Inspiring the Next Gen of Tech Workers

It has been called "America's persistent problem": not enough skilled workers to fill millions of job openings. The high-tech sector in particular has complained for years about the country's shallow pool of tech talent. Some leading companies in that sector have partnered with online education providers in hope of deepening that pool in the relatively near term. Google, AT&T, Facebook, and Twitter, for example, have worked with Udacity to create targeted online certification programs, a few of which provide training for specific jobs currently available.

Some high-tech companies are also acting with an eye toward the future with programs and events aimed at K-12 students and educators. Oracle, for example, recently partnered with Devoxx4Kids to provide a day-long program of computing workshops at the company's annual JavaOne conference in San Francisco.

JavaOne4Kids debuted at the previous year's conference, attracting 150 students between the ages of 10 and 18. The most recent event attracted 450 students, many of whom were the children of JavaOne conference attendees. Virtually all were local Bay Area residents; 150 were at-risk students from Oakland school districts, who were given passes to attend. 

"We had a big wait list last year," said Alison Derbenwick Miller, VP of Oracle Academy, which co-sponsored the event with Devoxx4Kids, "so we knew they were coming."

Oracle Academy is a philanthropic organization that provides online computer science educational resources for teachers and students. The Academy is addressing the U.S. shortage of tech-savvy workers by dealing with another shortfall.

"We teach teachers how to teach computer science," Miller said. "A lot of what we teach is coding, certainly, and we do sponsor outreach events like JavaOne4Kids to get students excited about computer science, but we're focused on solving the supply-side problem we've created in this country. Nowadays kids want computer science, the schools want computer science, and the states want computer science, but they're aren't enough teachers qualified to teach it."

Oracle Academy was founded in 1993 and originally focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education, Miller said, but that focus narrowed over time.

"Not all STEM fields need this kind of support today," she said. "We don't really need more biology majors. But we do need more people with computer science skills. We simply can't find enough qualified people to hire. But this isn't just a tech-sector problem. Nobody can find enough qualified people these days. Oracle has more than 400,000 customers around the world who use technology products — ours and others' — and they need to hire people, too."

Devoxx is the commercial organizer of a series of international conferences for Java, Android, and HTML developers, primarily in Europe. Devoxx4Kids is a nonprofit arm of that enterprise that organizes student-focused workshops like JavaOne4Kids.

Arun Gupta, who founded Devoxx4Kids USA, was on hand at the JavaOne event. As the volunteer chair of the organization, he oversees U.S. operations. In his day job, Gupta serves as director of the Developer Advocacy group at Red Hat, where he focuses on JBoss Middleware. He actually started what would become Devoxx4Kids USA three years ago by hosting Minecraft modding workshops in his Silicon Valley living room for his son and about a dozen of his son's friends. The official organization is now about two years old, and there are eight chapters in the United States, as well as chapters in more than a dozen other countries, from Belgium to Indonesia.

Devoxx4Kids conducts hands-on workshops for K-12 schools, public libraries, and even neighborhoods, during which students build computer games, program robots, build computer circuits, and program microcontrollers. The group also organizes corporate events, such as JavaOne4Kids. This year, the group sponsored similar events for this year's Red Hat Summit and O'Reilly's OSCON. And Devoxx4Kids is not just for kids, Gupta said.

"In some places we have done Devoxx4Kids for parents," he said. "They participate with us in the workshop and learn what we are teaching their kids, so that they can support them at home."

Gupta is also working with San Mateo Country, south of San Francisco, on a district-wide teacher training workshop, which he said he hopes to make available as open source content online.

"Teachers are overworked and underpaid, so our goal is to keep the bar super low for them," Gupta said. "We're saying, you don't really have to do anything. Just ask me your questions and we're ready to empower you."

In fact, all of the group's content and materials are available on the GitHub repository. And all of the software and hardware used by students and teachers in the workshops is open source — things like the Python programming language, the HTML5 markup language, MIT's Scratch, the Alice 3D programming environment, the Greenfoot Java IDE, and the Raspberry Pi credit-card sized computer.

Last year, the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of Devoxx4Kids held 40 meet ups and reached out to about 3,000 students, Gupta said.

Daniel DeLuca, worldwide manager of the Devoxx4Kids initiative and co-organizer of Devoxx4Kids in Belgium, also attended the JavaOne event. DeLuca, who is a freelance Java SE/EE developer, pointed to another statistic: The subscriptions for Devoxx4Kids events often run out in a day, he said, sometimes in an hour. "There's huge demand for them among parents and teachers," he said, "let alone the kids."

The JavaOne4Kids event maxed out in a matter of hours, Miller said. The day-long program included workshops that ranged from simple sessions designed for younger kids to sophisticated projects aimed at older students. There was an introduction to HTML5 and JavaScript for game development; a hands-on lab in which participants used the Polymer Web component library to build simple Web sites; a Minecraft modding (modifying the popular game) session using Forge 1.8; a session in which students learned how to program a Finch robot with Greenfoot and with Java; and even a session introducing the Scala functional programming language to fourth graders.

"We wanted to show the children different topics in IT," DeLuca explained. "So we included electronics, robotics, programming, so they have an idea of what these things are, and then if they like something, they can continue in that direction."

"But it's not just technology," Gupta added. "There's really a STEAM (STEM plus Arts) aspect. We have done paper circuit workshops. And we have the Squishy Circuit workshop at this event. If you think about it, 'Arts' is what binds this all together."

The "Squishy Circuit" session, geared for younger children, involved conductive and insulating play dough, batteries, LEDs, and wires.

The JavaOne4Kids program was essentially tech-agnostic, though it did include a few Oracle Academy sessions, and some Java projects. Oracle became the steward of the Java language and platform when it acquired Sun Microsystems in 2009.

"We teach Java, not just because we're the stewards, but because its used in millions of devices," Miller said. "Also, it's the language used in the AP Computer Science A Exam."

Miller was especially proud to report that nearly 50 percent of the kids participating in this year's JavaOne4Kids event were girls. "That's huge!" she said. "And it really gives me hope for our future."

Companies that support and promote computer science education are clearly acting out of an enlightened self interest, Miller admitted, but she hastened to add that there's ultimately more to it than that.

"We believe that any job in the future that pays a living wage is going to require some understanding of programming," she said. "People won't necessarily need to be able to write applications, but they'll need know how to, say, run a SQL query and how to extract and use data. But more than that, people will need an understanding of the technology that is so quickly becoming an inescapable part of their everyday lives. And that knowledge is absolutely essential for kids. Think about it this way: It would be pretty easy for kids who don't have a background in computer science to be duped by people who do. Kids need to understand how technology works, not just how to use it."

"The truth is, we don't care if the kids attending JavaOne4Kids actually become programmers," she said. "Glad to have them in the workforce, but that's not our primary goal. But we do hope that a workshop like this will turn them on to the technology so they can see the possibilities."

Oracle might be going further than any other tech company in its efforts to promote computer science education in K-12. During JavaOne, the company revealed plans to build a high school on its Redwood Shores, CA, campus. The new 64,000-square-foot Design Tech High School (nicknamed "") will be a free charter school "that incorporates technology, design thinking, and problem solving skills to help students prepare for successful careers," the company said in a statement. The school will be in the San Mateo Union High School district, employ 30 faculty, and serve 550 students. The company expects to finish construction in the fall of 2017.