By Roger Smith
The hands-on coding fair JavaOne4Kids, held the day before the kickoff of JavaOne in San Francisco, introduced a happy throng of children to the joys of learning to develop computer games and program robots.
Volunteer computer professionals led sessions on a range of topics, including child-friendly beginner-level programming languages like Scratch and Alice, as well as moderately more complex ones like Greenfoot. Advanced learners could pick from sessions on more advanced tools such as Arduino, LEGO Mindstorms, Minecraft Modding, Python, HTML5, and Raspberry Pi gaming.
Organizers believe that programs like JavaOne4Kids are crucial to introducing younger people to coding—one of the most vital skills for kids to develop in the coming decade. That’s especially true if Ray Kurzweil is anywhere close to being right; in a recent TED talk, the famous futurist predicted that by the 2020s, we will be using artificial intelligence to supplement much of our natural anatomy (including our brains). For many parents, the question won’t be whether to ensure their kids study Spanish or Chinese, but rather which programming language they should start with.
Building a Java Community
Java is a great place to start, and Oracle offers numerous websites and tools to teach young people how to program using Java, based on the learner’s age and aptitude. These range from Scratch (for ages 5 to 15), a simple programming language with a drag-and-drop interface, to Alice (less simple for ages 8 to 22), a 3D educational software tool with a drag-and-drop interface for creating animations; to Greenfoot (less simple, for ages 13 to 25), a visual 2D educational software tool with a code editor for creating games and simulations.
More than 400 young people learned programming skills at this year’s JavaOne4Kids event.
Scratch, Alice, and Greenfoot are all Java-based tools that require no previous programming experience. Once students have cleared these initial programming hurdles, they can then move on to BlueJ, a professional Java development tool with a simplified interface for beginners, and then later to the NetBeans BlueJ Edition IDE (Integrated Development Environment).
A collaboration of the global Devoxx4Kids initiative and Oracle Academy, this year’s JavaOne4Kids attracted 450 attendees, three times as many as last year’s event. "At the rate we’re going, we’ll be bigger than the regular JavaOne conference in a few years!” says Arun Gupta of the nonprofit group Devoxx4Kids Bay Area.
“We’re particularly proud that at least 150 of the young people this year come from communities underrepresented in the computer science field," adds Alison Derbenwick Miller, vice president of Oracle Academy, Oracle’s flagship program in educational philanthropy.
Java Stars in the Making
A case in point is Charles Samples Jr., a 10-year-old fifth-grader who goes to the Cox Academy in Oakland, California. He attended one of the most popular Saturday afternoon coding sessions, involving NAO humanoid robots. Created by Aldebaran Robotics, NAO is a two-foot-tall humanoid robot with flexible joints that can be programmed to walk, talk, catch small objects, and even dance. According to Charles Samples Sr., his son learned about the workshop from a teacher at his Oakland school. "We only heard about this opportunity last week. It's a terrific place for my son to practice the skills he has and learn more."
Oracle Chief Information Officer Mark Sunday, whose son is interested in Java programming, volunteered at the JavaOne4Kids event.
Among the volunteer teachers and proctors at the event was Oracle Chief Information Officer Mark Sunday, responsible for the company's global IT infrastructure. Sunday said his 15-year-old son Jake got into Java programming after he learned the game Minecraft, which is written in Java. "I, like every other parent, initially tried to get him away from the computer," Sunday said. "But then I realized he was acquiring some invaluable skills. I noticed that he was even getting up at 3 or 4 in the morning to work collaboratively with his buddy in England—which is something I sometimes do to keep up with the thousands of employees in 50 countries who work for me. So he's developing some great habits in global collaboration."
One of the most inspiring speakers at the JavaOne4Kids event was Hania Guiagoussou, a high school student from Dublin, California, who developed a "Water Saver" system to monitor and control water usage in gardens and fields. "I wasn’t into programming until I took a Java programming summer workshop at Oracle in 2011, where I learned object-oriented programming using Alice," she told attendees. "I was a newbie, just like many of you."
She used Java to develop her Water Saver science fair project, an effort that won several awards, including a Pan-African award in Chad—where her parents are from—that earned her a $10,000 prize. Hania is also in the running for one of this year's Duke's Choice Awards, which celebrate extreme innovation in the Java developer ecosystem.
The JavaOne4Kids conference couldn't take place without dedicated volunteer Java instructors like Bert Jan Schrijver, a software craftsman at JPoint, a software company based in the Netherlands. Schrijver said that 10 of his 20-person Java team made a commitment to come one day early to this year's JavaOne conference to help teach coding to kids. "It's our way of giving back. We're all active in teaching various Dutch Devoxx4Kids groups. This is our first time teaching in English, but we're all pretty bilingual when it comes to talking about Java."
Despite being a bilingual computer professional, Schrijver said he agreed with recent child-rearing advice from Ray Kurzweil, namely that “the only second language you should really worry about your kids learning is programming."