Young coders and AR drones take European Parliament by storm

29 Jan 2013

Thirty-six kids ages six to 16 from a number of EU countries and members of the fast-growing CoderDojo movement planted a very important seed in the mind of MEPs at the European Parliament in Brussels today when they offered up a portal to the future and an opportunity to solve the IT skills crisis in Europe.

Today, the European Parliament played host to the 36 kids, including 26 kids from a range of counties and cities in Ireland, as well as Spain, the UK, Slovenia and the Netherlands, who were keen to show how an idea born in Cork two years ago could help to solve the shortage of coding talent not just in Europe, but around the world.

Cork MEP Sean Kelly invited the delegation to hold a dojo event inside the parliament’s committee rooms, where kids, such as 13-year-old Harry Moran from Mahon, Cork Dojo, demonstrated his latest iOS game Robot Run! and a programmable AR drone swooped across the room, performing flips in the air.

Other CoderDojo kids who demonstrated their coding projects at the European Parliament buildings included: Wren and Orey Higgins (Birr Dojo), Ruth Whelan (Blackrock Cork Dojo), Caelum Gorman-Forder (Mahon Cork Dojo), Oisin Aylward (Waterford Dojo) and Darragh Aylward (Waterford Dojo).

The purpose of the event was to celebrate the rapid growth of CoderDojo, which has now trained more than 16,000 kids in countries in Europe, the UK, the US, Africa and Asia in how to write software code – the language of the 21st century.

Another purpose of the event was to effect change in teaching practices to include coding in future school curricula.

Global phenomenon

To date, some 120 CoderDojos have sprung up in 22 countries worldwide.

CoderDojo was started by then-teen programmer James Whelton, now 20, and entrepreneur Bill Liao in July 2011 to address the lack of computer teaching in Irish schools.

Today at the European Parliament Kelly paid tribute to the void filled by CoderDojo so far. Speaking with, Kelly said he believes it is critical that programming becomes embedded in European school curricula as soon as possible.

“It’s vital that we deal with this as soon as possible because unless we start teaching the kids coding early in life we will never deal with the shortage of programming talent. If things don’t change rapidly we will have an even greater shortage of coding talent.”

Kelly said it is vital that we create awareness and capacity in the classrooms and he said he hoped to see the CoderDojo movement expand into every part of Europe and beyond.

“CoderDojo has shown how feasible it is in terms of its progress in the last 12 months. It is not only an important social aspect for the kids but it translates into economic benefit for the countries in terms of the eventual creation of jobs and filling voids that have developed in talent development.”

At the event, Liao told the room of kids, executives and politicians: “We marvel at two-year-olds with an iPad and say how clever they are. That is wrong. We should marvel at how brilliant the engineers were to make one interface that has one button and that a two-year-old can use.

“Coding is not our past, it is our future and understanding the language of code is magic and is the closest thing to real magic that humanity can produce and if we start young enough this can be a fantastic resource.”

‘Earth needs more programmers’

Liao said that the shortage of computing talent is a global problem.

“There are not enough programmers to keep up with demand, every place on Earth needs more programmers and the reason is we are not getting enough is because kids aren’t becoming interested young enough. CoderDojo is designed to ensure there are enough whizkids for our future.”

Whelton said that whether for games or for fun, software is here to stay and can make a difference in even saving lives. He discovered this when he was 14 when an app he created to circumvent Ireland’s then-dire broadband infrastructure to communicate information to doctors in the US proved instrumental in the timely treatment of a neighbour’s nephew who was diagnosed with a brain tumour.

“Whether it’s an app for knowing when the next bus is coming or opening a door by sending a tweet, everything that happens is due to the power of code.”

He said the success of the CoderDojo movement in spreading across cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Tokyo wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the mentors at CoderDojo who volunteer their time to teach kids coding.

Proof that the CoderDojo movement is winning support locally in Europe came from Martine Temples, senior vice-president at Telenet For Business, who said that during a recent visit to Ireland a CoderDojo presentation at the Belgian Embassy in Dublin inspired her to establish a dojo in Antwerp.

Her first dojo, which happens this Saturday, was oversubscribed and she now plans to hold dojo events in Ghent, Hasselt and the university city of Leuven.

“I am 30 years in ICT and there is a big need for coders. A lot of innovation comes from people who understand how to code and it impacts other professions in the areas of biomedical, health and life sciences.

“It is vital children learn how to code early in life. It is evident that the passions of young people are killed in the education system when they are 14 or 15 and so we have to start younger.

“This is definitely something that could spread in Europe – we need more young people to chose STEM education because that’s what will help our economies. But you cannot force children to learn code. You have to go by their passions to do this – like we tried to develop music and sports interests in schools at an early age and now it is technology’s turn,” Temples said.

European Parliament image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years