Busy but calm on the countdown to Coolest Projects

18 May 2018

Image: Rosa Langhammer

Coolest Projects International will host around 1,000 young people and their projects later this month. Dr Claire O’Connell caught up with Rosa Langhammer from the CoderDojo Foundation ahead of the event.

The countdown is well and truly on. All over Ireland and around the world, young coders and makers aged seven to 17 are getting their innovations and creations ready. Because, on 26 May, Coolest Projects International will take place in Dublin – and it’s the biggest one yet.

It’s a busy time for the CoderDojo Foundation, which is now running the hugely successful showcase at the RDS, but there are plenty of seasoned volunteers to lend a hand.

“We are up the walls,” said Rosa Langhammer, general manager of outreach and engagement at CoderDojo. “But there is also a state of calmness – the implementation team has run this many times before.”

Hundreds and thousands

Indeed, 2018 sees the seventh flagship event for Coolest Projects, which was founded by Noel King, Paul Phelan and Ben Chapman in 2012. Since its early days, it has expanded from a handful of projects by young coders to a full-on event with hundreds of projects and thousands of visitors.

Each year, the initiative has been growing and adding different elements, including community-run events internationally. Already this year, CoderDojo has hosted a Coolest Projects satellite event in London with 40 projects and more than 60 kids.

“The UK event went really well,” said Langhammer. “And most of the winners will be coming over for the Dublin event on a bursary.”

They will join young innovators from all across Ireland and from another 13 countries, mainly European but also from Asia and South America. Coolest Projects 7 is the biggest one yet. “We are expecting around 700 to 750 projects, which is the highest number we have ever registered, and, when you take group projects into account, that means 1,000 kids participating on the day,” said Langhammer of the event, which is open to the public to visit. “Overall, we expect around 10,000 people to be there on the day.”

Rapid growth

Langhammer has witnessed the intense growth of CoderDojo – a global network of free, volunteer-led, community-based programming clubs for young people – during her four years to date at the foundation. “When I started here, there were about 300 CoderDojos and that is now up to 1,900, which is amazing,” she said. “It went from 40 countries to more than 90 in that time.”

So, how did the Belfast native come to work with the foundation? It started with a BA in business and economics at Trinity College Dublin, and then Langhammer worked with a start-up company developing software to improve the safety of lab chemicals.

“l always had an interest in social enterprise, so when an opportunity came up to work with the CoderDojo Foundation, I saw it as the perfect fit between the tech landscape and the social sector that I wanted to move more into,” she said.

Last year, CoderDojo merged with Raspberry Pi to become one of the world’s biggest digital making organisations.

“We are putting the power of coding and technology into young people’s hands all over the world,” said Langhammer, who emphasises the importance of volunteer-led clubs being self-sustaining. “It’s a community-led model; it really is driven by the volunteers and it doesn’t help when there are lots of interventions.”

That said, the foundation is on hand to offer support, and one of the ways it does that is to create content for young people to use while they develop their skills in coding and making. They include ‘sushi cards’ with small chunks of content, and the merger with RaspberryPi means the content is even more varied.

For several years, CoderDojo has also had a strong emphasis on engaging girls, and mentors play a key role here, according to Langhammer. “The most important thing for getting girls to attend sustainably is to have female role models and mentors, and we have a push now to get even more female mentors into Dojos,” she said.

Ideas for the future

Back to this month, Langhammer is excited about the upcoming feast of creativity, invention and fun due on 26 May. “The most important thing, once we get the kids in the door and registered, is to make sure they are happy, so we have a lot of experiential elements, and CoderDojo co-founders Bill Liao and James Whelton will be there, too,” she said.

“And, while I don’t always have a lot of time to walk around and get to talk to the kids, I do enjoy when I get a chance to speak to them and I love finding out how they came up with their ideas and what they want to do in the future.”

Coolest Projects International will take place at the RDS, Dublin 4, on Saturday 26 May. It is a family-friendly event and is open to the public. Tickets for under-18s are free, and all tickets need to be booked in advance. Interested readers can avail of a limited number of free adult tickets using the code ‘CP18PRESS’.

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication