In a vast San Francisco conference room, children quietly sit at workstations, awaiting instructions. When it comes time to open the boxes each one has sitting in front of them, they do so eagerly. Inside they find horseshoe crab-shaped Finch robots.
“Now, don’t turn them upside down—they don’t like that. And careful not to hold them above your head for too long, or they’ll poop on you,” jokes Gary Miller, an Oracle principal instructor for Europe, Middle East, and Africa. The middle-schoolers are too absorbed to laugh. In just two hours, scores of kids ages 10 to 18 will learn how to program the robots in Greenfoot, a popular visual interface for teaching Java programming.
“This was the first time I was teaching kids, and I was terrified. I teach Java, Finch programming, and more—but to adults. It was organized chaos, but they got through a lot of the advanced course,” says Miller at the class’s wildly successful conclusion. He surveys a room now decorated with art drawn by the robots and obstacle courses made of boxes.
“What we try to do with JavaOne4Kids is to give kids that ‘tech conference’ experience that they wouldn’t otherwise have. Get them together with a cohort of kids who love computer science, and spend the whole day in workshops and meeting with Oracle experts. As far as we know, this is the only conference like it in the world,” says Alison Derbenwick Miller, vice president of Oracle Academy.
The hands-on event is a collaboration with the global Devoxx4kids initiative, which was started in Belgium in 2013. Java EE Architect Daniel De Luca, worldwide manager of the Devoxx4Kids Initiative, is leading the Nao robotics session here in San Francisco. His US counterpart, Arun Gupta, is teaching in conjunction with his son: “This year we have seven young speakers leading sessions. These guys need to be producers as opposed to consumers. That’s of paramount importance,” says Gupta, who founded the US branch of Devoxx4kids in 2013.
With a public high school—d.tech—opening on its campus in fall 2017, Oracle isn’t about staid philanthropy. Under Miller’s stewardship, the flagship Oracle Academy, which started in 1993, has tripled in size to support nearly 10,000 institutions and 3.1 million students in 110 countries—with a staff of only 40.
“We don’t do grants. We do sponsorship. We are in the classroom working with the kids and with the teachers who have ‘Aha’ moments. It’s so much more rewarding than just giving funding,” says Miller. There’s a shortage not just of future programmers, Miller notes, but of teachers. “We provide free software, curriculum, and training for the teachers. We also have conferences for girls and women in IT. We’re seeing that there’s a giant inflection point for girls quitting computer science after third grade, eighth grade, and freshman year in college. We’re trying not to have bias toward boys or bias toward rich kids,” she says.
At last year’s JavaOne4Kids, 38% of the attendees were girls, according to Miller. The goal? 50%.
“This guy-girl stuff—it’s so twentieth century. Let’s get on with it!” says Kiefer Mayenkar, an Oracle employee whose 11-year-old daughter, Miriya, has attended the conference for two years.
“Last year I did Nao robot and then programming Finch with Greenfoot and then ‘Zero to Fractals in One Hour,’’ she recalls with a smile. Her father jumps back in: “My job is to expose her to as much as possible. I tell her, ‘Whatever you do, beat all the guys—and not just by a little bit!’”
Alexandra Weber Morales, principal with World Wind Writing, is the former editor in chief of a Latin American medical technology publication and, later, Software Development magazine.