OYOclass act: Kids get with the programming

By GREGORY ZELLER //

From the Never Too Young To Start file comes OYOclass.com, an innovative computer-programming platform that embraces project-based learning principles to help even the youngest students leapfrog into the future.

Just ask the Long Island 9-year-old who earns paychecks modifying source code to create covers for “Minecraft” novels, or the nine Island middle-schoolers who this week are taking state AP Computer Science exams – usually reserved for high school juniors and seniors – for actual college credits.

Kids as young as 5, in fact, are learning to code through extracurricular camps or classroom-based learning in four Long Island school districts – with as many as 18 new districts, and upwards of 40,000 additional LI students, potentially logging on this fall.

The source of all this sourcing is OYOclass.com, a project-based platform launched in 2014 by Deer Park-based kidOYO (for “own your own,” pronounced “oh-yo”), which itself was launched in 2006 by enterprising inventors Devon and Melora Loffreto.

The husband-and-wife team – he studied Japanese business-management techniques at George Mason University, she earned a psychology degree from Stony Brook University – have long focused on the marriage of entrepreneurship and technology. Their 501(c)3 Noizivy.org launched in 2001 to support computer science, engineering and entrepreneurship education, while their first collaboration – EduShape, a Deer Park-based by-contract toy developer – had a decidedly educational bent.

But when their then-3-year-old son announced he wanted to start creating software projects, the ones and zeros really started falling into place.

“I didn’t really understand how to teach a 3-year-old to code,” noted Devon Loffreto. “But I set out to bring robotics into the home and engaged him incrementally.”

Both kidOYO and the startup OYOclass.com platform stem directly from those earlier projects, added Loffreto, who is technically the kidOYO founder and president but prefers “developer and mentor,” tags he shares with his wife, the company’s creative director.

Within two years of their kid’s programming request, the couple – then living in Virginia – had formed a “social learning community” wherein other tykes were learning the digital ropes. Loffreto estimates that about 30 youngsters between the ages of 5 and 8 were involved, all wanting to learn Java “because they all loved Minecraft,” the uber-popular sandbox videogame by Swedish designer Markus Persson that lets players freely construct objects out of textured cubes in a virtual 3D world.

The Loffretos hosted their learning events with help from Red Hat, the North Carolina-based multinational software company providing open-source products to the enterprise community – and it worked so well, Loffreto noted, that the innovators were invited to MineCon, a yearly Minecraft convention, to share their educational recipe.

“It really just blew up, in terms of recognition for what we were doing,” he told Innovate LI.

When the Loffretos relocated to Long Island, their little learning community grew into the nonprofit CodeLI.org, with the volunteers first partnering with St. Joseph’s College, and later SBU and Adelphi University, to build momentum. Suddenly 150 kids were showing up for coding sessions “with another 150 on the waiting list,” according to Loffreto, and the entrepreneurs who’d started a charity specifically to promote computer-based learning were really clicking.

Not-so-secret code: Loffreto and a young programmer break it down during a recent extracurricular session.

One reason the programming sessions were such a hit was their appeal to youngsters on the autism spectrum. Although not specifically designed for spectrum kids, Loffreto – whose own son suffers what he described as “sensory issues” – noted an undeniable attraction to programming not only among youngsters with spectrum disorders, but instructors with similar quirks.

“The first time I ran a summer camp, I think 40 percent of the room was on the spectrum, including the mentors,” Loffreto said. “I can find a ton of skilled developers, but they usually have a harder time with the human interactions.

“Bringing these kids together and having them learn to be comfortable in a room full of their peers has been a real bonus,” he added, referencing Melora’s background in developmental psychology as a natural fit on this path. “Suddenly, they’re in a community where they find friends and their aides are no longer needed.

“It’s been an amazing experience to watch it happen.”

Of course, programming appeals to plenty of kids not diagnosed with autism disorders, and the Loffretos quickly realized the inherent potential in their programming plan. With help from new partner Bo Feng, an SBU-educated software engineer, they flipped the switch in 2014 on OYOclass.com – and already some 15,000 students in the Mineola, Garden City, Amityville and Huntington school districts are clicking away.

“Our platform is integrated in different ways,” Loffreto noted. “Sometimes it goes into the school library and students access coding lessons on their own. In other cases, we’re actually integrating coding tools directly into the curriculum – so, instead of kids creating dioramas or writing essays, they’re using coding language to generate work for the teacher to evaluate.”

And in some cases, the platform is propelling students forward at impressive speeds. This week, nine Long Island sixth-through-ninth-graders will take the state AP Computer Science exam with actual college credits at stake – a test “typically for 10th to 12th graders,” Loffreto noted, “but these kids have been working with us for three to five years already, mostly through the volunteer programs.”

And then there’s the 9-year-old who cut a deal with a New York City publishing house to create cover art for a multi-title “Minecraft” fiction series (eagle-eyed readers may recognize his nom de plume, “Lord Whitebear”).

“He works with the author and just had to modify existing ‘Minecraft’ Java to give them what they wanted,” Loffreto said.

Depending on the outcome of several school-budget votes this spring, OYOclass.com may explode this fall, with as many as 18 additional Long Island districts adopting the platform. Before then, Stang and the Loffretos will mentor a slightly older crowd when kidOYO – part of the Incubator Without Walls program at SBU’s Long Island High Technology Incubator – engages students in Stony Brook’s College of Engineering in a special summer session.

“Much like K-12, everyone is trying to figure out how to fit coding into the curriculum,” Loffreto said. “So, we’re running a free program for sophomores to graduate students to learn Python and probably Java, and some web-development skills that will help them build up their portfolios.”

It’s another natural fit for kidOYO, which has used space provided by SBU’s Department of Computer Science to host teacher-training seminars and other developer sessions. While they’re busy at the university this summer, the techpreneurs hope to be preparing to roll OYOclass.com into several new Long Island school districts, while considering new worlds to conquer.

“We’ve been very Long Island-focused for the last couple of years, since launching this platform,” Loffreto noted. “But communities in Pittsburgh, around Carnegie Mellon University, and in other off-Island New York districts are showing interest.

“This is really becoming a leadership model for the rest of the country,” the developer/mentor added. “We’re looking to make this available on a much broader basis.”

OYOclass.com

What’s It? Computer-programming educational platform from kidOYO

Brought To You By: Entrepreneurs Devon and Melora Loffreto and programmer Bo Feng

All in: About $10,000 in programming costs, plus buckets of sweat equity

Status: Let’s just say, your kid knows more about programming than you ever will


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