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CoderDojos get kids psyched about programming by turning them loose

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Skye Morishita working on the robot she programmed at a recent CoderDojo session in Boston. Photo: Chris Berdik

On a recent Saturday, a squad of Lego robots fitted with markers limped, hopped and spun dizzily across the table. Some flipped over or trailed broken Lego limbs as they covered butcher paper with ragged squiggles. But the kids who were building and programming these bots weren’t deterred. They made repairs and tweaked their code. A similar persistence was on display at nearby tables where groups of young people created computer games and Web sites.

The freedom to mess up, repeatedly, is a core appeal of this club known as CoderDojo, a loosely-connected global network of coding workshops for kids ages 6 to 18, including this Boston outpost that meets in the borrowed offices of the tech company LogMeIn.

“You can make your own design. You don’t have to follow a book or listen to anybody tell you what to do,” said nine-year old Ella Bartholomew, while inspecting her robot. “You can just program it the way you want it.”

This freewheeling atmosphere isn’t for everybody, but it has fueled a movement. The CoderDojos are free and volunteer-run, and from a single club started by a teenaged Irish hacker in 2011 they’ve managed to grow into more than 1,200 Dojos in 65 countries and counting. Rather than teach a specific programming curriculum, the overarching goal of CoderDojo is to spark a passion for coding.

Before James Whelton founded CoderDojo as an 18-year old in Cork, Ireland, he had gained global tech fame for hacking the iPod Nano. Whelton’s notoriety made friends and classmates eager to learn more, and so he started an after-school coding club. Then, after speaking about his hack at the Dublin Web Summit, Whelton met Bill Liao, a venture capitalist with SOSV, who convinced him to think bigger.

The freedom to mess up, repeatedly, is a core appeal of this club known as CoderDojo. Click to Tweet

The pair launched the first CoderDojo in June 2011, hosted by the National Software Centre in Cork. They called it a dojo (the term for a Japanese martial-arts training center) to indicate it was a place for learning but distinct from a school with grades, tests, and regimented teaching. Kids at CoderDojo were encouraged to jump straight into their own coding projects while tech-savvy volunteers circulated among them, ready to help when needed. Within a year, there were 100 more Dojos in Ireland and beyond.

The club is engineered to spread. In active online forums, members of the CoderDojo community share project ideas, post resources in multiple languages and offer advice for anybody, anywhere to start their own Dojo.

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Quintyn Scott (left) and Ella Bartholomew program robots at a recent CoderDojo session in Boston. Photo: Chris Berdik

“CoderDojo is open-source, meaning people support and contribute to the project just like developers can contribute to open-source software,” said Ross O’Neill, the lead community liaison of the CoderDojo Foundation, established in 2013 to manage the club’s rapid growth.

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Last Updated on May 27, 2020

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