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Be Inspired during #NationalCodingWeek – Our CTO, Jonnie Russell, shares his experience as a CoderDojo mentor

National Coding Week aims to encourage people, of all ages, to learn new digital skills or share the skills they have. This is something we are particularly passionate about at Invotra, with our very own CTO, Jonnie Russell, having spent years being a mentor for CoderDojo.

In this interview Jonnie shares his experience of working with children at CoderDojo clubs. The CoderDojo movement believes giving all kids an understanding of, and skills in, programming is increasingly important. They run volunteer-led clubs for kids aged 7-17, where they can learn to code, build websites, create apps and games, while socialising and being inspired by their peers and mentors.

When did you get involved and what was your role?

CoderDojo started in 2011, but I got involved in 2012. I went to my first club with my son Matthew, to the one hosted in Trinity College in Dublin, and have been involved ever since.

During this time, I helped at the Dun Laoghaire CoderDojo for about 3-4 years and I helped to run the Cabinteely CoderDojo, up until the beginning of the pandemic. We had sessions every Saturday for 2 hours for 65 kids, with the help of 12 mentors.

I was one of the club mentors, organising and helping the kids with activities. Unfortunately, since Covid there have been problems finding a place to hold the club.

Jonnie Russell and his robot, Bob!
Jonnie Russell and his robot, Bob!

What happens at Coderdojo?

In our CoderDojo club, we split the kids up into different groups based on their experience. As an introduction we’d get them working on Beginner and Intermediate Scratch. Then, as they progressed, we’d move them onto HTML, Javascript and CSS.

Advanced activities included building robots, electronics and computers, and building games with Unreal Engine.

Kids from ages 7-16 could attend and we always had a good mixture of age ranges. We had about 100 people every weekend, including parents!

The space we used was given to us free, by Dublin Corporation, but unfortunately it has now been leased to a commercial entity. It was a great community, people would donate old laptops, and all the mentors and helpers would donate their time.

Why is CoderDojo important?

For me, I found it was really good for kids to get an early signal as to whether they would enjoy coding and want to continue with it, or if it wasn’t for them. We always had a mix of personalities that enjoyed it, and many of these kids have continued coding for a number of years, with the first ones from our club starting Computer Science in College last year.

It was also good for parents who thought their kids would like it, to gain a better understanding of what was involved and whether their children found it enjoyable.

For the kids that had a passion for it, they got to work together and learn with like-minded kids outside of a classroom setting. They learnt key skills in supporting each other, often the kids would ask other kids for support, not just the adult mentors.

They learnt far more than coding, they built communication skills, and were practicing independent learning.

They also made some great friends in the clubs, who shared their interests and helped each other to work as a team.

Why did you enjoy being a mentor?

CoderDojo gives kids a starting point and helps them along the way, but is not providing step by step guides the whole way. It gives kids learning ownership, and teaches problem solving skills.

As an example, in one activity we started the kids off with lollipop sticks and motors, and then moved them on to a task to ‘make a robot that moves’. The kids weren’t afraid by the jump to something more complicated, they just looked for solutions. All we as mentors did was help guide them along the way!

Are there key skills that are learnt in CoderDojo that you think more developers need to learn?

Communication was the hardest part for many of the kids involved. CoderDojo really gives kids the confidence to be able to talk, and I think it really helps starting that in childhood.

We used to get them to stand up and talk about their project, to explain what they did and why they did it that way. Often kids were really shy but, after a while, they didn’t think about sharing their work anymore, it became second nature and, usually, they were really keen to show off their stuff!

Other skills they gained were understanding the questions and thought processes, we could see this really improved over time. We’d ask them to examine their work, “Did you think of this?”, “Did you try that?” and gave them lots of time for idea sharing with their peers.

Are there philosophies from CoderDojo that you think more businesses need to learn?

I think that having teams that are able to formulate ideas with other people, strengthening teamwork, is critical. We used to split the kids into teams to face challenges that would force them to have to work together. The resulting improvement in communications from simply talking to each other was great. You see companies working in silos all the time, and they just need to adopt this practice of getting teams talking.

Are there any lessons you’d like to have known yourself, during your career, that you’d like to share?

If I’d had CoderDojo, I would probably be better at standing up and communicating! Embedding that from an early stage is really valuable.

CoderDojo does yearly events in Dublin, running brilliant projects, and the events have 1,000-1,500 kids involved, such as the coolestprojects.org

There’s a competition to enter the projects that they have been working on throughout the year. They can stand and pitch for virtual funding, and also have their project reviewed.by the Coolest Projects judges.

Being involved at a young age in events like those normalises all these skills. It’s easier to overcome things that they’re nervous about as children, than it is as adults.

I’d also have benefited from having people to teach me, I’d have been able to do and build the things I wanted. I think I would have achieved a lot more, much quicker, by reducing the learning cycle I had to go through.

What are the best achievements you have seen in your time with CoderDojo?

There was one kid whose Granny had Alzeimers and he built a picture frame that when you touched it said the name of the person pictured. That was brilliant and his idea. He had recorded his own voice in it and it even told her the relationship she had with the person it showed.

What can other people do to get involved or help out?

Donate your time! CoderDojo clubs always need more mentors. You don’t have to have coding skills. Jackie, who helps run our CoderDojo, isn’t a coder but is very organised, and others, like her, provide vital help with making it a success.

If you are interested contact your nearest club as people help with all different types of jobs. I’m sure they would love to hear from you if you can donate your time on a regular basis.

If you don’t have time then donating equipment and money does help, but the kids really need our time, volunteering really is the most valuable.

To find out more about CoderDojo, or to find how you can #GetInvolved with your nearest club, visit the CoderDojo website.

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