Standing on stage at this summer's CoderDojo Coolest Project Awards in DCU with 250 other young competitors, Kathleen Marie Maughan (12) did not expect her name to be called out.
But it was. She won a Coolest Project award for making an anti-bullying app with the premise “six things to do if you’re bullied”.
“I made an anti-bullying quiz because I always used to get bullied for being a Traveller,” she said, adding that the app took about three weeks to make and was “easy”.
Backstage at the awards in June, Maughan charmed CoderDojo founder Bill Liao. A couple months later, Liao went to her coding club and delivered 30 Raspberry Pis, credit-card sized circuit boards that allow kids to code on any monitor or tablet.
Maughan is part of the Deansrath CoderDojo, run through the Deansrath Family Centre in Clondalkin, Dublin. CoderDojo is a global movement of volunteers who run free coding clubs for young people.
Maughan, a Traveller, does not have access to a computer at home. Before her grandmother, whom she lives with, told her about the dojo last year, her only computer experience was playing games online. She has since learnt how to make her own games.
She codes using Scratch, a programming language developed by MIT to teach kids to code using animations.
“First I learned how to make cartoons. After a while I made an app. I was told if I made this app yoke I could go to DCU to show it. So I made it,” she said.
Now Maughan is moving from Scratch to the more complicated HTML because she needs it for her trip to Brussels.
In two weeks, she and fellow coder Tom O’Driscoll (11) are going to the EU Parliament to teach the MEPs how to code.
Aoife O’Toole-King of the Deansrath Family Centre will join them.
With a degree in history and English, O’Toole-King was thrown into the deep end of the coding world last year when the centre asked her to set up the dojo.
“They just thought I was a massive geek, and they approached me about starting this. And I thought it was a great idea.”
O’Toole-King went to last year’s DojoCon for inspiration and started the programme three weeks later.
She noticed dojos were most active in affluent areas with substantial parental involvement and lots of equipment.
“Teaching children how to code should not be a postcode lottery, and I’m not sure how much they’re learning about computer skills at school,” she said.
That may be about to change, with the announcement that short coding-courses will be part of the reformed junior cycle. But students may have to wait until the 2015 school year for that, as teachers unions are in dispute over implementation of the reforms.
O’Toole-King approached SAP Mobile Technologies to provide volunteer tech support.
“The SAP guys are so good and interested in what the kids are doing. They’ll go home and do research to help the kids make whatever kind of game they want.”
The company also donated Lego robot kits for kids to programme.
“The kits are really expensive, and we just wouldn’t have any funding for it,” said O’Toole-King.
The Action Community Enterprise Centre donates space and computer facilities to the group.
Alison Bradley, a family support worker at Deansrath Family Centre, says computer skills are not the most important part of the programme.
“It teaches kids there’s more out there than being involved in certain things in their environment. They get to meet different people, build relationships and build self-esteem. The kids think they can do anything now,” she said.
“When Kathleen Marie first started here, she had absolutely zero confidence. She wouldn’t even look you in the eye,” said O’Toole King.
Maughan has received a “huge amount” of early intervention at the centre, including a programme to help children suffering from social, emotional or behavioural problems.
“Kathleen Marie’s got the brains. She, and all the kids, can be or do anything they want. They just need someone to believe in them,” said Bradley.
Now Maughan wants to go to college and have a career. Her career plans change weekly, but at the moment she wants to be a famous coder.
“Kathleen Marie has such potential. In the Travelling community, going to college would not be unheard of, but it would be unusual. We want to make sure she reaches her potential. For someone like her, the sky’s the limit,” said Bradley.
Maughan’s little sister Rebecca (7) just joined the dojo. Maughan thinks her sister will be a good coder because “it’s a family tradition”.
CoderDojo’s third annual conference, which began in Sligo yesterday, continues today.
The theme for DojoCon 2014 is "Look to the stars: Enthuse, Create, Collaborate". Keynote speakers include CoderCojo co-founder and entrepreneur Bill Liao, Dave Shepherd of Barclay's Bank, Debbie Forster of Apps for Good, Coder Dojo chief executive Mary Maloney, and RTÉ Science Squad presenter Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin. dojocon.coderdojo.com