The teenagers who are leading the digital charge in our schools
Policymakers may still be talking about coding – but these pupils are forging ahead
Leaving Cert student Carla Warde, from Foxford, Co Mayo and fifth-year pupil Ciaran Flanagan, from Claremorris, Co Mayo, who enjoy coding and have received awards for their coding projects. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus
“If you don’t understand how what you are using is built and what’s behind it, it’s the difference between technology controlling us and us controlling technology,” says 18-year-old Harry McCann from Clane in Co Kildare.
The Leaving Certificate student who founded his first business, Kid Tech, at 15 has since been endorsed by English actor and presenter Stephen Fry, sought after by Blackberry and set up Europe’s first Digital Youth Council at 16.
He is more than passionate about coding and believes in young people really understanding the technology that has become an inescapable part of all of our lives.
“Knowing how to code is integral. Steve Jobs said it teaches you how to think and that is probably the best way to describe it. You really learn how to problem solve and it’s a skill that prepares you for the future,” he says.
“There’s also the employment side, and thousands of ICT [information and communications technology] jobs are planned to be in Ireland by 2020. For a country that went through a stage of huge unemployment, it’s crazy to think we wouldn’t take advantage of that opportunity and train people to code and possibly be able to fill those jobs. It doesn’t mean you’ll be able to build the next Facebook, but having it as an ICT skill is a huge advantage in general.”
The news that Minister for Education Richard Bruton plans to introduce coding through computer science as a Leaving Cert subject, in an effort to address the country’s ICT skills shortage, was something that was welcomed by McCann, though he remains skeptical of how it will be achieved.
Requires experience and knowledge
“At the moment teachers aren’t skilled enough for it. It’s not something you can read a book on and then teach,” he says.
“It requires experience and knowledge. There’s also the technology issue and in the majority of schools around the country it isn’t on par for what we would need for coding. Broadband would also need to be looked at. I deal with primary schools in the west of Ireland that are still working off dial-up, which is astonishing.”
Dan O’Sullivan, a biology teacher at Glanmire Community College in Cork, has just led a group of transition-year students through a coding initiative run by CEIA, the Cork technology network.
The group won the competition with their “Are You Codding Me?” educational app that teaches the user about the dangers of over-fishing.
While he doesn’t believe that every child should go on to be a professional coder, he has seen the benefits of coding for young people at first-hand and is fully in support of it being taught at school. However, he is not confident that it could be taught by teachers already in the system.
“It will have to be properly resourced, that goes without saying. If you are going to get people to do it in Leaving Cert, then just like the maths course where you need maths teachers, for coding you’d need at the very least engineers of some description, as most engineers learn a certain amount of coding. I don’t think you could have a higher-level maths teacher doing it.”
Coding is also set to be introduced to primary schools from 2018 and it will see Ireland follow the lead of other European countries such as England, France, Spain, Estonia and Slovakia who already teach coding at both primary and second level.
For Séamus O’Neill, founder of Navan CoderDojo and author of the primary school text book Mathemagic, starting coding early would set a good base for students studying it at second level.
O’Neill’s latest project is Ready Steady Code, a programme for primary schools that he says can be easily incorporated into the maths curriculum and used as a way to teach the subject to a very high standard. His programme uses Scratch, a visual type of code, which he says is easy for teachers and students to learn the basics of.
“Whatever coding they are planning for Leaving Cert, they would have to have something leading into it,” he says.
“They [students] should be doing Scratch from fourth class onwards. Then, once they are finished Junior Cert, you could then make a transition from the visual style of programming language to the text-based languages [such as Java] that the Googles and Microsoft of this world want the kids to come out with.”
“I’m not in favour of teaching coding for coding’s sake, but I am very much in favour of teaching maths in the best possible way. The best way to teach maths to a very high standard is to teach it using code.”
For McCann, who hopes to study government in University College Cork next year, he is hopeful that the next generation of students will be able to learn coding from the comfort of the classroom.
“I think coding is one skill that is vitally important. Not every child has the opportunity to go to a coding club so I think it’s really important to have it as part of the education system.”
THE YOUNG CODERS FORGING AHEAD
‘I’ve been gaming for 11 years now and after my Leaving Cert I hope to do game development’
Carla, who is currently studying for her Leaving Cert, only began to code properly at the start of 2016.
Within just a few months she was a runner-up in the Coolest Projects Award for her educational maths game for primary school students, Feed Carlos.
The game helps students practice addition, subtraction, division and multiplication in a fun and interactive way.
“It’s been a bit of a crazy year, I’ve become a mentor with CoderDojo and ended up getting on the Digital Youth Council . . . I’ve been gaming for 11 years now and after my Leaving Cert I hope to do game development which will allow me to combine my love of reading fiction with computers.”
‘Coding has really opened my eyes to a whole different world’
Fifth-year student Caitlin first tried out coding in 2013 at a family fun day at Dell and was soon eager to learn more. “I really liked how it allowed you to be creative. I entered the Coolest Projects Award in 2013 with an app I developed that allows you to track and tweet two sports matches at the same time, instead of switching between two different apps.
“There is such a wide variety of stuff you can do with coding and it really opened my eyes to a whole different world.”
Caitlin is chairperson of the Digital Youth Council and is currently devising the council’s plans for the coming months.
‘I’d love to work with one of the big tech companies’
From a rural background, fifth-year student Ciaran has developed an app that allows farmers to record animal tag numbers (a requirement by law for tracking and ID purpose) and other information securely on to the cloud, moving farmers away from the traditional pen and paper method.
His idea saw him win a Junior Spider Award, his second, having also won one for developing a website to help his then fellow Junior Cert students get to grips with Irish grammar.
“Compared to other industries, farming technology is still a bit limited so I’d love to work with one of the big tech companies working on projects to improve that.”