A subtle but persistent hum of voices and a flutter of fingers hitting keys permeate the room. Twenty or so youngsters are sitting around four tables, each peering into the screen of a laptop while typing away.
It’s the monthly meeting of CoderDojo at the Glasgow Science Centre. The free open learning club is for 10 to 17-year-olds interested in coding, and currently consists of around 25 members.
The only adults present are volunteer mentors with an IT background, who assist the youngsters as they navigate their way through programming languages.
The Glasgow Science Centre club is just one of 28 that are currently meeting all across the country, covering most compass points and reaching to Islay. In some, entry starts from age seven or eight.
CoderDojo Scotland is a part of a global collaboration launched in 2011 by then 18-year-old coder James Whelton. He fuelled the curiosity of his high school colleagues in Cork, Ireland, after cracking the iPod Nano. They were also keen on learning to code, so Whelton set up a computer club, and later on launched the first CoderDojo club.
The movement soon took root in Scotland thanks to Craig Steele, who launched the first group in 2012. Craig says: “What I liked about the idea was, rather than being a formal set-up, a lesson plan, it was like a social experience, a club.”
A glance at today’s auditorium reveals a non-traditional learning environment. There are no teachers facing the silent rows of pupils, but young people seated around four round tables working independently, and talking freely. The atmosphere is relaxed. Mentors provide only initial support, and the coders determine the direction and pace of learning.
The desire to fill a void in the standard curriculum is something several mentors share. When they went to school, there was no opportunity to develop coding skills, unlike many other activities.
Craig says: “There were clubs for other things – dancing, drama, music, or football – but there wasn’t a club where, if you were really interested in technology, you could meet people who were into that as well. That was one of my original motivations.”
Carole Logan (above), a mentor in Glasgow for more than four years, had a similar experience. “There was nothing like this when I was a kid. So, it’s good when you see someone enthusiastic about something that they haven’t had the chance to do before, and now they have the chance!”
CoderDojo is not a charity. When contacted with a request to open a new club, Craig’s rule is not to say: “I am going to come and do a Coder Dojo for you”, but “yes, you can do a Coder Dojo, and we can help you get started”. He can give advice about the basics, but it’s up to each person or organisation to launch it, and resolve the necessary details.
Neither is the club a franchise, and each group can organise in the way that best suits them. “They do have to agree to the values, which is: it’s always free, it is run by volunteers, and that it’s a fun, sociable environment, ” Craig says.
To quote from the CoderDojo website: “At a CoderDojo event the only limit on what you can do is your imagination. You can learn new programming languages, create apps for your computer, tablet or phone, build websites, make games and much, much more. There is only one rule: ‘Above all; Be cool.'”
Young people are already taking action – even in the most unexpected places. The most remote club in Scotland, frequented by a dozen coders, meets on Islay, and has come to fruition thanks to four dedicated 15 and 16-year-olds.
Prior to opening the club, they travelled to Glasgow to learn from Craig and his colleagues how to set about the project – a trip for which they gathered funding on their own.
“Even in a remote part of Scotland like that, where you’d never normally get the experience, young people wanted not only to learn, but to lead on it as well,” Craig says.
The story of CoderDojo tells of more than just technology. Natalie Price, administrator for the Glasgow club, suggests: “The thing that impresses me the most is what they can achieve by themselves. You give them a suggestion, get them started, and go around the tables.
“You come back and they’ve created this amazing thing that you wouldn’t have thought of. It’s not just about computing – it’s about creativity.”
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