Excellence award: IBM volunteers in Ireland and the world mentor young coding ninjas

CoderDojo Foundation. CoderDojo coolest projects awards.
Sean Callanan, Lorenzo Cipriani,
Brendan Murray and Niambh Scullion,
all based in Ireland, led a global team
of IBM volunteers supporting
CoderDojo—helping kids
learn software coding.
“Snatch the pebble from my hand,” implores the martial arts master of his young apprentice. “When you can, it will be time for you to leave.”

Those lines are from a 1970’s American kung fu television show, but achieving proficiency at the hands of experienced mentors is playing out today in “dojos” around the world—though this time it’s not about delivering powerful karate kicks, but rather about helping young people learn how to create powerful lines of software code.

IBMers Sean Callanan, Lorenzo Cipriani, Brendan Murray and Niambh Scullion, all based in Ireland, coordinated a global team of volunteers supporting the CoderDojo effort, helping young people, between ages 7 and 17, learn how to code.

The children, called ninjas, develop websites, apps, programs, games and explore technology through the CoderDojo Foundation—a global network of volunteer-led, programming clubs.
“Dojo” has come to refer to a training place for martial arts, but in the “CoderDojos” the weapons of choice are HTML, JavaScript and Rasberry Pis.

Mentoring in the cloud

“In 2013, IBMer Fred Raguillat, asked me to help him set-up a CoderDojo at IBM in Dublin,” recalls Sean Callanan, an IBM software architect in Ireland’s capital city. “We established the first IBM CoderDojo in a few weeks, though getting a steady group of kids and parents every weekend took a little longer.”

While having in-person gatherings to present ideas and work together on projects was and continues to be important in CoderDojo, a technical solution presented to help ninjas, mentors and other CoderDojos collaborate around the world.

The director of IBM lab in Dublin suggested the idea of remote mentoring. “I helped on the technical side to identify the best solution, along with Brendan Murray,” says Sean. “We engaged an external learning company and together with CoderDojo.org ran a proof of concept using IBM SmartCloud Meetings.”

Brendan Murray, an IBM senior technical staff member in Ireland and CoderDojo mentor, says “We published the call for volunteers and almost instantly received 100 signups. When we ran the pilot with nine dojos in Ireland, Romania, Italy and the UK, it was a little chaotic, but very successful—it showed that it was possible.”

IBM SmartCloud Meetings helps connect ninjas, parents and mentors to the CoderDojos.

“The approach of CoderDojo is not necessarily to teach the children, but to create a space where they can learn and most of all have fun,” says Sean. “At the start I thought I had to solve the problems for the children, but the challenge is to not solve problems for them—the goal is to help them solve the problems for themselves and when to do, they grow.”

A locally driven global presence

In Ireland, IBM volunteers in Galway are working at dojos with 300 students, while 26 IBM volunteers support dojos in Dublin.

However, participation is global. Sean, Brendan, and Lorenzo organized and coordinated over 90 IBM volunteers around the world to serve as on-site and virtual mentors. There are IBM-led dojos in Brazil, Kenya, Scotland and the United States, while other IBMers participate in existing dojos in other countries including Belgium, Germany, Italy and the U.K.

The IBM Ireland team has also helped create dojos in Nigeria and Slovakia, to name two. In fact, establishing and running a CoderDojo was enhanced when members of the IBM Ireland team streamlined the process in a document called “Start Dojo.”

The CoderDojo Foundation has credited “Start Dojo” with helping grow the number of global clubs from 250 in 2013 to 580 at the end of 2014.

Snatching the pebble

Brendan tells of a ninja named Conor who developed a mobile app to help tourists enjoy a local arts festival. Since then, Conor has upgraded the app for another festival and developed a backend database for a more turnkey approach. “At 12 years old, he has programmed more than many college students!” says Brendan.

In another story, Sean is proud of a quiet young girl whose confidence has grown over her two at the Dojo. “A few months ago we gave mentor t-shirts to the children who were helping others,” Sean says, “and she was the first to get one—she was over the moon.”

The “Coolest Projects Awards” is an occasion for kids to showcase their ninja skills. Taking place in Dublin, the event gives coders a chance to submit projects that reflect their creativity and skills with computer languages and hardware.

Niambh Scullion, a business analyst for social program management solutions at IBM, is part of the implementation team for the Coolest Projects Awards, which showcases the creativity of CoderDojo ninjas and emphasizes participation rather than winning. She is also a co-founder and mentor in CoderDojoGirls@DCU and says that “in my own CoderDojoGirls session, there are some brilliant projects being developed for Coolest Projects 2015.”

Twenty IBM volunteers and an IBM Community Grant supported the 2014 Coolest Projects Awards; participation has grown from 15 students to 250 last year, with plans for 500 in 2015. Examples of projects from young people include an anti-bullying website and the “CoderDojo Rock Star” game to teach musical instrument skills.

Girl power!

In 2012, of all the ninjas at the CoderDojo at Dublin City University only three were girls. Niambh and two of her fellow mentors decided to do something about that and in April, 2013 formed CoderDojoGirls to promote technology among young girls.

The difference with CoderDojoGirls is the content is focused on what girls like to do and helps them build confidence.

“The excitement and the chattering amongst the girls when they're building their sites or showing their friends some new thing they did, is infectious,” says Niambh. “I am always humbled by the support the girls give to each other.”

Niambh is proud of all her CoderDojoGirls; among them, 11 year old Niamh won last year’s App Category at the Coolest Projects Awards for her “ReCharge my eCar” app, and another, nine year old Ciara has built an app to help her raise money for a charity she runs; this year Ciara is developing an app to help her grandfather with Alzheimer's.

Some of the older girls are now about to enter college. Niambh says that, “It's great watching the girls who started out as members in CoderDojoGirls grow to become incredible developers. In a few short years, they will be starting out on their engineering careers.”

In 2014, Niambh was honored as one of the Top 100 Women in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) in Ireland.

Sean says that the “CoderDojo happens because we have a group of people who come together.” And Brendan adds that the volunteers bring the right attitude: “If you just go for broke, you may have different levels of success or even fail spectacularly, but you will have tried at scale and that is enormously valuable.”

For both boys and girls, Niambh says, “I am always in awe of the kids and their creativity. My biggest desire is that throughout their lives they always stay creative!”

Brendan, Lorenzo, Niambh and Sean, along with more than 90 other IBM volunteers who worked with them on CoderDojo projects, are recipients of the 2014 IBM Volunteer Excellence Award. Licenses of IBM SmartCloud Sametime have been granted to the CoderDojo Foundation to facilitate remote mentoring. A new IBM activity kit “Kids Code!” was created, and along with Bluemix tutorials, has been shared on the foundation’s website. Within IBM, there is a CoderDojo@IBM community where over 240 IBMers from around the world are collaborating on various CoderDojo related activities.

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