CoderDojo: Bringing Free Kids Coding Workshops to Cambridge

| Aimee Sprung

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Studies show that there will be one million unfilled jobs in computing by 2020. But how can you get your kids into coding? Coding bootcamps and specialized workshops can get expensive, and their grade school probably doesn’t offer it.

Enter: CoderDojo.

CoderDojo brings free weekend coding clubs to kids all over the world. And thanks to Charles River CoderDojo (@CoderDojoCRiver), these free “Kids Learn to Code” workshops have come to Cambridge. This Saturday, in fact, they’re hosting an intermediate level Minecraft Mods workshop. Sound like fun? That’s because it is.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Frank Kelly, who runs Charles River CoderDojo, to learn more about the organization and their programs.

What is CoderDojo? 

CoderDojo is a global network of volunteer-led, independent, community based programming clubs for young people. These young people, between 7 and 17, learn how to code, develop websites, apps, programs, games and explore technology. As of November 2014 there are over 450 CoderDojos in 28 countries around the world.

Two of the four “Digital Girl of the Year” awards in Europe this year were won by CoderDojo members from Ireland and Belgium (ages 9 and 11). Also, CoderDojo is huge in Ireland. For comparison’s sake, Ireland is the size of Maine but there are over 120 active Dojos in Ireland.  There are 100 CoderDojos now in the US. In Seattle and New York there are Dojos each with well over 100 kids per session. We think Boston can easily do the same.

How did CoderDojo come to Boston / Somerville?

CoderDojo-CambridgeAs a Software Engineer and a parent, I have been surprised at the lack of opportunities for kids to create with technology.  In addition, living in Somerville it is clear that those of us who live in the technology world have not made enough connections to underserved urban youth, minorities, girls and children with special needs. We need to bridge that gap not just to address the STEM skills shortage, but to reduce inequality and to build a more inclusive technology community.

Then one day I was watching my daughter at her Karate Dojo and thought their model of training, practice and demoing skills was an awesome way to teach a “vocational” skill like programming. Watching kids teach other kids was very powerful. So I searched “Coding Dojo” and came across the CoderDojo organization and I was hooked. It certainly helped that I was born and raised in Ireland and having the chance to build bridges between my home country and my adoptive home has been wonderful.

There were two prior attempts at starting a CoderDojo in Boston and Cambridge but they are not very active.  I know from my own learning experience that it is the repeated exposure that can really engage and help kids, so I decided to host a CoderDojo in Somerville and do it on a regular basis. From there we needed a space and volunteers.

A good friend of mine, Alec Resnick (who is setting up a STEAM Academy in Somerville) has a maker space in Davis Square which he graciously let us use. I then found some volunteers through my work place (Nokia/Here) and some online outreach. We started our first session in April 2014 with 9 kids and 3 mentors. Within the course of our first series we quickly realized we would quickly outgrow the capacity of that space.

We just finished our second series in Davis Square this Fall, averaging 15 kids per session and hosting one session at the beautiful LogMeIn offices in Boston.  In December, we moved our sessions to Microsoft New England, which can potentially host many more families across parallel sessions.

The community response in Somerville and beyond has been amazing. We have a charity that provides free Chromebooks to kids who are on the school lunch program. We have had companies vying to host sessions and who have bought our first set of White belts and Yellow belts (USB wristbands) and T-Shirts for volunteers. A lot of people in the software industry are looking for a venue to quickly and easily give back on a regular basis and our CoderDojo is that opportunity.

Why is it important to teach young people coding skills?

CoderDojo-2Kids today are “digital natives” and already consume so much technology, but they have limited opportunity to create with technology.  There are so many opportunities for them—not just to become software engineers but to use programming across so many different careers—health care, service industries, manufacturing, education etc.

Programming is a “horizontal” skill that can be applied across every industry “vertical”, within the community and charities etc. Kids who grow up with this skill will be able to apply it to things we can’t even imagine yet. One of our goals is that the kids themselves become the mentors and grow to become leaders in the organization.

Who should participate? What age? How can students participate/join?

We are open to ALL children ages 7 to 17—their parents just need to sign-up via our Meetup group.

Currently the parents are asked to stay with the child for the duration and we find that’s great not just for many of the parents who also want to learn to code but also it becomes great quality time for the parents and kids to spend together. Requiring the parents to stay is also a limitation for some families and so we are looking into ways to further ensure child safety within our volunteer organization operating in a large open space like the Microsoft New England Research & Development Center.

How can people volunteer to help?

We ALWAYS need more volunteers. Being at the Microsoft New England Research & Development Center has solved our space problem for a long time to come, but our gating factors now are mentors and volunteers. We use the word “mentor” to describe volunteers who have coding experience and “volunteer” to describe folks who want to help but don’t yet have coding experience. We need both. Every mentor we add enables us to add 4 or 5 more kids to our sessions.

Volunteers help keep track of attendance and help us do outreach to local companies, charities and educational institutions and in the Boston area there are lots and lots. That outreach takes a lot of effort and time.

We also would love to build relationships with companies that are household names in tech (e.g. Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Google) and which operate in the Boston area and also with startups and everyone in between. If we bring this community together with public and private educational institutions and the youth who need it, the potential is incredible.

Boston is in a unique position that many cities cannot match—urban youth in proximity to technology companies, public schools and world renowned universities—we should do our best to make the most of this opportunity.

To learn more about Microsoft’s commitment to youth and education, visit our YouthSpark Hub or follow us on twitter at @msftcitizenship.

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