Posted on Thursday 19 September 2013 by Ulster Business
By Amanda Ferguson
Well, I have to admit, until I read about it on Twitter earlier this year I didn't have a clue.
It's not a new cafe, religion, or yoga technique, but a free computer code training club for school children to learn how to write computer code, develop websites, apps, programmes, games and more.
It's a free global collaboration founded in Co Cork, Ireland, in 2011 by Bill Liao and James Whelton. CoderDojo now operates across 22 countries, teaching around 10,000 children to write computer code and programmes each week.
CoderDojo projects have been popping up across Northern Ireland, including in Armagh, Ballycastle, Ballymena, Belfast, Coleraine, Dungannon, Londonderry, Newry and Omagh.
Dr Jonathan Heggarty, head of school for electrical, electronics and computing technologies at Belfast Metropolitan College, gave me a crash course earlier this month and I was pleasantly surpised by how easy it was to pick up.
I have (very) basic computer skills and I am definitely not technology minded (as my husband will confirm) but I was able to start creating a basic computer game using some simple drag and drop techniques.
I was given a taster of what young people learn over a five week introductory course at BMC and can see how it would be appealing to IT-minded kids, in fact, to all kids.
Learning about Raspberry Pi computers, Android Apps, website creation and Mindcraft modifications of a Saturday morning sounds like fun enough, but add in the social element, not to forget the free healthy snacks and the progression from white belt onwards (that's the dojo bit) and it's easy to see why boys and girls are keen to get involved.
Dr Heggarty, said: "Around a dozen mentors from industry help out every week and parents will also help. As the young people are creating their games or app and need any assistance the volunteers are there.
"One of the key ideas is that it is a free programming club for young people. It's a loose movement rather than a formal organisation."
Children learn scripting through the game Mindcraft and how to create computer games using software such as Game Maker, something I am reliably informed you could live off the proceeds from if you sold your work and it was successful.
They explore App Inventor, an online visual way of programming, a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, that's a lot easier than typing in raw code. It's used by the University of Ulster as part of their undergraduate course, so the skills the young people are learning at CoderDojo, even though they are maybe in their early teens or younger, are relevant. As Dr Heggarty put it, it's "serious technology".
"At this age if they can create an app or a game or a website without a tremendous amount of effort and it's accessible then hopefully they will think IT is a good career," he added.
"Even if they don't think about that, it will still improve their IT skills."
Dr Heggarty said Momentum, the trade association representing Northern Ireland's information, communications and technology (ICT) industry, has been of great assistance to the college in relation to CoderDojo, as have business sponsors, including Citi.
"The kids created really clever games as part of the Citi competition to promote financial awareness in young people," Dr Heggarty explained.
"They really work well and Citi are now going to use those games when they go out and speak to young people about software, programming and working within their sector."
To date over 220 children aged 6-16 have been involved in CoderDojo Belfast with over 150 belts awarded to acknowledge the achievement of learning new skills and assisting others in various technologies.
Dr Heggarty told Ulster Business he sees CoderDojo as part of the college engaging with society to encourage life-long learning.
"We are doing that at this young level, 5-year-olds getting involved, 8 to 16-year-olds getting involved, and engagement with the schools sector through Bring It On and the Code Camp," he added.
"We've then got our main programmes which are 16+ and those would be level two and three diplomas, HNDs and foundation degrees. At the upper end we also do bespoke training for companies, we also do a lot of certifications such as Microsoft and Adobe.
"We see it as vital to be involved across a broad range of areas and our work means our courses are always industry relevant."
Joanne Stuart, of Attrus Ltd, is a non executive director at the Northern Ireland Science Park and a champion for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM).
She has attended three CoderDojo courses with her nieces and nephews. Two were run by BMC – CoderDojo and LEGO Mindstorm Robotics - and one run by University of Ulster, based on Blender 3D design software.
"Business is crying out for these type of skills," she said.
"There is so much resource online, it's really amazing what the kids can achieve. In less then six months my nephew was developing games, phone apps and a website."
Joanne added: "Technology underpins everything we do and we are using it every day for everything, yet we're not really getting underneath how it all works.
"Kids are so curious, take in so much and are so comfortable with technology, so CoderDojo is a fun way to learn and hopefully it inspires them to take it further and understand why maths and physics is so important. It gives them more of an interest in those subjects."
Joanne said the collaborative approach of Coder Dojo helps develop young people's confidence and team building skills, and she praised the efforts of the volunteers who run the clubs.
"It's all done on a voluntary basis. We need mentors to work with the kids on a one-to-one basis. The success of it is really down to the mentors prepared to give up three hours on a Saturday morning. Parents coming along are learning as well."
A great supporter of Coder Dojo is IT employer Citi, which has been operational in Belfast since 2005, with staff working across technology, operations, legal and compliance.
John Healy, Citi IT senior group manager, said: "CoderDojo is a very interesting programme, particularly in the way it gets kids interested in technology from a very early age.
"An important part of Citi's strategy is to attract and retain talent from universities and schools which is essential for the future of banking."
This year, as part of the CoderDojo programme Citi helped young people learn how to code, write applications and develop games.
"Citi ran a competition for students from the Belfast Metropolitan College and the standard of entries was incredible. We intend to have some of the games developed for our outreach work to secondary schools," said John.
"It's vital to get more school kids excited and enthused about technology. As a major employer in Belfast, it's important for us to support projects such as CoderDojo, and also the STEM agenda which is helping develop the skills base in Northern Ireland."
On my visit to BMC I also watched videos of children being interviewed about their CoderDojo experience.
The general consensus was "CoderDojo rules!" and I have to say I agree.
For more information see @CoderDojoBMC and visit www.coderdojobelfast.com
CoderDojo is a movement orientated around running free not-for-profit coding clubs which teach young people to learn how to write computer code, develop websites, apps, programs, games and more. CoderDojo Belfast was founded by Belfast Metropolitan College in association with Momentum in April 2012 to make development and coding fun, as well as a sociable and rewarding experience which will hopefully encourage young people to pursue a career in ICT.