Girls Hack Ireland
One of the participants at the hackathon. Photo: Connor McKenna

Coder girls get creative at Girls Hack Ireland event

12 Oct 2015

The Girls Hack Ireland hackathon on Saturday was all about getting girls and their families engaged in technology. Claire O’Connell was there for

Glittering lighthouses, electronic music, animated stories – the Girls Hack Ireland ‘hackathon’ was a riot for the senses.

The event, which took place at the Dublin City University Innovation Campus in Glasnevin on Saturday (10 October), was all about sparking creativity and interest in technology among girls, according to Niambh Scullion, one of the organisers.

“My vision for the day is that the girls would begin a journey, that they would find creative and different ways of accessing and using technology,” she said. “Then if there is a [CoderDojo] nearby and they wanted to continue with that tech and maybe showcase it in Coolest Projects, this could be an entry point.”

The hackathon, which was itself sparked by a conversation at Inspirefest 2015 in June, was spearheaded by Scullion, who mentors at CoderDojoGirls in DCU, Vicky Twomey-Lee from Coding Grace, Joanne Dolan from Girls Hack Ireland and Jeffrey Roe from TOG Dublin.

Access to tech

At the resulting event on Saturday, Inspirefest founder and Silicon Republic CEO Ann O’Dea spoke about how the aims of the day were not only to combat stereotypes about girls in STEM and to give girls and young women access to learn about technology, but also to offer their parents a better appreciation of the opportunities for women in STEM.

“It is particularly heartwarming, I think, to see the family element here today,” O’Dea told the audience of girls, parents and mentors ahead of the coding and making sessions. “[Research] shows that learning in the presence of family members and female role models strongly impacts girls’ self-image and their confidence, and encourages them to see themselves in new ways.”

The young women then set to work learning about how to make an Intel Galileo controlled lighthouse model, how to create electronic music with Sonic Pi and how to animate a story using Fungus.

Stand out from the crowd

There were talks and workshops too, including a session from Elaine Reynolds, CEO of Simteractive, who spoke about her own path into the games industry — from an interest in playing them to studying psychology, computer science and games technology and working as a programmer and designer before setting up her own company.

“I decided a few years ago to return to Ireland to set up my own game development studio, Simteractive,” she said. “We are working on a resort-building Sim game for mobile devices where players get to create their dream holiday resort.” The company is currently looking for early testers of the game, and anyone who might be interested should visit its website.

Reynolds offered plenty of advice to young people who are interested in getting into the games industry, including standing out from the crowd and working on your own projects — even if you end up throwing them away — because it is all part of the learning experience.

“To anyone interested in learning how to make games my main advice would be to just go for it,” she said. “There are so many tools and resources available online, all you really need is a computer and an internet connection. Working on your own projects is also really important if you want to get a job making games. There is huge competition for jobs and with so many people qualifying from games courses they don’t guarantee a job, so you need to stand out from the crowd and focus on developing your skills, not just on doing well in the course.”

Reynolds described the Saturday hackathon as inspiring. “There was a terrific buzz around the place — it was brilliant to see so many young people learning how to code and showing such enthusiasm for it,” she said. “Some of the participants I spoke to said they were just getting into tech and they were so keen to find out as much as they could about it and to explore lots of different aspects of it… and there were quite a few parents there on the day and it was great to see them being so supportive of their children.”

New channels of inspiration

Hackathon mentors Vanessa Greene and Catrina Carrigan, who run CoderDojo Scratch sessions at DCU, were themselves inspired at the session on STEM Education at Girls Hack Ireland, where they got thinking about ways to make technology engaging for girls.

They discussed an idea to create a YouTube channel that uses creative hooks to explain technology, particularly in the music industry. “Vloggers have a big influence,” said Greene. “So we want to create a channel that brings material together and lets people see the technology behind the creativity.”

Big ambitions

Throughout the day, girls were encouraged to post on the Inspirefest 2016 ambition wall, and their aspirations included: ‘teacher’; ‘inventor in medicine’; ‘forensic scientist’; ‘architect’; ‘data scientist at Facebook’, ‘project manager at Google’ and, cleverly, ‘the winner of the Inspirefest tickets’.

Scullion had “really good” feedback from the day, including one participant who used to go to CoderDojo and had left, but who was inspired by the Fungus workshop to go back.

“For me that is the important thing, that [girls] can find technology again even if they had stopped coding,” said Scullion.

And the last word goes to Ellie McDonnell, aged almost 10, who enjoyed the challenge of creating music with Sonic Pi in a session led by Ken Whelan. “I made some sound and then I made a song, Mary Had a Little Lamb,” said McDonnell. “At the start it was a little bit hard but then I found it easier, and now I will be able to do it at home too.”

Women Invent is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Intel, Eircom, Fidelity Investments, ESB, Accenture and CoderDojo.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Join us again from 30 June to 2 July 2016 for fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity.

Claire O’Connell
By Claire O’Connell

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology from University College Dublin and a master’s in science communication from Dublin City University. She has written for Silicon Republic and The Irish Times and was named Irish Science Writer of the Year in 2016.

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