Does your kid spend (what you consider to be) too much time playing MINECRAFT?

I see your eyes roll at the word…

Why not turn that Minecraft gaming time into something more productive that your kids are going to LOVE you for?

EPIK is an initiative from ionCube, a Kent-based software company, aimed to encourage young people to take up programming, improving both their logical thinking and creativity. Dorine Flies, from ionCube Ltd, founded EPIK in hopes to help children channel their talent and obsession in a direction that aligns with engineering. Having met many software engineers over the years, she understood that the one thing that they are really good at is obsessively doing what they like. The question that she asked herself was: “What if my child is simply built that way and an obsession with a game like Minecraft is just a cognitive mechanical manifestation of her ability to become an engineer of tomorrow?”

Originally, when EPIK first started four years ago, EPIK stood for Encouraging Programming In Kent but Lorna, a local mother from Southend, discovered EPIK and wanted to introduce the revolutionary concept to Southend. Now, not just in Essex but all over, EPIK stands for Encouraging Programming In Kids. After all, “kids” is the key word here. And Essex certainly is Encouraging Programming In Kids.

Lorna, inspired by her own child Jarrod’s creative passion for technology, aims to unite kids with similar passions at a regular local digital hub where they can share their skills and ideas. Jarrod has been teaching himself to build computers and code computer programs himself since the age of 8. The same age that Markus Persson, AKA Notch – creator of Minecraft, was when he first started coding. Regular coding meetups for kids will not only get them socialising around an interest that is usually notoriously seen as being anti-social but also get them to further develop their existing skills by sharing with others what they already know. It seems that annual national events, though effective, do not do enough to encourage this social community aspect of coding and collaborating. To truly be effective, these sorts of national events should be supported by local events and workshops held regularly. Lorna was concerned that her child’s hobbies would keep him in his room and not out making offline friends with similar interests.

EPIK has already proven itself popular in Kent, with its 6 coding hubs buzzing with excitement and energy, and the enthusiasm for coding is crossing over the estuary to Southend-on-Sea, spreading even further still across Essex. EPIK hosts free annual digital bootcamps open to all, where they get companies, community centres and schools to donate their time, mentors and space so that the kids get a chance to meet experts in their fields of interest.

Kids can learn how to code in Java by using the increasingly popular game Minecraft as a learning tool. EPIK provides its own Java educational resources and even their own Minecraft modkit, teaching youngsters how to set up Eclipse for Minecraft modding and leaving no one confused what to do next with step-by-step guides. Kids have been learning how to code Minecraft chickens to lay diamonds and arrows to explode upon shooting, and knowing that they made that happen makes it even more thrilling. It’s easy to download and install a pre-made mod in the client, but designing your own mods to make Minecraft do what you whatever you want it to… That can be an extremely rewarding experience and it inspires creative coding.

EPIK even have their own family-friendly Minecraft server for kids to socialise and play on in a fun and productive manner. And by punishing griefers by sending them to a bedrock jail and having eggs thrown at them, they even teach children respect for other people’s property!

Minecraft is a three-dimensional sandbox construction application that goes beyond just gaming. Yes, you can go slay dragons,  battle zombies and skeletons, and go caving for stacks and stacks of glorious diamonds. But you can also build complex structures or even engineer complex machines using redstone and logic gates. Minecraft provides an environment for “players” to explore infinite realms of opportunity.

Essex is EPIK Southend Minecraft

There aren’t a lot of “geeky” clubs like this available for kids to come and express themselves in code or technology. Schools are known to focus rather on sports or more academic clubs. Maybe this is due to a lack of resources and knowledgeable mentors available to run these sorts of clubs, but with the new Computer Science curriculum being introduced to the UK this September maybe now is a good time to start.  Kids don’t need teachers to teach them how to code; they need mentors to guide them on how to teach themselves and then share their skills with others. A valuable life skill that teaches independent learning and responsibility.

<Kids Teaching Kids/>

These bright, young individuals are often misrepresented in the media, portraying computer nerds to be anti-social, solitary teenagers locked away in their bedrooms for hours on end hacking away at gosh knows what. Parents are probably terrified that their poor child is going to end up being arrested for hacking into government computers because that’s all they see in the news. Instead they should be trying to understand and include themselves into their child’s interests and hobbies, supporting their amazing talents in a healthy and encouraging way. EPIK helps parents to understand how to include themselves in their children’s interests which may otherwise be completely foreign to them.

I was surprised to hear that some technophobic parents are terrified of this! They might even have all sorts of computer security concerns about installing harmless verified programs on their home computers. But I think that’s where there seems to be a misunderstanding between the generations. The programming and digital design industry is only going to continue to grow, and we need to do more to support this growth. This country is already falling behind when it comes to digital skills, and we’ve come to an age where we can’t afford to be scared of technology anymore. You only need to glance at your smartphone to see how many apps you have installed. There really is an app for everything. And someone has to think them up and code them!

Essex is EPIK Mozilla Webmaker

Truth is, these workshops are a fantastic way of bringing together these like-minded young people to contribute to collaborative projects and develop their skills and knowledge together. These EPIK workshops also help kids to develop their social skills, by encouraging them to share their digital experiences with each other and nurture their talents in a social environment, creating real life friendships that go beyond an internet connection.

Another EPIK concern was that these children are going to be limited only by the time which they can spend developing these skills. It’s all very well learning this stuff at the club, but then it can be completely pointless if they’re then to go home and not have a chance to practice for themselves in their own free time, or under strict family computer usage regulations. Kids with talent need machines to practice on.

Not all young people are lucky enough to own their own laptop or computer. Some are only allowed to use the computer for a certain period of time a day, and this time is shared between the family. You can’t tell an artist when to paint just like you can’t tell a coder when to code, and still expect them to do it with the same amount of passion. There have already been some machines donated to the cause, but EPIK are asking businesses to recycle their old computers so that especially gifted children have a chance to develop their skills and explore their technical abilities in their own free time.

Essex is EPIK workshop

The first Essex is EPIK workshop took place Saturday 3rd May at St Luke’s Church community centre. For the time being, workshops will be held once a month until all volunteers are appropriately trained. SoSLUG (Southend-on-Sea Linux User Group) helped to host the first workshop. They were teaching the newcomers some basic procedural coding concepts via an educational tool called Blockly. With its easy drag-and-drop interface, Blockly is the ideal first step for a child’s gateway into programming. SoSLUG compiled an exercise sheet for the children to complete and helped the kids work through these problem solving exercises, introducing them to the programming concepts of loops and functions, which are widely used throughout the computer industry.

Blockly Exercise Sheet

It has been exhilarating to see the progressions being made toward helping young people embrace their technical skills in the local community. Having attended the Southend Raspberry Pi Jam back in early March and hearing all of the excited comments for introducing this concept to Southend, it truly is breathtaking to see the developments being made to really bring these ideas to life, and showcase the young talent we have in the community that so often gets overshadowed by the more theatrical of talents.

You can’t stop children from playing Minecraft if they want to, but you can make the time they spend playing even more valuable. Although… if your kids prefer to play Vanilla, all this talk about modding may offend them. Just a warning.

These workshops are absolutely free! So you can sit down and chill out with a cuppa for a couple of hours…. ;)

The next workshop will be on the 31st May at 2pm, and will be lead by our youth peer mentor showing kids how to do some Minecraft coding, starting with “exploding arrows” and the “chicken that poos diamonds”. Exciting! ;)