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Students at North Campus, Fa17 Wed 6-9pm section explore method calls with return types in a human-modeling activity.
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Methods 2: Methods with return types

Parent Component: Chunk 2 - Language Structures

Methods become much more useful when they can receive information from the calling method, do some operations on them, and then pass a computed value back for the calling method to do with as it pleases.


This module is the second in our language structures chunk. If you have not digested settings Chunk 2, Module 1: Simple Methods, pause and do so before attemtping this module.


  1. Write methods without return types from English descriptions
  2. Write methods that take parameters and returns primitive types to the calling method
  3. Usefully capture and process data passed back from methods

time considerations

As a core module in your Java learning, plan to devote about 4-6 hours to this module. Best to spread that out over two sessions, or so. Don't forget to pause and study your resources!


Java: A Beginner's Guide (6th ed): Methods are covered in Chapter 4, pages 103-124. Stop at "Constructors" which delves into Object-oriented Java which we'll explore soon.

Oracle online tutorial on methods provides essential explanations of these core concepts


extensionCore Concept 1: Summary of three method structures
find_in_pageIntroduction to the GeometricShapes calculator example program
extensionCore Concept 2: Writing Type III methods which take input parameters and return values
extensionCore Concept 3: Calling Type-III methods
motorcycleExercise 0: Adding user input to our GeometricShapes program
motorcycleExercise 1: Adding a cylinder volume calculation method
motorcycleExercise 2: Adding your favorite shape computation method

buildMini-Project: Building a unit Converter


  1. Code up your mini-project, test it, and comment your code. Please make a note of any outside resources you used for any part of your code by including a link or attribution in your comments.
  2. Upload your file to your personal GitHub account.
  3. Make an entry in our java submission index, including a link to your file on GitHub.

extensionCore Concept 1: Summary of three method structures

Methods are named blocks of code that perform a single function in a program. They are valuable since they help us eliminate duplicate code, isolate logic for testing, and allow for modular code development.

The following annotated screen capture shows the three essential elements of the method system in Java:

  1. The method's declaration (often called its signature)
  2. The method's body that carries out program tasks
  3. A call to this method from some other method (or from within itself!)
Figure 1: A method's declaration, body, and call
type 1 call
The red numbered lines in the left margin show the flow of execution from the method call in main to displayPattern, and then back down to main. Remember, methods can be stacked in any order: main can live wherever we want in our classes.

We can categorize methods into three types summarized in the feature box below. Chunk 1, Module 1 explored types I: Simple, no-argument methods and type II methods: those which require an input value but return nothing. This module introduces type III methods.

type I

The simplest of all possible methods: a named block of code that "just does its thing" when called, requiring no inputs and returning no values.

Type I method declaration and body
type 1 call
Type I method call
type 1 call
Type I method output
type 1 call

type II methods

These methods require one or more pieces of data to carry out its task. We specify what the method requires in its declaration. When we pass this data into the method during execution, we specify the values to send with arguments to these methods.

Type II method declaration and body
type II method
Type II call with input parameter
type II method
Type II output
type 1 call

type III methods

"Fully-baked" methods which take in one or more values and return a computed value of a declared type. A good chunk of all methods we use in Java are type III methods since receiving values from a method is a very useful process.

Type III method declaration and body
type II method

access the complete class source code

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find_in_pageIntroduction to the GeometricShapes calculator example program

Coding to a specification

Most professional coding projects you may join will likely be well underway by the time you arrive on the scene. Dozens if not hundreds of Java Classes will have been written which already carry out business processes.

In order for the code you write to be useful it must work seamlessly with existing code. By "work" we mean compute the desired values in the desired form when called with the specified information.

Specifications in action

For example, if your organization is building an event registration system and you are tasked with creating e-tickets in Java, you will be writing classes that contain methods such as refundTicket. This method will need to receive information about which ticket to refund and carry out the necessary actions to issue the refund.

In order for this project to work, your team leader will have likely written up a specification document like the ones in the light green boxes in this module. You'll then be tasked with converting that specification into working Java code.

Let's practice coding to specification

The following core concepts and exercises will involve creating code that meets the following program specification. It is based on a business tool creation model in which a technology team at the organization creates programs to assist employees to carry out their jobs.

Study the following specification, figures, and explanations so you understand why we are studying the methods and code in the next few sections.

program specification

Create a geometric shape calculation tool to assist packaging specialists at a mom-and-pop-brick-and-mortar-online-retailer in Pittsburgh.

The tool will operate through a command line-based interface loaded onto a computer sitting in the packaging area. For each of three geometric shapes, the user can enter the dimensions of each. The program should print out the computed area or volume measurement

required code structure

The program should exhibit method-based coding to isolate the math involved in each shape's area or volume calculation. The user's input for these tools and the printing out of results should all happen in the program's main method--not in the shape measurement calculation methods.

Each method should take input parameters corresponding with the necessary figures for computing the desired area or volume calculation (side length, width, etc.).

Each method should return a single value corresponding to the computed area or volume calculation. There should be no calls to System.out.println() in any of the computing methods.

Sample program output

This program output meets the above specification. The following sections will develop and digest the code to generate this output. A link to the source posted on GitHub is located at the end of Exercise 2

method structure

Program class diagram sketch

Before we sit down to write code, we should envision the high level structure of the class we are about to create. Ask ourselves the following:

Using the above questions as a guide, a sketch of the class structure might be created as follows. Note that the complete method signatures and information flow requirements have not yet been fleshed out. We're looking at the most abstract view of the class's design.

method structure

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extensionCore Concept 2: Writing Type III methods which take input parameters and return values

In this core concept section, we'll be creating methods that all compute some sort of geometric value based on the inputted values. The first method we'll write calculates the volume of a cube when passed in the length of any given side. We can model the method like this:

method structure

Setting up our GometricShapes class

Create a skeleton of our class which we'll add meat to during this module. Use these steps:

  1. Create a new package called week8_methods2
  2. Inside this package, create a class called GeometricShapes
  3. Code up a main method with the proper method signature

Skeleton of GeometricShapes class with one method

method structure

Once we have the skeleton designed, most of our planning-based work is done. The key decisions are how we wrote the declaration to our method: each keyword on the declaration line specifies an aspect of the method's behavior. Let's look at each component up close:

method structure

Coding up calcVolumeOfCube

We can start coding now that we have the structure and objective in our heads. The guts of calculateVolumeOfCube involve one line of computational code which raises the passed in value to the third power. The result of that computation (which itself is a method call) is stored in a local variable called cubeVolume.

Listing 1: code for calcVolumeOfCube
Sample code of a method that takes a parameter to calculate the area of a cube and returns the volume as a double value to the calling code.

Note the use of the Java keyword return inside this method. This keyword instructs the Java virtual machine to do two things:

  1. Evaluate the expression to the right of the keyword return and pass the result back to the calling method.
  2. Transfer execution of the program from that very line to the calling method

java type checking

Note that the use of a return statement is a prime example of Java's type checking system. Like in all variable manipulation in Java, the type of the value of the return expression must match the type specified in the method signature. In our case, a variable named cubeVolume makes up the entire expression. All is well with the type checking system since cubeVolume is declared to be type double.

Error messages are our friends!

method structure

Tinker with your code and try changing the type of the expression you place after return. In the error case above, when we try to send a String literal back to the caller, the pre-compiler flags this and tells us that String is not (and cannot be converted to) a double value, which the method specification requires.

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extensionCore Concept 3: Calling Type III methods

We now have the declaration and guts of our calcVolumeOfCube method, and are now ready to use that method to carry out its computation. We are in step three of our method design process:

the process of writing a method

Call method with an input parameter and structure to hold the return value

We've called methods with input parameters before, but have not been explicit about the structure for calling methods which not only require an input value but give us a value in return. Study the following call to calcVolumeOfCube from inside our main method. Note how we store its return value in a new local variable called result which we then send to System.out.println() to be displayed on the terminal window..

Type III call with input parameter and a variable to store the returned value
type II method

The output shows that we successfully passed 50.0 into calcVolumeOfCube and retrieved the returned volume computation for display to the user.

Type III method & call output
output of a call with return type

Many options for handling returned values

The above code does the simplest possible action with the returned double value from calcVolumeOfCube: it simply dumps the value into a local variable called result and turns right around and displays that to the user. Since result is only used for two lines, we could have compacted our code by calling calcVolumeOfCube inside our call to System.out.println(). It's a nested method call!

Calling a method inside another method call
a nested method call

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motorcycleExercise 0: Adding user input to our GeometricShapes program

With our structure setup for calling and receiving values from calcVolumeOfCube, let's replace our hard-coded value of 50.0 with a local variable of your design which the user can populate through the console. Code to the following specification:

exercise 0 program specification

Adjust (refactor) your code in main to prompt the user for the cube's side length. Store whatever the user enters in a local variable. Pass that local variable into calcVolumeOfCube instead of the current hard-coded value.

Capture the returned volume computation. Adjust the display to the user to include a printout of the value they entered along with the computed value.

Study the following program output that meets this specification:

java output of a method that computes the volume of a cube with a given side length

Check your work

This button reveals a possible implementation of the specified program above. Note that we call the nextDouble() method on our Scanner object to retrieve a double from the user. We must use nextDouble() instead of nextInt() since our method calcVolumeOfCube requires a number of type double.

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motorcycleExercise 1: Adding a cylinder volume calculation method

Pull together our explorations with calcVolumeOfCube to write and call a third method inside the GeometricShapes class called calcVolumeOfCylinder. Remember: this is our workflow for creating and calling methods:

java output of a method that computes the volume of a cube with a given side length

Methods can take many input parameters

A method can require zero, one, or more than one input parameters. Each parameter must be specified in the method's declaration and (inside its parentheses). If more than one method parameter is specified, each must be separated by commas and preceded by its type. Here's a silly example to illustrate this point:

methods can take many input parameters

Call the method with the required parameters in ORDER

When we call manyParams, we must pass in all four required parameters, in the order given in the method's declaration. Here's a sample call that passes in data literals instead of variable values (which would be much more typical).

calling methods with multiple parameters

Don't forget about the math

We can calculate the volume of a cylinder with the following formula. Note that this computation requires two values: the radius of the cylinder's circular ends and the height of the "tube". This will translate into two input parameters in our method.

wikipedia cylinder volume

Since calculating the volume of a three dimensional cylinder requires both the radius and the height, the method you'll program in this exercise will require two input parameters (not four :))

Exercise specification

Study the following specification and jump on the keyboard!

exercise 1 program specification

Design a method called calcVolumeOfCylinder which takes in two input parameters, both of type double, which represent the radius and the height of the cylinder.

Since we're still getting into the swing of programming methods, you can reference the following code snippet that could become part of the guts of your calcVolumeOfCylinder method.

calculating the volume of a cylinder in java

Note that this line of code does not complete the method's guts: we still need to return the volume of the cylinder to the calling method with a return statement.

Call calcVolumeOfCylinder from main. Just like we did for the cube, gather a height and base radius from the user which you'll then pass down to calculateVolumeOfCylinder() which it will use to compute the volume and return it to the caller

sample output

This is the output of a program that meets these specifications

Output of java program 	which calculates the volume of a cube and volume of a cylinder

Check your work

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motorcycleExercise 2: Adding your favorite shape computation method

Choose an interesting shape

With our methods to calculate the volume of a cube and a cylinder in place, you've got the skills necessary to add your own shape computation to GeometricShapes!

Use references resources of your choosing (or your brain only!) to find a cool shape that might store materials that need to be shipped (remember, the program is for shipping specialists). Here are some ideas of varying difficulty:

Java code for calculating the area of a trapezoid

There are so many quadrilaterals!

Check out wikipedia's extensive article on four-sided shapes and choose one and a formula to computing its area or volume. Choose a shape that's meaningful to you. Perhaps obtuse triangles bring back fond childhood memories, or parallelograms whisk you back to a relaxing vacation.

Java code for calculating the area of a trapezoid

Convert your desired formula into a method

Now that you have a chosen shape and a computation related to that shape, grab a pen and paper and work out a few sample problems. Note how many different measurements you need to complete the computation: each of these will become an input parameter to your method.

Follow our familiar steps:

java output of a method that computes the volume of a cube with a given side length

Use exercise 1's specification as a model: except replace cylinder with your chosen shape. When done, test your method against a known solution. Finally, make sure you have a nicely formatted user interface so the measurements needed are clearly explained.

Consult reference code as needed

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buildMini-Project: Building a unit Converter

This project asks that you assemble your learning from the above core concepts and exercises into a working program structured with method calls and proper flow of data to and from those methods.

As usual, we should always try to code to a specification--even if that specification is one we make for ourselves. We must organize our logic around some specific goal, and revise that goal if necessary.

program overview

Create a handy unit conversion program which can transform unit quantities entered by the user into a chosen unit type (e.g. knots into miles per hour).

requirement 1

Choose three pairs of units that you might actually want to convert between in your life or work. They can be related to a single type of measurement (speed, volume, weight, etc.) or be drawn from several types of measurement.

Accurately compute the conversions by hand using correct formulas. The conversion references linked below might be handy. The inter-webs can supply many others.

Mushy Brain Warning: You are learning to program Java, so do the thinking yourself: do not conduct an Internet search for something like "convert miles to km in java". Stick with "convert miles to km" and figure the Java out for yourself.

Wikipedia maintains a page of hundreds of units and their Metric equivalents. offers a very comprehensive tutorial on unit conversions. Don't be afraid of a little math: math can be our friend when it helps us do handy things!

requirement 2

Create an appropriately named class composed of a main method which coordinates the flow of data to and from methods which implement data cleaning and conversion operations.

Create a separate method for each of your three conversions. Name your methods with action words (e.g. convertMilesToKm).

Plan your method signatures carefully. Each method should require one or more input parameters and return the final converted value to the caller. Once your methods are in place with proper signatures, you're well on your way.

requirement 3

In the main method, create a very simple user interface which prompts the user for values to convert and displays the converted values. Be sure to tell the user the unit of measurement to enter, and what will be computed.

The unit conversion algorithm writing and method calling is a substantial project by itself, so your user interface can be bare bones. It would be handy to program a switch statement inside a while loop to allow the user to choose a converter to execute, but this is not necessary for this exercise.

Sample output

The program generating this output meets the above specifications. Remember! You can always add features above requirements in this class, so don't limit yourself by sample output.

sample module project output

Suggestions & tips

Extension ideas

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Page created on 19 March 2018 and last updated on 21 March 2018 and can be freely reproduced according to the site's content use agreement.