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Column How my school computer club turned into a worldwide movement

Cork teenager James Whelton set up CoderDojo to teach fellow students about computers – then watched it explode. He tells his story.

The idea of setting up an after-school computer club turned into a much bigger venture than 19-year-old James Whelton could have ever imagined.

One year on from setting up CoderDojo – a club where young people learn how to code, develop websites, apps, programs, games and more – this social entrepreneur says the skills that these children are learning are making them into desirable employees in the future. And they’re having fun too.

I WAS A very nerdy kid at school, I wasn’t great at sport or academics particularly, but computers they were my thing. So as I was growing up, I was always playing around with computers and I picked up things as I went along.

There was really nowhere at the time for me to go and learn about this stuff. In secondary school I won a web development award, which got announced over the intercom. One guy came up to me after class, said he was interested in learning, and asked did I know how iPhone apps were made. That was the beginning.

We held a meeting to see how many people were interested in this area of technology. I didn’t think there would be that much interest, but more than 40 people showed up.

The after-school computer club was popular. I was teaching basic HTML and CSS to my classmates. However, as we approached summer, people were wondering if we could carry on the club, and we were also getting some interest from kids in other schools.

I had gotten some notoriety online after hacking the iPod Nano and I was asked to speak at the Dublin Web Summit. So I ditched my Leaving Cert mock exam to go speak at that, and afterwards I met Bill Liao, an entrepreneur and philanthropist with SOSVentures, who was interested in growing the project into something bigger than just an after-school computer club. We talked about the economic standpoint of things and how there is a massive shortage of software developers and people in tech. So together we came up with CoderDojo.

Google building

In June 2011 the first CoderDojo was launched in the National Software Centre in Cork. I really never imagined how popular it would be, or how fast it would grow. The Cork Dojo saw people travelling from Dublin frequently to attend sessions, so we decided to set up a Dublin Dojo in Google’s Montevetro building. The increasing success lead to setting up of more Dojos around Ireland and subsequently around the world. Internationally now we have 102 CoderDojos listed. We have 35 or so in Ireland running on an active basis.

CoderDojo is a very relaxed environment for kids. The volunteers are fantastic and really engaging. The youngest CoderDojo student is about seven or eight years old with the eldest being about 17 or 18.

The club has a couple of roles. From the social and economic standpoint it is filling the void of the education system, but it is educating kids in a new skill also. Socially, it gives young people a place to hang out and meet like-minded people and let them work on projects together.

A lot of kids also use it as a platform to achieve other things they want to do. There is one 13-year-old boy in Cork who wanted to develop a website all about trees in Ireland, so he learnt how to do it through our workshops. It really is interesting to see kids with ideas.
From day one we decided that it would all be free – money can often cause headaches and poison things. Since we opened, we have had kids from a lot of diverse social backgrounds and they really benefit from it.

Worldwide success

I am currently employed by the same social entrepreneur company that Bill Liao runs, so I am a full time social entrepreneur with CoderDojo. I soon realised if I was not taking a wage I would be eating cat food. It is pretty amazing to be able to work with the project full time, and to see it grow throughout Ireland and the world. The one year anniversary of the initiative was the end of June – I can’t believe it has grown so fast.

We decided from day one to try and divorce ourselves from the education system. The education system is a very fickle thing. As we have built up a bit of weight, however, some schools have come to me voicing an interest.

I am so lucky to be able to see this grow from one simple idea to such a great venture. But the real strength behind the success of CoderDojo is the people behind it. The mentors and volunteers are why CoderDojo is what it is today. They have grown and defined it. CoderDojo has an incredible community thanks to everyone involved.

The sky is the limit as far as I’m concerned. If you have an idea, just go with it, you really never know what you can achieve.

James Whelton is the founder of CoderDojo. For more information, visit their website, Facebook or Twitter. James met Enda Kenny in the Dáil recently:

Photo: CoderDojo

Read: Coder Dojo founder, aged 20, honoured at Web Summit>

Read: Social entrepreneurs with big ideas win €775k prizes>

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