Chicago Tech Fun Field Day – Planning the Event

Once we had the venue everything started kicking into high gear to prepare for the event.  Fortunately having experience running the Chicago Java User Group made this a lot easier.  We followed our JUG blueprint:

  1. Focus on the best content for the schedule
  2. Find the best people to present it
  3. Get the word out! Twitter, Message Board on other Meetups, Emails, Talks/Lightning Talks on the topics with User Groups

Creating the schedule was easy.  Devoxx4Kids already had a huge selection of material involving Minecraft, Lego Mindstorm, NAO Robots, Scratch, and a number of do it yourself labs.  Many of the labs could be done at very low cost and having the material already available made getting off the ground much simpler.  For the initial event we didn’t know where we’d find the most interest so we selected 3 tracks targeting ages 6 – 10, 8 – 14 and 10 – 18.  The age groups are pretty large but since so little Computer Science is taught in school it was nearly all new material for most kids.  Additionally Devoxx4Kids does not focus on the teaching the theory, rather it’s more about getting the kids to tinker and play.

For the youngest group (6 – 10) we selected the Circuit Art (Conductive Playdoh) course from Pavi and Pradeep Bhatter.  We thought this activity was perfect for the younger age group and I had a lot of success beta testing it on my own kids.  Even my 3 yr old was engaged with watching the lights go on and off when the ends were plugged in and out of the playdoh.  Then since we assumed the attention spans would be very low we decided to switch to Scratch in the afternoon.  Scratch is a drag and drop programming language designed at MIT to do simple animation and games.  We were extremely impressed by the content put up by with the characters from the movie Frozen so we decided to base the afternoon session on that.

For the middle group (8 -14) we settled on Lego Mindstorm.  I had spent the last 5 months coaching my kids’ FIRST Jr FLL team so I was able to get some real hands on experience teaching tech to kids.  And after seeing how much the kids enjoyed it I knew we’d have to find some way to fit it into the Devoxx4Kids event.  I think there’s something about the interaction kids get when they see code influence real objects rather than just things on the screen.  The Lego Mindstorm is a very deep topic so we dedicated a morning and an afternoon session.  I thought trying to get the bot to trace a line would be the goal we would build up to.  Lego Mindstorms are great but they are not cheap.  The Fox Valley Robotics Club saved the day for us by loaning us 6 bots for the event.  FIRST clubs can be good partners for Devoxx4Kids events.  FIRST is all about inspiring kids to get involved in STEM careers through various robotics challenges.  It’s a good deal for Devoxx4Kids because they were able to provide us with equipment and some experienced kids to help with the event.  It was good for the Club since it was an opportunity for us to let kids know about their summer camp and school year competition program.

Finally for the older kids it was really easy because we all wanted to do the Minecraft Modding course.  This is the course that Aditya and Arun Gupta had been running at the Bay Area chapter.  This was another one that was a successful beta test on my kids.  The Forge modding framework is really flexible allowing you to change nearly anything about the game.  How it works is really quite sophisticated but the magic is how simple it is to use.  Doing things like modifying game state or spawning Ender Dragons can be done is just a few lines of code.

1) Beta test the courses on your kids.  It’s great practice and can get you great feedback on what to focus on or what will be hard.

So next we needed help teaching.  The idea of teaching kids can be the most intimidating part of hosting an event.  However it’s actually not as scary as it looks.  There are a ton of parallels to other things engineers already might be doing in their free time like coach sports, running user groups, or even working in open source communities.  And remember Devoxx4Kids is not really about teaching kids OO, sorting algorithms or Big-O.  It’s about showing them cool things you can do with technology so they’re inspired to learn those things.  It’s like comparing coaching college sports to Pee Wee football.  In college football there are expectations but Pee Wee Football is all about fun.  Devoxx4Kids is the Pee Wee football of the tech industry.  So when it came to volunteers it was all about getting the best people that understood that.  So we found people that would be a good fit which ranged from a Java Champion and college professors to IT Managers and Jr Programmers.  We also found 4 kids to help out as well.  After beta testing the Circuit Art course my older 2 got really excited and they decided they wanted to help present.  Also we got 2 kids from the Fox Valley Robotics Club that took second in state in the Robot portion of the competition to help out.  So we had a mix of first time and veteran presenters.  That said we all had one thing in common, none of us had every done a technology workshop with kids.  But we were all excited to try.

2) You don’t need to be the worlds greatest programmer to help.  Just need to put in the time and energy to make it fun for the kids.

In order to keep the costs down we reached out to Chicago companies for sponsorship.  We found that a great number of companies set aside money for initiatives like this but you need to reach them at the right time and meet their criteria.  We had the most success with either the companies that employed us or friends that were running technology companies.  I think with our first event in the books we’ll have more success getting sponsorship in the future.  Many of the questions you’ll get asked if you go down this route is program goals, how your program reaches out to disadvantaged youth and number of expected attendees.  I know one conversation we had just the fact that we were only taking credit cards was an issue as there are some neighborhood in Chicago where that’s not the norm.  Many of these are answered in the Devoxx4Kids Manifesto.  One thing that did surprise many of our potential sponsors was the price.  At $30 for an entire day with snacks, a T-Shirt, and lunch they could not imagine how we were doing it.  Having high quality volunteers to run the event for free was clearly a big seller.

Finally we needed to get the word out.  For this we contacted teachers at area schools via email (in Chicago many teachers email addresses are publicly available), contacted technology user groups in Chicago to either give a pre-meetup pitch or post to their boards, and general word of mouth to family and friends.  The user group announcements worked best since not only did we find interested parents but also a number of volunteers and walk around helpers for the event.  Even non-technical folks such as recruiters and friends of engineers can help run registration which is hugely important when you’re throwing a big event.

3) Create a budget and keep it simple.  The first event will generally need to be bootstrapped so it’s good to know where attendance needs to be so you can recoup costs.  Finally use your community to get the word out!

So with the schedule set, the instructors tapped, and some help from our sponsors the next stop was running the event.  Next time we’ll cover lessons learned from running the event!

– Bob Paulin, Devoxx4Kids Chicagoland Organizer