March 2014 was an exciting month for Carol Faughnan from Wexford. Not only was her fourth child born – enough for one month you’d think – but she also started the firstCoderDojo in Wexford, a weekly programming class for kids.
It was just a week and a half before my son Sebastian was born that we held the first Dojo. So I got it all ready just in time.
The Dojo is a bit like Carol’s fifth baby. She brought it to life and has helped it to grow for the last year and half, but one huge difference is that it has outgrown infancy much quicker than the kids. The Dojo started with about 20 children eager to learn how to code and grew to 100 regular learners since then, who now come to school every Saturday, voluntarily.
Initially I thought I’d just set it up and walk away from it, leaving it to someone to actually run it while I’d move on to other projects, but as you can see I’m still here. I just couldn’t step away. It was too much fun and it kept growing and growing.
The hardest bit in setting the CoderDojo up in the beginning was finding the venue. There are a few checkboxes you need to tick off: Is there enough room? Are enough chairs and tables available? Or access to wireless, just to name a few. We had a promising offer to use a warehouse but it didn’t have any furniture. Then I wrote to all schools in the area and we were lucky to be offered use of CBS primary school in the end. We regularly contribute a voluntary contribution towards the school.
The CoderDojo makes a contribution for the use of electricity and water but beside that it’s all for free. Every Saturday the chairs are put back down and young programmers between the age of 7 and 13 take their seats bringing laptops and ideas of computer programmes they’d like to build.
We just had to set up our own wireless network which was sponsored by a local broadband company. Before that we had to ask the school to unblock websites all the time that had been filtered out for security reasons. We still need some laptops as some kids bring laptops that are too old to run certain programmes or they have viruses that we have to take care of. Besides that it’s all working smoothly.
56 kids are coming in today for the programming class, but on average Carol and her group of mentors are teaching up to 100 kids on a Saturday. They’re taking over the whole school building for the coding classes covering all different levels. Beginners, starting from the age of 7 are together in a rooom on the ground floor, working with Scratch, a tool that helps to learn the basics of coding and problem solving. Upstairs there is a room for html, one for Java, for app development and another one where the kids work on their own projects.
The reason Carol set up the Dojo in the first place was a very personal one: She wanted to provide a worthwhile activity to do for her oldest son. And if it was something that he would be interested in, probably many more children in the community would probably enjoy it as well.
The Coderdojo is a cool way for kids who don’t like sports to meet other like-minded kids and create their own games, apps, websites and more. And they also get to involve their parents and siblings in what they are doing. Coderdojo gives that sense of a wider team and community, that they won’t experience if they don’t play in team sports. Of course we have kids arriving from rugby and soccer in their sports kits ready to code too. It’s really for everyone!
A good number of mentors are helping out in every room, facilitating the kids’ work, giving guidance and assisting them with their projects.
We have 17 mentors now. Most of them are parents. They came in with their kids in the beginning and I recruited them to help out. Even without any background in technology there is a lot you can help with, especially in the beginner classes. Parents are often interested themselves in learning more about programming and picking up new computer skills along with their children.
Mentors come from all kinds of backgrounds, like Pat Kirwan, who is a farmer with no previous knowledge of computer programming or Fergal Dearle who has 40 years of experience. Carol herself is a webdesigner and has her own agency. She watched with surprise and pleasure how mentoring at CoderDojo turned out to be beneficial in other ways for people than she would have expected.
I really like that things happen in our community between people of all ages now. It’s not just all about the kids. One of our mentors was hired by another guy in his software company and I heard recently about a different mentor who recently went for a job interview. He told me that the CoderDojo was a great talking point in going for the job and he ended up getting hired. We have great people on our team. One of our mentors, Declan Kelly, also coached some of the Special Olympics gymnastics team who brought home a host of medals so that was a big celebration too.
In the beginning we had to teach some basics using tools and programming languages like Scratch, App inventor, HTML, Js, CSS, Groovy and JAVA but very quickly the kids can move on to their own projects. In our projects room kids freely practice and drive their own learning. Usually kids go to projects once they have completed one or two modules so they have some skillset going in. They advance in the projects room because their ideas for projects will drive their learning and mentors and other kids can collaborate and share skills.
Evan for example is creating a superhero quiz. “It’s a quiz that doesn’t have any right answers”, he tells us. “You just get a result in the end. You have to answer a few questions and then it tells you which superpowers you have and which hero you are.” He has programmed a similar quiz before with the X-Men characters but he is moving on to a more complex version now and adds in more characters and information that he picks from a wiki about super-heroes.
Next door the children are working with appinventor, a tool that helps you to create a mobile app and in today’s task, to programme an animated character.
9-year old Thommy is very proud to be in this class now after quickly growing out of the beginner Scratch class. He can’t wait to move on to building his own html websites. He could imagine doing that for a living one day, or game developing. He is quickly switching between changing some lines of code on his computer screen and showing the results on his mobile phone.
Stephen, who is teaching Thommy and the appinventor class today, has been helping Carol with the CoderDojo from the very beginning. He sees his role here rather as a facilitator than as a teacher, which is the core philosophy of the CoderDojo concept.
“We just give them the canvas and the paint and from there on it’s all up to their creativity to draw the picture”, Stephen tells, while showing how they had just programmed a lego character to be swiped around the screen and change his mood or his look depending on certain settings like a pre-set time or an action as touching the screen.
Together with Carol, Stephen is looking for ways now to also start a robotics class at the CoderDojo. They’ll just need a little bit more funding to buy some robotic kits before they get it going
We went to the CoderDojo Coolest Projects Awards together last June for the firs year where 12 of our kids exhibited their projects. We were blown away by the high standard of the projects. It was very inspiring for the kids and for the mentors as well. We came back with lots of ideas of how to take our Dojo to the next level and to teach some robotics in the future.
They keep developing the Dojo and if it wasn’t for the limited space, Carol would be happy to bring even more children in. There would be enough demand for another CoderDojo in Wexford, she thinks. And there certainly is more demand for Dojos across the country. For Carol, running the Dojo is something that she looks forward to in her weekly routine, especially in the long winter days when a worthwhile activity is needed outside the home. The benefits for her go beyond giving children access to a new skillset.
The Coderdojo has given me, and I hope others in our Dojo, a better outlook towards our community, not just within CoderDojo but in the wider community too. It’s great to have everyone come together on a voluntary basis. It’s a simple thing, but doing something for no other reason than ‘it’s a good thing to do’ really simplifies things and makes the objective easier to reach. That’s what drives us and makes us want to do better.
If you would like to start a programming club for kids in your area, you can learn more about what’s involved on ChangeX and just register interest to get all the support and tools you need to get it done.