Sun Pursues Enlightened Self Interest in Educated Work Force

I caught James Gosling today on a break from his 'schmoozing duties' at Sun Microsystems’s World Wide Education and Research Conference (WWERC) in New York. Gosling, who is the CTO of Sun's Java Enterprise Platforms and Developer Products Group, a Sun Fellow, and, of course, The Father of Java, will be giving a talk later today about the current state and future of Java in academia, and Sun's student developer initiatives.

Sun’s annual conference brings together top educators, technologists, and industry luminaries from around the world to discuss the future of education in a global context—which is something of a personal cause for Sun's CEO, Scott McNealy. WWERC is both a labor of love at Sun and an exercise in enlightened self interest.

''Business should be paying attention to what's happening in education, in this country and around the world,'' Gosling told me. ''We have a remarkably hard time finding trained people in the US, and a remarkably easy time finding trained people in places like India and the Czech Republic. There seems to be a more positive attitude toward education in other countries than we have right now in the US. And that's very disturbing.''

For the past few years, Sun has been supporting the group of educators who developed BlueJ, a very simple Java IDE specifically designed for introductory teaching. It's used in universities, high schools, middle schools, and even elementary schools to give students their first programming experience. BlueJ came out of a university research project focused on strategies for teaching object-orientation to beginners. It is currently maintained by a joint research group at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and Maersk Institute at the University of Southern Denmark, with help from Sun.

The problem with BlueJ, Gosling explained, is that it's kind of a dead end. ''It’s very good for teaching people who have never seen programming before,'' he said, ''but it’s not something that any developer would want to sit down and write an application with. There’s just no place to go with it. There's kind of a cliff in the middle of the learning curve.''

Sun recently solved that problem by integrating BlueJ with its NetBeans professional Java development environment. ''BlueJ is like the training wheels,'' Gosling said, ''and you can grow into the more sophisticated stuff.''

For years Java has been gaining popularity in university and community college curriculums as a first language for students, all but replacing Pascal. The reason for this change, Gosling said, is that Java is more ''commercially relevant.'' ''One of the things that has made Java work so well in a university context,'' he said, ''is that, in addition to having the set of attributes teachers once found in Pascal that makes teaching easier, it actually has a career path.''

Gosling has a very personal pet peeve when it comes to education in America: the lingering notion that girls aren't good at math. ''It's a bit of stubborn social folklore that needs to be stamped out,'' he said. Wise words from a father of two daughters, the oldest of whom is ''damned good at math.''

Sun's World Wide Education and Research Conference runs March 6-9.

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About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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