Featured Article 22 Aug 2013

In just two years the global CoderDojo revolution has grown from a modest beginning in Cork to now counting over 16,000 kids in 26 countries worldwide on any given Saturday gathering to learn how to communicate in the lingua franca of the 21st century: software coding. John Kennedy reports.

It was a quiet Friday afternoon in June 2011 when I got a call out of the blue from James Whelton, whom I’d met a few months earlier at the Dublin Web Summit. Whelton was world famous having hacked into the Apple iPod Nano and, rather than going to university, was intent on embarking on a career as an entrepreneur first.

He told me of his and entrepreneur Bill Liao’s plans for a new movement called CoderDojo, how he wanted to encourage children to pick up the art and how he wanted it to resonate. And the first one was taking place the next morning in Cork.

Within months I heard of other ones popping up on Arran Mhór off Ireland’s Atlantic coast and in London and Paris.

These memories came back to me as I surveyed the scene inside the European Parliament in Brussels on a rainy February afternoon – senior European MEPs staring in awe at confident 10 and 11-year-old boys and girls from all over Europe, milling about and demonstrating their prowess at software. Whelton was as good as his word. CoderDojo had resonated.

Worldwide movement

Since the first CoderDojo in Cork two summers back, the organisation has swept the world with dojos sprouting up in New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, LA, the Caribbean, Africa and Australia. On any given Saturday as many as 16,000 kids in 26 countries worldwide gather to learn skills and abilities that will stand to them in the challenging 21st century economy.

As MEPs looked on, Whelton explained how when he was just 14 years old he got a call from a panicked neighbour whose nephew had been diagnosed with a tumour behind his eye. A scan had just been completed and doctors in the US needed the image within 24 hours. The broadband available at the time was insufficient to send the file and Whelton quickly wrote an app that allowed the doctors in the US to view the scan over the internet. The correct surgery was decided upon and the child is alive today.

“I learned early on that coding and writing software could make a difference,” Whelton told the MEPs.

Liao told the Parliament that there is no sense in waiting until people become school leavers or go to university before they learn how to code. He used the Harry Potter books as a metaphor – wizards who knew magic and muggles who didn’t.

“Coding is not our past, it is our future. Understanding the language of software code is the closest thing to real magic that humanity can produce and if we can start young enough we can create a global resource,” he said.

Dojo in action

The first dojo I attended over a year ago took place at the Science Gallery in Dublin and I was surprised at the length of the queue of kids and parents waiting to get in. There is one rule at CoderDojo – ‘Above all, be cool’ – which seems to be a guiding principle in how people young and old behave respectfully towards one another. It results in an interesting dynamic, with the children especially, because they are in the company of others who share the same interest in computers and are encouraged to make presentations on what they have created as well as impart their knowledge to other kids.

Catching up recently at the CoderDojo movement’s annual gathering of mentors at Slane Castle, DojoCon13, Whelton expressed his incredulity at the fact so many people around the world are passionate about technology and share the same vision of teaching children how to program “in an environment that fosters creativity and passion for technology and not just producing the next bunch of people to fill roles in companies”.

Liao said the CodoDojo organisation was founded on the principle of open source and said he found people’s generosity in terms of time and effort to be humbling.

I also spoke to Una Fox, vice-president of technology at Disney, who decided to launch a CoderDojo in Los Angeles where she currently lives.

“It is great to be in an Irish organisation with a global reach and bringing this to the local community in LA. I’m proud to be connected with it and the fact that it stemmed from an Irish community.”

Also present was technology entrepreneur Jerry Kennelly from Tweak.com.  “The fact that CoderDojo comes out of here is not a surprise to me. We have a particular view of the world and we are sharing with the world. It’s a great story for this country and I believe Ireland can teach the world a whole lot more.”

Success stories

The CoderDojo movement has led to some pretty exceptional youngsters from Ireland gracing the world stage. Thirteen-year-old Harry Moran from Cork, for example, learned how to code at the dojo and within three months (in early 2012) became the youngest person in the world to have an app published in the Mac App Store, outpacing Angry Birds and Call of Duty.

Waterford’s Jordan Casey last year became one of the world’s youngest iOS app creators at the age of 11 when his first game Green Boy Touch went into the App Store.

And recently it became news that a music website called Piano Rockstar developed by teenage coder Catrina Carrigan at Dublin City University (DCU) is to be used in computing education in the UK.

Think like an entrepreneur
Jerry Kennelly said it is important that while not every kid will become an entrepreneur they need to think entrepreneurially. “They will discover that working for someone else is a pain in the ass and may want to start their own businesses. Maybe they won’t, but creating an awareness in their mind that they can be entrepreneurs is critical.”

He said software coding can provide young people with a powerful set of skills. “Thanks to the work of the mentors, in a few years we could see hundreds of thousands of young people creating apps who have come through CoderDojo.

“They don’t all have to start tech companies or work for people like me, but when you know you can create wonderful software you are very much in control of your destiny.

“We can be the island of coders and scholars instead of saints and scholars, where the country’s best and brightest execute and deliver some of the world’s best technology.”

This article is reproduced courtesy of Siliconrepublic.com

Read the full article in Innovation Ireland Review

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