Member Success Stories

Making a difference with Oracle Academy

Zeno van der Zalm

The spotlight is on Zeno van der Zalm, Leo Kannercollege, The Netherlands.

Leo Kannercollege in Leiden, the Netherlands, offers secondary education at all levels to some 300 students with an autism spectrum disorder. The primary goal is to prepare these students for the future and help them understand how the world and society works.

Leo Kannercollege, named after the Austrian-American psychiatrist, physician, and social activist best known for his work related to autism, introduces students to Computational Thinking.

Zeno van der Zalm, originally an economics teacher, now focuses on delivering educational content in different subjects in the best way possible. He uses Oracle Academy resources to show students how computers work and how they can apply computational thinking to the everyday objects around them.

Oracle Academy: Can you tell us about the Computational Thinking course?

Zeno van der Zalm: Our strategy is to teach students to approach problems logically and to use digital tools to solve them. My objective is to make visible the invisible, make things tangible to young people with autism spectrum disorder. I want them to have a better understanding of the world they experience every day, and show them something about the technology behind machines.

Our curricula starts with simple projects, just to experience the human interaction with machines. Each year we adopt a little bit more complexity to the course structure. In the final two years of the curricula we use the resources available in the Oracle Academy Cloud Program for guiding the students through the concept of computing. Content for our Computational Thinking course is still in development, with the aim of more colleagues teaching it. Currently five colleagues play an active role in this curricula.

Oracle Academy: What are the challenges in teaching learners with autism spectrum disorder?

Zeno van der Zalm: Our students with autism are high-functioning individuals who learn fast when things are logical. But they want things to be very specific. Not only how does this work, but what’s in it for me, why are we doing this? They also can be unusually sensitive to light, sound, and touch. So, the challenge is to make things visual and sensorial as well as straightforward. That’s hard, because computing is a set of instructions and algorithms.

Oracle Academy: And how are you managing to do that?

Zeno van der Zalm: In various ways. I give them a multi-sensorial experience through the Finch Robot and other sensor-driven objects. And with Oracle Cloud I take the lid off web commerce, showing how chatbots function.

The Finch Robot helps them understand the concept of an electric car, how a self-driving car is developed. Students see what happens when they adjust the scripts that drive the bird-like gadget. They can modify the sensors that activate forward and backward motion, and that can detect obstacles, and they can tweak the controls to change light patterns and sounds. It’s great fun for them and speaks to their intense need to understand how things work.

Temperature sensors are another example I use. In one exercise they witness how a fan turns on or off according to degrees of hot or cold. Students make scripts that interact with the sensors and actuators. Then they experiment with changing variables and see the direct effect on the output.

Oracle Academy: And the Oracle Cloud example?

Zeno van der Zalm: Once again, in terms of making visible the invisible, I show them how chatbots work and get them to build one. Using Oracle APEX, we create a video webstore and implement Oracle Digital Assistant as a chatbot interface to customers. The students program the chatbot as a conversational guide through a choice of movies and even a selection of snacks.

Through Oracle Digital Assistant, they get to understand that a chatbot is an element of Artificial Intelligence, that it’s made by humans and that the code or algorithm can be modified to make it better.

With APEX as the movie database, we simulate a supply chain, where each DVD has an RFID tag. Scanning the tag makes a connection to APEX, which displays the title of the movie and its attributes on the screen.

And so, although my original purpose in introducing Oracle Cloud was to give access to the Digital Assistant, we are now using APEX, SQL, RESTful APIs and other features of the cloud. When students can code things themselves, they get a lot of insight, learning how to think like a computer. They enjoy it and feel motivated to increase their skills.


Our students with autism are high-functioning individuals who learn fast when things are logical ... the challenge is to make things visual and sensorial as well as straightforward. That’s hard, because computing is a set of instructions and algorithms.

Oracle Academy: How many students are in each class?

Zeno van der Zalm: We try to keep our classes small―a maximum of 16 students in the higher grades and 11 in the early grades. This allows us to give quality coaching.

Oracle Academy: What other materials from Oracle Academy do you use?

Zeno van der Zalm: Oracle Cloud is mostly used in our Computational Thinking curriculum, showing how things work in the cloud. Oracle Academy overall helps me teach concepts that are relevant to students’ thirst for knowledge: what is data, how is it stored in a database, how does one query it, how does one design a simple database? I take content out of Database Design and Programming with SQL and introduce them to developer tools.

Besides computational thinking, I teach social studies. It’s my passion to get people involved, share energy, and collaborate. My aim is to teach my students an understanding of the world they are living in, not just the technical side, but the social part too. I explain the European Union, for example. It goes hand in hand with Oracle Cloud, giving them the tools to understand a society that is increasingly driven by computers.

Oracle Academy: And outside of the teaching sphere?

Zeno van der Zalm: Cycling! I love cycling, and there’s nothing better than spending holidays pedaling through Europe, absorbing the different cultures and feeling part of something bigger. The Alps are my favorite spot.

Thank you, Zeno van der Zalm, for your passion for Oracle Academy and for preparing your students to make a positive impact.

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