You can tell that Cesar Tron-Lozai is comfortable with kids. He starts off a Java training session for scores of Minecraft enthusiasts—which, given the virtual world’s player demographic, tends to be made up of fidget spinner-toting preteens—with a quick behavioral training trick, teaching them to holler and then shush when he plays a cow sound on his phone. Then he dives into Minecraft modding, asking the kids to open up the Eclipse integrated development environment (IDE) on the provided laptops.
“Does everyone know what a catapult is? Search for it in your Minecraft inventory. That’s c-a-t-a-p-u-l-t,” says Tron-Lozai, a London-based software engineer working mostly in Java who has volunteered with Devoxx4kids, which was started in Belgium in 2013, and the US branch of Devoxx4kids, founded by Arun Gupta in 2013. Gupta’s teenage son sits at the lead computer, demonstrating the precise commands to type for the Minecraft modding workshop.
There is no catapult, but the kids are about to discover this bespoke mod is waiting to be activated. Tron-Lozai asks them to search for lines 44 and 45 in the Java code, where they discover code that has been “commented out,” or ghosted. Removing the double slashes before the code causes the compiler to process the instructions the next time they run the program. Now, in Minecraft, they’re able to access the catapult. Over the next two hours, the kids display admirable focus as they add new code to the catapult module that allows it to throw cows and cause explosions. Even more impressive? How Tron-Lozai teaches them “not just to code, but the right way to write code,” using the IDE’s productivity-enhancing autocomplete suggestions and showing them where to find different modules in Eclipse.
Robots, Gadgets, and Programming
“This is the fourth year that we’re doing JavaOne4Kids, and the really exciting news is that we were oversubscribed. We had 450 registration spaces and we filled them all. So that’s fabulous. We’re actually at a 60/40 ratio this year of boys to girls. That’s extraordinary for a computing event,” says Alison Derbenwick Miller, vice president of Oracle Academy.
Many of the children attending are repeat customers. “We’re programming a button and a light sensor right now. We made a game where you press a button and an icon goes into the hole because the zombies can’t go into the light,” says Miriya, a 12-year-old girl who attended last year as well. “I think I might buy a Raspberry Pi.”
The volunteer spirit at JavaOne4Kids brings entire families to the event. Ten-year-old Zayne is a first-time attendee who also happens to have his own YouTube channel where he does cooking. “I’m interested in coding and building robots. I’ve built a robot using Lego Mindstorms at a workshop,” he says. Meanwhile, his older brothers are both volunteering. Another volunteer, Kenneth Baltz, is a software engineer from Dixon, a farming town outside Sacramento, California. His son came for the first two years of JavaOne4Kids, and his daughter has attended for the last two years. He stays to volunteer since the family makes a long-distance train trip to attend the event.
With a public high school—d.tech—opening on its campus in spring 2018, Oracle isn’t about staid philanthropy. Under Miller’s stewardship, the flagship Oracle Academy, which started in 1993, has tripled in size to support more than 12,000 institutions and 3.5 million students in 120 countries—with a staff of only 45. Miller says that d.tech “is the only public high school on a technology company campus in the world, as far as we know.”
Reaching young coders and increasing diversity in computer science are priorities the event organizers share. “We teach computational thinking,” says Nilay Yener, a community manager and board member for Devoxx4Kids USA. Skills like how to break down a problem, find help, test solutions, and collaborate are highly transferrable to any complex endeavor. In terms of gender diversity, the obstacle is not that girls don’t want to program, but that they stop doing it in high school and college, Nilay says: “A lot of girls start out in computer programming, but then leave. What we want to work on is keeping them there.”
Alexa Weber Morales is a content strategist and editor at Oracle.