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What We’ve Learned at Devoxx4Kids about Teaching Technology to Kids

| Posted by Daniel De Luca) Follow 0 Followers , Devoxx4Kids.org (Arun Gupta Follow 0 Followers on Dec 23, 2015. Estimated reading time: 6 minutes |

It is not far fetched to claim that technology is here to stay, and if you want to guide your kids onto a long term career, software development is definitely high on that list.

That said, explaining technology to kids is not an easy endeavor; the concepts are abstract and generally not related to things young people have experienced. Classes, instances, loops, exceptions, libraries, switches, routers, the cloud, app servers, containers, databases, NoSQL, amps, Ohm’s Law, etc. It’s enough to scare away grownups!

Kids like to have fun so why not try a different approach? Certainly not through the same books and articles that we adults read.

At Devoxx4Kids our approach has been most successful and you can apply this at home with your own kids; we inspire children while having fun; we get kids excited about technology with the hope that many of them will become producers of technology in future. Through a variety of hands-on workshops where children have fun building computer games, programming robots, building circuits, and programming microcontrollers, we have seen very positive results.

The goal here is to break the classic teacher/student relationship from school and encourage them to do pair programming with other kids, allowing them to be the coder and the creator.

And do not think for a minute that age is a limitation. Our DrTechniko workshop has demonstrated that as early as four years old kids demonstrate a sufficient degree of program reasoning to write fairly intricate programs. Even without a computer, keyboard, or mouse, children can become acquainted with fundamental program logic using nothing more than a strategically designed set of paper signs, that they can use to create sequences of instructions that are executed serially or concurrently with the aid of a parent, relative or coach. Yes at the age of four our tender progeny can start programming a human(oid) robot.

After some practice they can begin to manipulate a mouse and keyboard, and they can start programming a real game using browser based Scratch, or do some storytelling using Alice, a standalone “IDE” or NetBeans plugin.


Scratch

Those two visual programming tools allow children to program an animation or game by dragging & dropping blocks that control the specific actions of the game’s sprites, including movement, sound, and event handling that can be done at a most basic level, but provides a granular resolution for more precise control as the child becomes more familiar. It’s like building a wall with LEGO blocks - simple and intuitive. If a block does not find a fit with its predecessor, then the action you’re trying to perform is not possible. There is no pesky syntax to remember and no errors!

We take things a step further and expose them to basic object oriented (OO) concepts using Greenfoot, an interactive Java development environment, designed primarily for educational purposes.


Greenfoot

Greenfoot is the perfect environment for introducing children to OO concepts, allowing them to develop graphical applications such as simulations and interactive games. Kids also get their first taste of Java programming.

For even more fun with Java, kids can create “Minecraft mods”, a workshop we’ve used very effectively to introduce Java programming to kids between eight and nine. We bypass the traditional rote incantations such as “public static void main” and all of the other dry Java syntax, and instead teach them how to make skeletons fight with each other or print a message when zombies are spawned. In the process, they begin to get the feel for the basics of variables, types, string concatenation, and even more advanced concepts as they progress.

But we mustn’t stop with programming computers. There is a great new field of robotics sprouting up all around us; our lives are surrounded by new robotized versions of our old appliances such as washing machines, dishwashers, and vacuum cleaners, and nowadays they all require programming.

At Devoxx4Kids we introduce children to robotics using two affordable and very enjoyable robots; Thymio and Lego Mindstorms. Such robots can be used by children age seven and up, to build either a “snake” (multiple Thymios, one after each other), or make the robot follow a particular path, while crafting the program to do such things as avoid bumping into other robots. These smart props provide plenty of easy to program functionality in a way that is lots of fun for kids of all ages. Mindstorms are used by older children to make use of all the possible sensors provided by Lego.


Thymio

Both Thymio and Mindstorms provide an easy drag and drop development environment that children can use to quickly start programming amazing robot behaviors. After some initial guidance the kids are free to explore and express their own imagination.

In some countries, we also use the famous NAO robot created by Aldebaran robotics.


NAO Humanoid Robot

NAO is a professional humanoid robot that offers many additional capabilities. For example, it can connect to the network/internet and use available online services. This allows us to introduce children to the notion of the Internet Of Things, programming NAO to be a butler giving us details about the local weather, the latest football game score, etc… you name it. And kids feel really excited when they are empowered.

Regarding the Internet Of Things, here also you can show children that electronics can be fun. Raspberry PI and Arduino are the perfect platforms for that; providing an inexpensive, safe, and easy way to start their basic computer training as well as electrical engineering exposure. Our workshops teach kids how to build their own computer and run Scratch on it, or build a traffic lights control systems. Squishy Circuits lower the age of participation to much younger kids. 


Squishy Circuits

It is impossible to describe here all of the programming possibilities that children have today. There is no comparison with what we used 20 or 30 years ago. Decades of innovation have passed, offering an amazing world of devices, techniques, and environments, many free of charge, to expose our kids to the amazing world of “computer” programming.

A last word: There is a general misconception that programming is mostly for boys. We’ve experienced a strong presence of girls in our workshops and we are very excited about that. The passion and focus in girls is very often much more than the boys. This has been proven several times during our Devoxx4Kids Events worldwide. And a word about Devoxx4Kids - our events are organized for ALL children; boys, girls, poor, rich, with disabled (support of parents required) etc.

No discrimination is allowed; it is immortalized in our Manifesto!

So what are you waiting for… share your passion! The skills you teach your kids now will produce fruits for the rest of their lives.

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give” (Winston Churchill)

About the Authors

Daniel De Luca is the Worldwide manager of the Devoxx4Kids initiative and co-organizer of Devoxx4Kids Events in Belgium. Passionate about Software Architecture, Java SE/EE and IT in general, Daniel love to share his passion to children, showing them how they can become the wizards of tomorrow. Daniel is also Steering Member of the Devoxx BE conference, Steering Member of BeJUG and Freelance.

Arun Gupta is a founding member of Devoxx4Kids USA. As a chair of the board, he oversees the operation of this nonprofit organization and ensures it stays true to its mission of igniting STEAM spark among kids. During the day, he works as Vice President, Developer Advocacy, at Couchbase. He has spent several years building and coaching middleware applications at Sun Microsystems, Oracle, and Red Hat. Arun has extensive speaking experience in ~40 countries on myriad topics and is a JavaOne Rockstar. An author of a best-selling book, an avid runner, a globe trotter, a Java champion, Silicon Valley JUG leader, he is easily accessible on Twitter (@arungupta).

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