CoderDojo girls find confidence from the keyboards

15 Mar 2013

(From left) Claire O'Connell, Niamh (10), and CoderDojo mentors Noel King and Niambh Scullion. Photo by Conor McCabe Photography

CoderDojo offers an environment where children and teens can learn about coding and creating with technology. Claire O’Connell and her daughter, Niamh, take a look at it from the girl perspective.

About a year ago, the president of Dublin City University (DCU), Prof Brian MacCraith, told me that DCU was going to host a weekly CoderDojo. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant, but he was enthusiastic about it.

A quick scratch around online told me that CoderDojo was a growing movement of coding and technology clubs for kids, the brainchild of social innovator James Whelton, who had started ‘Coder’ in his native Cork. DCU was to be its first home in north Dublin and people were signing up quickly. 

I was curious, so myself and my then-nine-year-old daughter Niamh went to DCU to see what it was all about. While Niamh liked using computers, she had no real idea what made them tick. But that all changed. After that first session in DCU she was hooked, and we started going each week. Initially a bit quiet, she kept to herself and whispered to me if she had a question. She soon came out of her shell though, and got the confidence to ask the mentors questions – which is just as well, because my coding-related wisdom was rapidly reaching its limits. 

Confidence from CoderDojo

As Niamh’s confidence grew, she quickly learned how to write code for websites and games, and if she fixed glitches the other kids would ask her how she did it. A year later, coding is second nature to her, and her confidence in problem solving and bringing ideas to fruition is spilling over into other activities.

CoderDojo is one way to help build confidence among girls to engage with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, says mentor Niambh Scullion, who is a software engineer with IBM/Cúram. 

“I think that is one of the nice things about CoderDojo, it is at the level of your own ability – you go create, we will just give you building blocks,” she explains. “It’s not about being the best, it’s about participation and indirectly trying to build their confidence.”

Huge opportunities

Scullion volunteers at the DCU and IBM Coders on alternate Saturdays. “It has been an amazing journey, really exciting,” she says. “And it’s great that both boys and girls are learning about software through it, because in the last few years there has been a huge revolution in the field – we have things like Facebook and Twitter now, apps and mobile, we are connected all the time. Data is being seen as the next big resource and we have really only started to analyse and use it.”

Scullion has never experienced the ‘glass ceiling’ – on the contrary, in Cúram and now IBM she feels encouraged to develop her ideas, and many of the senior managers she works with are women.

“The thing that inspires me about seeing women coding and programming is that women can bring a different perspective to problems,” she says. “There’s a huge future in the IT industry for women, and if CoderDojo can get young girls interested in it, then that is of huge benefit.” 

Keeping the interest

Today, CoderDojo has gone global and the DCU sessions have become so popular they are split into beginner and advanced groups. Girls make up around 15-20pc of attendees there, but that proportion was higher, according to mentor Noel King, a senior developer with Paddy Power.

“At the start of CoderDojo in DCU we were seeing higher numbers of girls, but girls were probably quicker to drop out,” he says. “That’s something we are looking at and trying to address – we have to be conscious of the material we deliver, the nature of the games, we have to bring in material that interests everyone.”

And a girl coder has come up with what could be the very thing: last summer, the DCU group had the opportunity to develop their own ‘coolest projects’ and 16-year-old Catrina Carrigan built a music game where a user could play a guitar, piano and drums. That idea will now form the basis of a new game where the young coders at DCU will build an online piano and ‘teach’ it tunes.

More generally, whether boys or girls, King hopes that attending CoderDojo will help inspire, no matter where the youngsters’ future career choices take them.  

“I am quite conscious that we don’t have coding as our end goal,” says King. “If someone can code, brilliant, but it’s more about how you can do things in tech that are fun – you have an idea and with software and hardware you can make your idea a reality.”

Exceeding expectations

So, a year on, is MacCraith still as enthusiastic about CoderDojo? Unequivocally. “It has been wonderful to witness the excitement of learning and the motivated faces of our young coders first-hand every Saturday,” he says. “The role of the volunteer mentors, who are mainly DCU students and alumni, cannot be overstated. But everyone involved is motivated by the essence of education in the purest sense. It has been a fantastic experiment in learning that has exceeded all expectations.”

And the last word goes to the lady herself. Niamh is now 10 years old and a CoderDojo veteran: “I like learning this way, it’s fun,” she says. “And I hope even more girls join, I don’t want people thinking this is a thing for only boys to learn.”

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s year-long campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths

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