Posts from hacking education

Scratch Jr

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few years talking to students and teachers about learning to code. I’ve also spent a lot of time observing classrooms where coding instruction is being given. I’ve had a lot of “aha moments” and been inspired by many things I have seen. In all of those experiences, the thing that really stands out is seeing Scratch, a free visual programming environment developed at the MIT Media Lab, being used effectively by all ages and abilities. I have come to believe that almost anyone can learn to use Scratch and thus start down the pathway of learning to code.

The Scratch project started in 2003 and since then over 5mm projects have been built and posted on the Scratch website. You can browse the projects here, you can find one you like, you can fork/copy it, and you can make something yourself. It is this forking/copying thing that is so powerful in my mind. You don’t need to start with a blank canvas in Scratch. You can find a project you like, you can look at the code to see how it was made, and you can then modify the code to change the way it works. That’s actually how I learned to code too (by initially modifying someone else’s code).

I just found this flappy birds style game that was posted to Scratch yesterday (use the space bar to flap, hit the flag to start).

If you click on the link that says “posted to Scratch” right above the game embed, and then click on the button that says “see inside”, you will see the code that was used to create this game. You will see how visual and inviting that code is relative to most coding systems.

Anyway, this post is not about Scratch. It is about Scratch Jr. The one thing that you need to be able to do to use Scratch is read and write. So kids who are still learning to read and write can’t use Scratch. A few years ago some researchers at Tufts started working with the team at the Media Lab to create a version of Scratch that younger kids can use. It is called Scratch Jr. Scratch Jr is getting close to commercial release, which will be on tablets (iOS first, Android next).

Since Scratch and Scratch Jr are free to use and supported mostly be research grants, there isn’t a lot of money to commercialize Scratch Jr, particularly the development of easy to use iOS and Android native apps for tablets.

That’s where all of you come in. Scratch Jr posted a Kickstarter project this week. I backed it yesterday. In a few days, they have already raised their initial target of $25k, but I am certain they could use a lot more. The more money they raise, the faster they can get iOS and Android out and the more they can do to get Scratch Jr into classrooms all over the world.

Here’s the Kickstarter page and here is the video they posted. It’s only four minutes and the bits where Mitch Resnick (the “father of Scratch”) talks about learning to code and coding to learn is really good. You should watch it. And please consider backing the project too.

Dream It. Code It. Win It.

I attended a CS Teacher Meetup last night at USV. We talked about a lot of things but focused on the issue of getting more girls to code. It’s an important issue that I think we are starting to make good progress on.

Though not focused on girls per se, I heard about a neat coding challenge that is happening this Spring called Dream It. Code It. Win It.

This is a programming challenge (not a Hackathon) aimed at High School and College students. It is organized by the MIT Club of New York, MIT Enterprise Forum, and Trading Screen. The goal is to reward “the creative aspects of a computer science education.” College teams can win monetary prizes ($20k, $15k, and $10k). High School teams can win iPads.

The submission is a video where the team explains the problem they set out to solve, their solution, and a demonstration of a live working product that solves the problem.

Submissions can be made here and the juding panel will meet in NYC on April 30th from 5pm to 9pm to select the winners.

If you know a high school or college aged student who likes to code, please let them know about this contest.

Girls Who Code

I feel badly for Paul Graham because he's being made out to be something I am sure he is not. But the brouhaha that he unleashed about women founders, women coders, and women hackers is a good thing because we ought to be having a broader conversation about these issues.

Paul asks "God knows what you would do to get 13 year old girls interested in computers?" and that is a damn good question and one that I have been thinking about a lot over the past four years. We see very few women entrepreneurs walk into USV and that is disappointing to me. And I agree with Paul that one of the issues (but by no means the only issue) causing this gap, is that young women are not embracing tech in the key development years in middle school and early high school.

At The Academy For Software Engineering (AFSE), we use a "limited unscreened" model to accept students. It's limited because you have to attend an open house and make AFSE your first choice, but once you do those two things, its a lottery system to get in. So effectively the distributiion of students admitted is going to be very similar to the distribution of students who apply and make the school their first choice. In our first year, we admitted 24% young women. In our second year, the percentage was less, I believe below 20%. This is very upsetting to me and we are working on a number of things to change this. It will require working hard on the parents of the young women and the middle school guidance counselors. There is a lot of systemic bias in the system against young women taking this kind of direction with their studies and their career. And we must change that bias and it must be changed at the middle school level.

However, the young women who enroll at AFSE are incredible. I have spent a fair bit of time with them and I can tell you that they work hard, study, take school seriously, and can code as well as the boys. Last week I got to hand out the awards at the first ever AFSE hackathon. The winning team were all freshman, two girls and one boy. These girls were good, really good. I was super impressed.

Afse hackathon winners

So it can happen, it should happen, and if we make the effort, it will happen. 

There are a number of important initiatives under way to try to change things. The title of this post refers to one of them, Girls Who Code, which is a summer program in NYC and SF and now adding after school programs for young women to learn to code. There is also Black Girls Code, solving an even more difficult and important problem. And programs like TEALS and which are bringing CS education to the broader public school landscape will certainly help get more girls into coding too.

Taylor Rose, who is a young woman studying at MIT, wrote a good post about all of this and more yesterday. I think she sums up the situation as well as anything I've read.

There are efforts underway to attempt to close the gap between women and men studying CS. And it can be done. Harvey Mudd now enrolls as many women CS majors as male CS majors. Here's a ten minute video that talks about how they did that:

So as Taylor suggests in her post, instead of turning Paul's comments into a blogosphere shitstorm, maybe we would all be better off staring the issue in the face and thinking about how each of us could help make a difference on this issue. It's an important one and I am glad we are talking about it.

Crowdfunding Brooklyn Castle: An Update

I woke up to this email:

Hi Fred,

This weekend our team traveled to Florida to compete in the National Grade Chess Championships.

We won!

Our sixth graders and our seventh graders each won the team championships after three grueling days of seven games each of which could last up to three hours.

Thank you for your support!

here is a link to a little video the kids made today…sorry to say i am better at chess that video production..if the kids look exhausted it is because we arrived back in NY at 1 am last night.



To everyone in the AVC community who contributed to the DonorsChoose that made this possible, thank you.

And do yourself a favor and click on that link from the email and watch the 30 second video. It made me happy and I think it will do the same for you.

Hour Of Code

This is CS Ed Week and this year we are celebrating it with an Hour Of Code. The idea is to get every student to spend an hour this week writing code. 

If you want to do this with your kids (at home or in school), here are some resources to try:

The Codecademy Hour of Code iPhone app - download this on an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch and learn the basics of coding in an hour. As many of you know, Codecademy is a USV portfolio company and millions of people have used Codecademy to start learning to code. – has built tutorials for teachers who want to do an hour of code in their classrooms. is a non-profit dedicated to bringing CS to schools all around the country and they are leading the Hour Of Code effort nationwide.

Other resources - there are a host of resources out there, like Scratch, Scalable Game Design, CodeHS, Globaloria, and Tynker that you can use to teach the hour of code to your students.

In other CS Ed news, Obama endorsed CS Ed and the Hour Of Code in this video yesterday.

And the city of Chicago announced that they will integrate CS Ed broadly in their schools so that every student gets the opportunity to learn coding skills.

And last but not least, in NYC, Chancellor Wolcott announced a $1mm program to train over 100 teachers in the curriculcum. This program is a partnership between CSNYC,, NYC EDC, and NYC DOE, all of which participated in the funding. If you want to help support this effort, we are raising money for CSNYC so that we can fund more programs like this in NYC. Our crowdrise fundraising page is here.

Yesterday was a big day for CS Ed. Everyone should celebrate CS Ed week by doing an hour of code with your kids. This is an important effort that is now getting the attention it deserves. 

My Idiosyncratic View Of The World

Jeff Wise has a piece in this week's NY Magazine about teaching kids to code which features my partner Albert's home school and great programs like and Girls Who Code. It also talks about the work my colleagues and I are doing to bring CS education to all of NYC's public schools.

Jeff ends the piece with this observation:

Like much tech-world philanthropy, the tech schools are arriving as a fiat from on high, rather than welling up from grassroots demand, and it’s easy to read the education evangelism as motivated, at least in part, by a desire to mainstream techies’ own idiosyncratic way of looking at the world.

Pardon me, but that accusation stings. "A fiat from on high?"  "A desire to mainstream our idiosyncracies?"

No good deeed goes unpunished. I know that. But this critique seems so out of left field.

My idiosyncratic view of the world is a place where we all understand how to control the machines that are increasingly controlling our world. It is a place where kids who are headed to flipping hamburgers for a living get an option to do something a bit more stimulating. It is a place where we all have the tools to make things that make our lives better.

Now that I've got that out of my system, I will go do some yoga.

Crowdfunding More Public School Chess

The AVC community will remember back to this summer when we helped to crowdfund a middle school chess team that was struggling to come up with the money to go to the tournaments it had won numerous times over the past decade. That was a huge success for everyone involved. And like most successes, it brought out other similar efforts.

One that I am particularly fond of is at the Park Slope Elementary and Middle School (aka PS/MS 282) in Park Slope Brooklyn. At PS/MS 282, every student learns chess and 50 of the students are selected to represent the school in the state and national championships. Last year, PS/MS 282 won the National Championships in the K-5 category for Under 900.

Royal panthers

In order to raise the funds to send the kids back to the state and national championships this year, PS/MS 282 is doing a Donors Choose campaign right now. I have given to the campaign and I thought I'd let everyone here at AVC know about it too. If you want to support public school chess and help these kids defend their title, you can support them here.

I am a big fan of teaching chess to youngsters. I think it teaches struggling, persevering, thinking ahead, and getting ahead. I would like to see more of it in our public schools.

Crowdfunding Computer Science in the NYC Public Schools

Yesterday evening I got a three minute speaking slot at the NY Tech Meetup and announced the effort we are making to bring computer science to the NYC public school system. If you didn't read about it last week here at AVC, you can click on that link to get a brief description of what we are up to.

I also announced the crowfunding part of the campaign. We recognize that most of the $5mm we are raising to help bring CS programs to NYC public schools will come from a few large donors (most of all me and the Gotham Gal), but we want to make sure that everyone in the NYC tech community and more broadly in NYC can be a part of this.

So if you would like to be part of this fund, you can contribute online here. There's a minimum contribution of $10 and we will take any and all amounts over that.


If you want to give $5,000 or more, we would like to have you at our in person event on Nov 18th from 6-8pm at USV's offices. If you want to come to that, please RSVP here.

I know I ask a lot of the AVC community when it comes to causes like this one, DonorsChoose, and other similar things. I do these things to give back, particularly to education which is the key to progress and personal betterment. It is something I really believe in and I hope you all do to.

Video Of The Week:

Zach Sims, founder and CEO of our portfolio company Codecademy, was on Colbert this week. There were some good lines. I liked  "drop out, turn on, and log in" at 3:40.

[I am getting autoplay complaints. Autoplay is off in the code. So I have removed this embed and you can find the video here]

The Computer Science Education Fund

I'd like to announce something that a few of us have been working on for some time now. My colleagues at The NYC Foundation For Computer Science Education and I are raising a $5mm seed fund to invest in computer science education in the NYC public school system. The Gotham Gal and I have been investing out of this fund for several years, and now we are now opening it up to others who want to participate alongside of us.

Though we call this a seed fund, and we do think of it as an investment vehicle, this is a non-profit entity, 501(c)(3), and any committments to it are tax deductible and you will not be getting any money back from us. But you will be getting karmic value in that 1.1mm kids (the largest public school system in the US) will be getting exposure to computational thinking and learning how to code.

If you, like me, had that life changing experience some time in your childhood where you entered some instructions into a screen and the machine executed them, well then you know the power of coding to make you think differently, make you think more, and endow you with superpowers that others just don't have. If you want to help me inject that experience into the NYC public school system, then think about investing in this fund alongside us.

If you want to change something as large as the NYC public school system, you need to start small but think big. We have started with a friends and family round and have some things to show for it.

Csnyc map
Now it is time for seed capital so we can replicate these programs in more schools and back new programs, like, and help them come to NYC. That's where this seed fund comes in.

Eventually, it will be time for a growth round, and that's where the large philanthropic organizations come in. If you work at or with one of them, please reach out to me and we would love to come talk to you about what we are doing.

All of this investment is leveraged by the significant investments the NYC Department of Education is making in new schools, new school leaders, new curriculum, teacher development, and over 80,000 teachers. Think about it this way. The one time investment we made to get the Academy For Software Engineering off the ground is less than 20% of the annual operating budget of that school, all of which is funded by the NYC Department of Education. The power of public/private partnerships is that private capital can fund new things, that when they work can be scaled by public investment. That's what we are doing here.

On November 18th, we are hosting an event at USV where we will talk in more detail about how we intend to invest this $5mm fund. It will be 6pm to 8pm in the USV Event Space. Because we can only fit about 60-70 people in that space, attendance is limited to those who can make a $5,000 investment or more. If you would like to come, please RSVP here.

We will be doing a crowfunding campaign so that everyone can participate in this fund. I plan to announce that next week so stay tuned.

There will also be opportunities for everyone to volunteer time instead of money. We are already seeing the power of that in action and I am incredibly grateful to everyone who is taking time out of their day to go into schools and teach kids to code.

I got to this place initially out of self interest (how to get more coders for our portfolio companies in NYC?), but it quickly became about way more than that. When you walk into a school and see kids from neighborhoods like Brownsville and the South Bronx sitting in front of laptops and making software using modern tools like Ruby On Rails, Github, and StackOverflow, you see a pathway for them and for our city and for our country to change what ails us. This is about that. I hope you will join us in this effort.