‘The ‘oh wow’ moment I experienced at CoderDojo?’ asks Giustina Mizzoni. There’s a brief pause in our telephone conversation as the executive director at CoderDojo Foundation in Dublin, Ireland, seems spoilt for choice as to which incident to share with me.
‘It has to be the time last year when two young CoderDojo boys built a printer that punched Braille characters.
‘Then there was another group that built an anti-bullying app, yet another built a phone that doesn’t require a network connection to work…
‘It’s when I see such kids and their creations that I realise the kind of impact CoderDojo has on the community and children. It’s really solving a problem. Those were moments you feel really good.’
An international community of software programming clubs – or dojos, a Japanese term that loosely means training place – CoderDojo offers free programming classes for young people between the ages of 7 and 17.
‘Put simply, anyone in this age group can visit a dojo where they can learn to code, build a website, create an app or a game, and explore technology in an informal, creative, and social environment. The aim is to help young people realise that they can build a positive future through coding and community participation,’ says Guistina, an avid techie who joined CoderDojo as the first employee in January 2013 and now oversees its programmes and operations.
Set up in 2011 by James Whelton, then an 18-year-old coder who received some publicity after hacking the iPod Nano, and Bill Liao, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, CoderDojo was an almost overnight success.
It all began after the iPod Nano incident when James’ popularity soared and several students from his school wanted to learn coding. So he set up a computer club in his school in Cork, Ireland, and started teaching students basic HTML and CSS. So popular was the club that it led to the first CoderDojo – at National Software Centre in Cork - after Bill offered to grow the project.
Realising the popularity of the centre and keen to share the CoderDojo format, James and Bill decided to open-source the model. ‘This way, any child anywhere in the world could take the knowledge, share it and replicate it,’ says Guistina.
From one in Ireland, CoderDojo today has 1,100 verified dojos in 63 countries with new dojos mushrooming almost every day. While about 60 per cent of the dojos are in Europe, there is a sizeable number in Japan, Australia and North America and a couple in Saudi Arabia. ‘We would like to see more in the Middle East and definitely a few in the UAE,’ says Guistina.
So, what happens at a CoderDojo session?
‘Typically we start a dojo with a warm up activity,’ says Guistina. ‘It could be anything – a giant game of rock, paper, pencil, scissors… The idea is to get people talking and relaxed.’
Next step, children and mentors – volunteers who coach them on coding – pick up from where they left off from the previous week and start working on their projects.
‘At the moment we are working on a lot of Android apps at our dojo in Dublin but there are sessions where children will be hacking away at hardware issues too,’ she says. ‘We aim to help young people realise that they can build a positive future through coding and community.’
How does one set up a dojo?
‘To start with you need to have a ‘Champion’ – essentially the project manager who is going to take the initiative to say ‘yes, this is what I’m going to do for the kids of my community’,’ says Guistina.
Step two is building a team: putting together a set of volunteer mentors who are technically qualified plus a few other who are just happy to get involved and get things done.
Step three is deciding on a venue. It could be a library, a community centre, a corporate area – any place that has chairs and tables for laptops or computers and where people can sit around and talk and work.
Step four involves registering the dojo online with CoderDojo. You can then have a Twitter handle, an FB page, etc. The champion can decide how often to have sessions. Generally, in new dojos it is once a month. But once it gets going, you can consider having one every fortnight.
‘CoderDojo has a team of community support personnel that is on hand to answer questions, help you at any time, answer queries you might have… It is non-curriculum based but the parent dojo has a huge amount of resources which is available to get started and move forward,’ says Guistina.
Community forums are also on hand to learn and glean tips and to seek guidance and help.
‘We run courses and try to include everyone in dojos across the world because they are all connected,’ says Guistina.
CoderDojo has nine full time staff to support global initiatives and to create content and update resources, and more than 7,000 volunteers that include mentors and support staff.
‘About 60 per cent of our mentors are people who work in the IT industry and they are incredibly passionate about creating this kind of ops for children,’ she says. ‘But you don’t have to be technically qualified to be a mentor. You can, for instance, help to organise and arrange things and support the dojo.’
Guistina is looking forward to dojos coming up in the Middle East and particularly the UAE. ‘We encourage project-based and peer learning,’ she says. ‘We are looking for a lot of young children to be mentors. We are also keen to attract a lot of women mentors so that it will attract a lot more girls to the dojos. At the moment there are not enough girls in this field,’ she says.
More information, resources and tips to set up a dojo are available at coderdojo.com