Timothy Lord for Slashdot: Bob, what is Devoxx 4 Kids?
Bob Paulin : Devoxx 4 Kids is an organization based around inspiring children to pursue careers in technology and science subjects. So Devoxx 4 Kids basically is there to provide the spark that initial interest in it and then the kids can – as they get interested they can grow and further pursue those things on their own or through other programs that are out there.
Slashdot: Before we get into exactly what goes on at a Devoxx 4 Kids event, what's in your program? And tell about the name, it’s makes me think DevOps.
Bob: Yeah, no, Devoxx is two x’s at the end, D-E-V-O-X-X, and it comes out of the Devoxx conference which started in Europe out of the Belgium JUG. So the Devoxx conference Daniel De Luca eventually started a kids conference that was kind of augmented off from the Devoxx conference, which started spreading through Europe and then Arun Gupta from RedHat brought that to the U.S. on to the Bay Area. And since then it has been spreading throughout the U.S. where we’ve got probably about half a dozen if not more cities with events being set up at any given time.
Slashdot: And you are basically starting up the program in Chicago?
Bob: That’s right, so I’m running the Devoxx 4 kids Chicagoland program, and we’ve got our first event coming up on May 3rd at Loyola University in Chicago, we’ve got three different tracks starting kids from 6 to 18 years old with tracks on Conductive Playdoh so Squishy Circuits scratch, Lego Mindstorm and then Minecraft Modding. And a lot of this is based on a lot of the material that was created in the Bay Area, that was created from the Devoxx 4 Kids in Europe, because I mean the idea is you get all of these computer science folks together, we all share our materials, we share our learning in working with kids because none of us are full time teachers, we are practitioners and then we can go out and we can recreate these events, and set that initial spark that kids are looking for, oh, this is what IT is about, this is kind of the really cool things that I can do with computers.
Slashdot: You mentioned you came out of a JUG, a Java User Group?
Slashdot: But it’s obviously not completely based on Java.
Bob: Sure, yeah. I mean the Conductive Playdoh is not even necessarily a programming language, right? But at the early ages you are trying to bring the material to what the kids are already using, so Playdoh, Minecraft are both extremely popular, but at very different age groups, so by being able to take the material that the kids are already playing with, and show them how you can augment that with computers and programming languages or how you can tweak it and learn it, it’s really exciting for them because these are everyday things for them, they are things that they are working with every day and they’re now seeing this entire different view of how they work.
Slashdot: Now you are serving as a volunteer or coordinator?
Bob: Right, yeah, no I’m a volunteer, I mean we are all volunteers. Nobody is paid for this. The organization is a 501(c) (3) organization. So it’s a charitable organization; companies donate in order to help fund the initiatives that we do. We do charge a very minimal amount for our labs, so individual labs are anywhere from $15 and you get a T-shirt out of it, and then our conference which is the two session conferences is $30 you get a T-shirt, you get lunch, and maybe some goody bags to bring home with you.
Slashdot: One thing about computer education for kids, it’s a question that we get a lot at Slashdot, is how do you keep kids interested or introducing them gently and not turn them off?
Bob: Yeah, I mean the key is to show them how it’s useful to them, because kids are used to having math kind of shoved down their throat; 'this is how you do addition, this is how you do multiplication,' shown the process and not always given an application for how that is useful to them. We try to take kind of the reverse approach, where we are going to show them how it’s useful to them without necessarily teaching them the theory. So they may feel they are very productive and they can do a lot of things, but it’s still – it’s really just setting the stage for additional things, where they are going to learn the theory, where they are going to go into other programs like first, I know, we saw some things at Apache Con where they were teaching in high school, those are really kind of the next step to say hey, this is great. I really enjoyed this, now let’s learn the theory behind it and maybe make this a career for myself.
Slashdot: I’d say this sounds like a little gentler introduction.
Bob: Exactly, I mean the idea is not to scare them away with object oriented design with sorting, algorithms and things like that, it’s really more hacker culture, it’s – we have working programs or you are not necessarily starting from scratch, but you’re having them fill in and see, 'oh well, if I tweak this variable I can turn off gravity, or if I tweak this I can make the bot move and detect whether I’m hitting a wall or not,' those little things have a high impact on kids, because they see it as something that’s tangible to them.
Slashdot: You mentioned to me earlier that your introduction to the world of technology was trying to think through video games?
Bob: Yeah, I mean when I started thinking about going into IT I was a kid and you know, I saw video games as kind of an output of that and just always wondered how do these things work, how does computer graphics work and that was kind of what sucked me into the program. You know, I came from two great but nontechnical parents so there wasn’t a whole lot of guidance on that level. And one of the things that we are trying to get into for Devoxx 4 Kids is bringing that to the kids where... most parents are non-technical, they don’t understand technology but they can bring the kids to this event, get a sense of whether they like it or not and the parents come too. So they can kind of get a sense of oh, these are things that I could be putting them in, whether that’s first in robotics, whether that’s Teals if they are in high school, whether it’s going to code.org and doing more tutorials. There is a ton of stuff out there.
Slashdot: No conflict between any of these?
Bob: No conflict. I think they all kind of augment each other, you know. Some of them are feeders into the others, but I think Devoxx 4 Kids is really that initial one. It’s 'I invest a day or maybe a session and a very small amount of money to find out if this is something that my kid gets excited about.' And if that happens, then it’s like okay, now I can spend the money and take that next step and take some things home with me.
Slashdot: I think shifting... do you find from pure software, can you talk about instructing for kids to 3D printing, robotics, all these seem to be loved?
Bob: Yeah, I mean I think the more it’s a physical thing, the more the kids can get involved in it. So you know, seeing you have Arduino, you have Raspberry Pi, you got 3D printing where I can use the technology to build things in the real world, that just makes it more real for them. And so involving those things in the lab is pretty exciting. I mean, you know the robotics angle, typing commands and just seeing colors appear is cool but if I can type a command in and make something move and do something sophisticated that’s even more exciting, right? I told it to do this, it did it and I wasn’t actually physically manipulating the machine.
Slashdot: Do you test things on your own kids?
Bob: I do. So my kids are guinea pigs and we’ve done this Squishy Circuits lab, my – both my six year or my seven year old, I can’t call him 6 year old, he will get mad at me, even my two and half year old was having some fun with the circuits, because there are buzzers, he even was sticking the different wires in and saying if I put it in this side it doesn’t make any sound, but if I put it in this side it buzzes. I mean that’s the kind of connection, the fun that you can bring out in these labs. We’ve done the NXT lab because we were in first for an entire year doing junior high where the kids actually built the first model. So do I guinea pig on my kids? Absolutely.
Slashdot: If people want to see this in their own city, what’s the best route?
Bob: I mean the best route is there is an info link at Devoxx4kids.org which sends it to the leaders list. And again, we’re always looking for more people to collaborate with. We are looking for this to grow. We’re – you know, it doesn’t have to start with a big conference – that’s just kind of how we decided to start in Chicago. They can start with a meeting of just like 5 to 10 people in somebody’s house. And then grow it as it grows. But, yeah I mean, reaching out to leadership, saying hey I am interested in this, getting access to materials, which are all open, they are all on Github. Anybody can download them and try them on their own if they want to. So really the barrier to entry is not very high, it really just takes ambition, it takes motivation and desire to do it.