This 11-year-old would like to teach the world to code

13 Jul 2018

Aoibheann Mangan on stage at Inspirefest 2018. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Digital prodigy Aoibheann Mangan has poor broadband in her hometown. Instead of wallowing, she got to work.

At 11 years old, Aoibheann Mangan was the youngest speaker to take the stage at Inspirefest 2018. Hailing from Hollymount, Co Mayo, she began by regaling the audience with the Wi-Fi woes that often accompany rural life in Ireland.

“It looks like a postcard – lovely! – but we have absolutely no broadband.” She clarified that whatever internet access she does get, the quality is dire.

So, how does she manage? “If I’m doing a school project, we get in the car, go to Tesco car park, and I sit there on the laptop until I finish.” Hardly ideal in a so-called Digital Ireland.

Mangan is the joint European Digital Girl of the Year (11-14 age category) and a student of Cloghans Hill National School. She considers herself one of the lucky ones thanks to her school’s focus on learning science, technology, engineering, maths (STEM) and the arts.

However, despite the efforts to welcome CoderDojo – a network of free programming club for kids – into the classroom, Mangan lamented the fact that coding is still not on the primary school curriculum.

“I’m not very good at art or music – coding is pretty much one of the only things I’m good at.”

Taking to the radio on more than one occasion to air her grievances about the rural-urban digital divide, Mangan is passionate that every child should get an equal opportunity when it comes to a modern education. “Is it fair to set the divide in skills from such an early age?”

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. As Mangan said, there are things you can do when the odds are stacked against you.

For example, she set up a farming safety website for kids with her friend Padraic Godwin, earning them such prestigious accolades as Pride of Ireland, People of the Year and Eir Junior Spider awards.

She went on to win the latter award twice more; one for a Raspberry Pi website she created, and the other with her friend Eva McAndrew for a STEM website focused on their school education.

cartoon of aoibheann mangan

Illustration of Aoibheann Mangan at Inspirefest 2018. Image: Liza Donnelly

Jet-setting across Europe to give talks, Mangan has been spreading the STEM message far and wide. “For the last two years, I’ve been the youngest person to run workshops at MozFest in London.” She even stopped off at the European Parliament and got the chance to show MEPs how to code using the Scratch programming language.

As a CoderDojo mentor, Mangan has attended STEM and STEAM events, including various Irish conferences on computers in education. As such, she is a strong advocate for flexing your creative and coding muscles. “Taking part in CoderDojo Coolest Projects is an absolute must for girls in STEM.” Whether it’s a website, an app or a Scratch game, she said the event is a good opportunity for young people to showcase their STEM talents.

The young ambassador even got the opportunity to extol the virtues of CoderDojo to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on their trip to Ireland earlier this week.

Earning her role as joint European Digital Girl of the Year, Mangan said she was delighted to receive the honour in Brussels last December. Almost instantly proving that she was deserving of the title, she added: “On my way home, I went to Limerick to give four workshops in MegaDojo.”

Her current project is Hospital Holly and Henry, a Scratch interface doll game that aims to help kids conquer their fear of hospitals, and she hopes to see it distributed all across Ireland.

Mangan shared an inspiring vision for her peers: “Every girl should have role models in STEM, in sport, in every walk of life.”

She concluded: “Two years ago, I was sitting in the audience listening to the Digital Girl of the Year that year, Niamh Scanlon, doing her wonderful talk … If I can do it, you can too!”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

Shelly Madden was sub-editor of Silicon Republic