Young Irish coder inspires European ‘learn to code’ project

22 Nov 2013

(From left) Claire O'Connell, Niamh (11), and CoderDojo mentors Noel King and Niambh Scullion. Photo by Conor McCabe Photography

If there’s a journalistic rule somewhere that says you should not write about your loved ones, then I’m going to break it, because an idea my daughter had earlier this year – to build a website that helps people learn how to code – has formed the basis of is a new initiative that will allow young coders from around Europe to share code and learn from each other.

Niamh developed the website initially for her ‘coolest project‘ this summer. She had been learning how to write computer programs through CoderDojo, a movement of free, volunteer-led coding clubs for young people that started in Cork in 2011 and has spread around the world.

The coolest project was Niamh’s chance to design and build something of her own. But what would she create? Inspiration struck one day just as she left a ‘Coder’ session, she recalls.

“When I started at CoderDojo I barely knew anything about websites or code, and I was thinking about how going to Coder meant I got to learn so much in a short time,” she says. “I was wondering how I could help newer people and then the coolest projects popped up in my mind, and those two ideas mixed together.”

That mix resulted in Inspire, a website to help beginners learn to code online if they couldn’t physically attend a CoderDojo session. And, recalling what it had been like to be a beginner herself, Niamh kept things straightforward: “I thought about what I had learned and I designed the site so people could learn how to code a simple homepage and then make cool designs.”

You can hear a short podcast online of Niamh explaining her project at the time.

Europe Code Week

Fast forward a couple of months, and CoderDojo mentor Noel King was thinking about how the Dublin City University (DCU) group could engage with the upcoming Europe Code Week, which starts this Monday, 25 November. The initiative is about encouraging coding and bringing it to a wider audience, and King started to rack his brains about how CoderDojo DCU could do something a bit different to get coders working together.

“Just coding is a bit ordinary, that is what we do every week, so I started thinking about how can groups code together,” he says. “Then I remembered Niamh’s project – she had created this website that meant people who weren’t in CoderDojo could learn how to code. That started us thinking about how people could log in and share cool pieces of code they had learned.”

The upshot is, where young coders from CoderDojos around Europe will be able to register and put in short pieces of code. King hopes that hundreds of coders will get involved and build a repository of code that others can view.

During Europe Code Week, the website will be open to write and share code – each piece will be tagged with the coder’s first name and where they are based – and the mentors at DCU (including Niamh) have been busy preparing the site for the event.

“This website was only made possible through the vision and insight of one of our youngest members and it highlights the potential and creativity within CoderDojo,” says King. “Seeing Niamh’s project idea extended to take part in a European coding initiative is something at CoderDojo DCU we are very proud of.”

Create code and share

CoderDojo mentor Niambh Scullion says the simplicity of the site should make it easy for the young coders to get creative.

“Learntocode has so much potential in terms of learning – its ease of use gives kids of all abilities a simple way of developing new skills which will enable [them] to showcase their interests,” she says. “I also see the site could be a fun way for kids to show parents about what they are learning, and maybe teach their parents a thing or two about coding – coding’s not just for young people, you know.”

The Learntocode initiative is the first time that CoderDojo DCU is providing a space for the kids to share their code with the world, says mentor Sarah Doran. “Having the opportunity to share the link with all their friends and family and the rest of Europe will be a huge boost for the kids. I’m looking forward to seeing the individuality of the boys and girls from CoderDojo all over Europe and the kids really taking the limelight.”

Doran and Scullion run a weekly session of CoderDojoGirls at DCU, and they see the website as an opportunity for boys and girls alike to get involved.

“I think you’ll find it harder than you expect to distinguish the boys’ work from the girls’ work – in our class we already have three girls who have coded Minecraft-styled pianos,” says Doran. “It shows that girls really aren’t any different from the boys when it comes to coding, and that the stereotype of the computer coder being a nerdy unsociable guy is long gone with the next generation of smart, diverse and enthusiastic male and female coders coming out of CoderDojo.”

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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