in the case of math and science, I saw so many kids who felt that the subjects were not accessible to them because of the way that they were delivered in the traditional classroom. So, I looked to technology to solve that. This was when I first came across Scratch. I worked with a local teacher in Palo Alto at Gunn High School, Joshua Paley. He was really the one who introduced me to the power of Scratch.
Can you tell me about an instance that Embark Labs has used Scratch in instruction that was particularly successful?
At Embark Labs, we do not use Scratch as a copy-and-paste experience. We walk kids through the paper prototyping process and the design process, and we have the kids develop original projects of their own. We set parameters by asking them include things that we’d like to see them do, such as include motion, include sound, solve a problem, create a puzzle and have their program solve that puzzle.
We actually use Scratch to access some very high level mathematics, and we’re teaching some high-end geometry and recursion to 7-year-olds. And they’re getting it. They’re seeing the patterns and geometry and shapes of regular polygons and understanding what it takes to create motion and interactivity.
This is the power of Scratch. It takes so many mathematical and scientific concepts and makes them accessible, because you’re able to challenge students to prove their solutions.
Why do you think Scratch resonates with young people?
As a language for programming, Scratch allows you to focus on the fundamental concepts of computer science, both as a science and as an art. It allows kids to explore on their own
Kids love puzzles! Scratch is a fun, interactive, colorful platform, where students get to discover the answer, and discover that there might be several answers to the same puzzle. They can be successful very easily very quickly.
Why is learning to code important?
It creates a mindset. It creates a mindset of logical thinking, a mindset where students can find their own solutions to problems. It brings kids up to higher-order thinking. It’s those fundamental computer science concepts that will endure.
What would you tell a parent who is considering enrolling their child in a coding club or program?
I would say to them, ‘Look at what the program produces. Are kids copying-and-pasting? Is the program really teaching them to collaborate? Are they teaching a sense of community? Are they building leadership skills? Are they truly building creative or critical thinking skills? Are kids creating their own original projects that solve their own original problems? Are kids being challenged?’
What skills do you hope students gain when they complete Embark programs?
The idea of critical thinking, logical sequencing, the ability to problem-solve, the ability for both computational and critical thinking, and the ability to become creators and innovators. Part of that ability to become creators and innovators is also the ability to collaborate and work as part of a team and also to understand what it is to be a leader and what it is to be in different roles within a project development team.
What’s next for Embark Labs?
We will continue to innovate and create ourselves. Our goal has always been to create the innovators of the future by providing students with an opportunity to become creative problem solvers and learn critical thinking skills through computer science. This fall, we are planning to expand our programs to reach more students and educators in the Bay Area and beyond. The sky’s the limit, and we plan to be around for a very long time.
Embark Labs is on a mission to redesign learning experiences for kids by creating collaborative communities where they become creative problem solvers through learning computer science. Check out their Summer Calendar to enroll in one of their programs in Menlo Park and Mountain View.