IBMer Niambh Scullion
“It's not about one
person, it's about a
community driving
whole change,”
says IBMer Niambh
Scullion, a co-founder
of CoderDojo
Girls in Ireland.

“I never started out as a mentor expecting to be the co-founder of anything!,” says Niambh Scullion, an IBM product owner in Ireland and one of fourteen winners of the 2016 IBM Volunteer Excellence Award.

In April 2013, Niambh and two technology industry colleagues, Sarah Doran and Noel King, were motivated to found CoderDojo Girls with the straightforward mission to get more young girls and women coding.

A year earlier, Niambh had started mentoring at Dublin City University (DCU) shortly after they had established a local CoderDojo—part of the CoderDojo Foundation, which coordinates a global network of volunteer-led, programming clubs for young people between ages seven and 17. The children who participate in CoderDojo programs are called ninjas.

However, of all the ninjas participating in the new CoderDojo at DCU, only three were girls.

The team felt that content and projects tailored to what girls might prefer could increase their interest in participating in the club. And that’s when CoderDojo Girls was founded.

Girls think coding is cool too

The emphasis on the girls’ preferences worked. Since CoderDojo Girls was founded four years ago over 60 girls per week have attended.

“The CoderDojo environment is the natural habitat to get more young girls and women coding,” says Niambh. “Our ninjas get to explore and create new, amazing things. Our aim is to show that girls can join in and have fun too —that coding is not just for the boys!”

The annual Coolest Projects event is one occasion when ninjas get to showcase what they’ve been working on. Taking place in Dublin, the event gives ninjas a chance to present projects that reflect their creativity and skills with computer languages and hardware.

In 2016, the event attracted 20 IBM volunteers and support from an IBM Community Grant.

Niambh says that for her, Coolest Projects is about taking part, not about winning, though it doesn’t hurt when that happens too.

“I really believe more and more girls are participating in Coolest Projects because of some amazing young role models,” she says. “People like Niamh Scanlon, who is one of ninjas from DCU who received recognition for the 2015 joint EU digital project of the year. And Lauren Boyle also from DCU and the Bray CoderDojo who was the 2014 EU digital girl of the year. These girls are accessible role models, and they carry the message to just jump in and try. It’s hard to describe the enthusiasm, passion and amazing ability and creativity of the ninjas.”

Growing the global girl power community

Coder Dojos and CoderDojo Girls help young people learn how to use technology, including writing apps in a variety of programming languages, creating electronic applications using Raspberry Pi and Arduino, and exploiting robotics. More recently they have been creating solutions with IBM Bluemix, a cloud platform that supports several programming languages.

If the technology is new for the kids, Niambh is a living example for them about picking up new skills. She was a practicing nurse for 11 years before returning to school at DCU to study computer applications.

“What I really loved about nursing was the technology side of things. I knew technology would disrupt and transform medicine, and I wanted to be part of that transformation,” Niambh says.

Preparing her young coder girls to transform an industry may have also been the motivation for Coder Girl Hack Day, a collaboration between Niambh and the founder of Girls Hack Ireland and Coding Grace.

Since the objectives of the programs were similar, it made sense to combine them into a single event, which takes place in October around the International Day of the Girl, and launched in 2015.

“It's really a day where girls get exposed to, and work with fun technology, but in ways they like,” says Niambh. “Last year we made tech jewelry, tech outfits, websites and lamps. We've made music and we've written story telling games. Eabha, one of my girls, came up with a beautiful website on Coder Girl Hack Day, and she's now going to submit that to Coolest Projects. Its great seeing the girls get more and more confident and creative.”

The success of CoderDogo Girls and the Coder Girl Hack Day may have played a part in the CoderDojo Foundation launching the CoderDojo Girl Initiative—an effort to increase the numbers of girls in CoderDojos to 40 percent in three years.

Niambh believes that the initiative now makes their mission a global priority. “It’s important that girls and young women in technology get more traction around the world because it's not a simple thing to achieve. I wish it was. I do believe that when things start to balance out, CoderDojo will have played a major part solving what is a really difficult problem.”

Another factor in solving the problem is the growing number of women and volunteers who are sharing their experience and expertise with girls. And Niambh gives them enormous credit for their role.

“What's also happened is that a lot of women from the tech community come out to help. This is also really important because it shows the girls who attend how vibrant our community is, and how there is a space for them here should they choose that path.”

She adds “I love meeting with CoderDojo mentors; I absolutely love their passion and drive. For me, at a personal level, I love how our dojo is as exciting as the day it started out. There is an incredible team of mentors who also innovate, encourage and inspire me. We grow, the girls grow and our community thrives.”

“The number of girls attending Coolest Projects in 2016 grew to 33 percent; that's incredible! It means all dojo's are doing their bit. It also shows it's not about any one person, it's about a whole community driving change.”

Niambh Scullion from IBM Ireland is among 14 other IBM teams and individuals who are recipients of the twelfth annual IBM Volunteer Excellence Award. The award is recognition from IBM Chairman and CEO Ginni Rometty, and is the highest form of global volunteer recognition given by the company to employees.

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