Should we be teaching our kids how to code?

Should we be teaching our kids how to code?
Coding enthusiasts Emily and Lucy Ray at their home in Cork. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

Is teaching your kids to code one of the most important things you can do for their education? Ahead of Megadojo, Ellie O’Byrne finds out.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the smartest of them all?

That’s the phrase that springs to mind, sitting in the kitchen with teen coder sisters Emily and Lucy Ray, as Lucy explains a smart mirror she built and programmed herself.

Working with two other girls in her Coder Dojo, Lucy, 15, built a mirror with an inbuilt computer display, and programmed a Raspberry Pi mini-computer to control it.

“You upload all your information to the Raspberry Pi from an SD card, with different links to what information you want to display,” Lucy says. “Then the HDMI cable connects to the display. We made it display positive motivational messages, like ‘have your best day,’ or ‘you look beautiful,’ on the mirror. It can show your calendar, or the weather forecast, and it can show news from a website too.”

Lucy is a Transition Year student. But in her spare time, she’s an avid coder. When she was in primary school, she followed in the footsteps of her big sister Emily, 17, and started attending a weekly Coder Dojo in Blackrock Castle Observatory.

For those who don’t know, Coder Dojo is an Irish-founded growing global phenomenon, a network of free coding clubs for children over seven. Entirely run by volunteers, the informal clubs help children to learn to use the coding languages that control computers as well as other tech skills.

Founded by 18-year-old James Whelton and entrepreneur Bill Liao in Cork in 2011, today 58,000 kids in 107 countries are helped by 12,000 volunteers in Dojos. There’s a focus on self-led learning, and older kids become mentors, assisting younger kids in everything from website and game design to music programming and robotics.

For the Rays, their involvement began when Emily started attending a Cork Dojo at the age of nine, and little sister Lucy was just behind.

Emily shows off a game she’s designed using Scratch, a coding language designed for children at Massachusetts institute of technology. It’s called Billy the Snail, and it’s a side-scrolling platform game, a little like Super Mario Brothers, but with a Kate Bush soundtrack. It’s simple, colourful and quirky.

“This is the first game I ever built from start to finish, so I’m still really proud of it,” she says. While Lucy excels at physical assembly and practical tasks, Emily is more the coder of the family: she is fluent in coding languages Scratch, Python and HTML, and has mastered the basics in others, including Ruby.

James Whelton
James Whelton

Emily, in sixth year, now mentors at the Dojo herself. She says the benefits of involvement go far beyond just picking up technical skills. “I was a very shy person when I started,” she says.

“I would have been terrified to stand up in front of a group and present something. But now that’s changed: I can present projects to judges at competitions, and I’ve gotten up on an innovation stage to talk about projects.” “When you mentor, you have a bond with the person you’re helping, so not only are you fixing a problem, you’re getting to know a person too. One of my best friends is a girl that I asked if she needed a hand with something. Now she’s my best friend and we do everything together.”

Both girls attend St Angela’s College, a girl’s secondary school in Cork. Is there still a perception amongst their peers that coding is for nerds? They laugh. “100%,” Lucy says.

“We get accused of that all the time! We get called out of class by teachers to help fix computer problems.”

Emily and Lucy are confident young women; communicative, enthusiastic and proud of their achievements. But breaking the STEM ceiling for girls is about more than just personal confidence, it has career and employment consequences too.

In August, career networking platform LinkedIn revealed the eight most in-demand skills in the €16 billion Irish software sector, where there are up to 12,000 vacancies, according to the company. Literacy in coding languages Python and HTML5 were on the list, as were proficiencies in web services and applications, and managing cloud systems.

Which bodes well for Emily and Lucy, who are making senior cycle subject choices based on the knowledge that they both want careers in the tech sector. Emily has opted for physics and accounting for next year’s Leaving Cert, and plans to study computer science. Lucy will make similar choices.

The girls’ mum, Kay, says that no matter what career they end up with, she’s confident that elements of the skills they’ve picked up will stay with them for life.

“There’s some element of computers in almost every job now,” she says.

“And they have all the confidence they’ve gained in things like public speaking and networking.”

One of the most impressive aspects of Coder Dojo is that it’s free: Kay says the girls’ past-time has cost her almost nothing except a time investment: parents of under-12s have to stay with their kids for their Saturday sessions.

“I actually loved watching them coding,” Kay says. “I was surprised at how much they could do from such a young age: there’s no classroom set-up and they really have to figure things out with the help of the mentors.”

Many parents are very conscious of the negative impacts of too much “screen-time” on their kids, but Kay says a balance can be struck; both her girls played Gaelic Football as children, although neither has kept it on.

Kay thinks there should be coding clubs in every school, from as young as possible.

It seems the Department of Education agrees: as of next September, students at 40 schools will begin studying Computer Science, with the first Leaving Cert exam in the subject in 2020, by which year it is hoped it will have been rolled out to all schools.

How successfully this course will be taught remains to be seen. But Eugene McDonough, who runs a Coder Dojo in Limerick Institute of Technology and is one of the founders of Megadojo, says the role of Coder Dojo will still be vital in supplementing the curriculum.

“Think of it like sports,” he says.

Kids do PE in school, but many choose to play club sports after school. Coder Dojo is the same.

Eugene runs a weekly Saturday Dojo in LIT. He’ll also be on hand for October’s Megadojo, a vast coding event for 5,000 kids taking place in six locations nationwide including CIT and LIT. As one of the founders, accessibility across socio-economic divides was one of his main concerns.

Not only are all Megadojo events free, but the team have managed the impressive task of sourcing spare laptops and desktops for every attendee, meaning that kids that may be excluded because they can’t access a device to work on can try out coding.

“The overall Coder Dojo can be fairly middle class, no matter how we encourage access,” Eugene says. “It’s people with kids who own laptops. Some dojos have computers, but often it’s kids who already own one who are coming. We really want to broaden the scope.” By giving kids a taste of what coding is, Eugene says there could even be a knock-on effect for third-level courses, where the current drop-out rate on Computer Science and similar degrees can be as high as 40% in some third level institutions.

Most kids are growing up familiar with social media, entertainment and games as online consumers, Eugene says kids who can code take a different approach to computers, and tend to be more educated around things like online safety as a result.

"Coder kids are safer online because they know how things work and they know about things like privacy settings,” he says. “We’re not just teaching coding: it’s problem-solving. The more you understand about how things work, the better informed you are. You can use the tools instead of letting them use you."

Perhaps most importantly of all, Eugene says, helping your kids get coding skills will be key to making them employable in the jobs marketplace of the future, one in which more and more low-skilled manual labour is done by machines.

“We need programmers with wider, more advanced skillsets,” he says. “None of the tech start-ups in Ireland can get enough programmers, or in America. As more jobs are taken up by automation, it’s the more skilled people who know how things work that will have employment down the road.”

Megadojo, for kids aged 7-17, is on the 13th of October in locations nationwide. All coding workshops and tech talks are free and all equipment is provided. Find out more and register attendance at: www.megadojo.ie


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