Monday 23 October 2017

Trailblazer: Meet the future. Her name is Lauren

The nine-year-old has designed her own hit website and is a member of CoderDojo, where young people are re-inventing the world. Graham Clifford reports

Cool kid: Dubliner Lauren Boyle hopes to start her own business.
Cool kid: Dubliner Lauren Boyle hopes to start her own business.
Code cracker: Catrina Carrigan’s Piano Rock Star is part of the GCSE curriculum in the UK.
Chloe and Chris Burke

Behind the desk in her office, nine-year-old Lauren Boyle is explaining to me how she built one of her three websites - and I'm struggling to keep up.

"For this site I had to tessellate pictures for the background," she tells me excitedly.

I make a mental note to look up the meaning of 'tessellate' as soon as I leave her Foxrock, Dublin, home.

The brains behind the coolkidsstudio.com website, which provides life skills for children, Lauren is something of a trailblazer in the field of coding and web design in Ireland.

And so much of that is down to CoderDojo - the volunteer-led, global movement set up to run free coding clubs and sessions for young people specialising in computer programming and computer technology.

With over 120 centres across Ireland it's thought that well over 6,000 young people are now attending the clubs on a weekly basis with the numbers growing month on month.

Next weekend Sligo will host the third annual world CoderDojo conference. With over 450 centres across 60 countries the organisation is spreading like wildfire.

"My Mum watched CoderDojo co-founder James Whelton on the Late, Late show one night and we decided to look for our nearest Dojo," explains Lauren, who's missing her athletics training to chat.

Within weeks she was coding at the CoderDojo centre in Bray. Every Saturday morning this Generation Z pioneer spends two hours developing and learning there.

"Lauren would go to CoderDojo sessions seven days a week if she could", explains her Mum, Tania.

Young people aged seven to 17 attend the weekly sessions.

"When I went first I didn't know what to expect", Lauren tells me, adding "but after my first visit I was hooked. It's just great fun to bring things to life through coding and anyone can really do it. Traditionally people think that's it's mainly a boy's things but girls can do it just as well."

Figures show that approximately 70pc of those visiting CoderDojo sessions in Ireland are male - but efforts are now in place to correct that imbalance.

Within months of becoming involved in CoderDojo Lauren designed her award-winning website, which has had nearly 5,000 unique hits in just a couple of months.

Her motivation came after she searched online for a life skills-based site for people of her own age.

"I couldn't find any such site designed for kids by kids. So I decided to make my own. The site targets three different age groups, three to six-year-olds, seven to 10 and 11 to 12. It lists activities they can do on a rainy day, how to deal with bullying, how to identify your close friend, and features advice on meditation for children and some games," explains Lauren.

It scooped the runners-up place in the CoderDojo Coolest Projects Awards and in recent months Lauren has launched two more sites including one on healthy eating and another helping children to make things - an arts and crafts and maker site.

Recently she gave a half-hour presentation to Damien English, the Minister State at the Departments of Education and Skills, asking that her Cool Kids Studio site become part of the primary school curriculum under the title of 'emotional learning'. The proposal is under consideration.

Last week the twinkle-eyed starlet, who hopes to start her business, presented to a crowd of over 100 at the P20 Life skills conference. When invited the organisers were stunned to learn the Cool Kids Studio site was the work of a a nine-year-old girl.

Eager to point out that the girls who get involved in coding at a young age are not 'nerdy or geeky' Lauren shows me a robotic guitar she recently invented and tells me of her love for teddies.

She also plays violin in two different orchestras, including the DIT Sinfonia, and speaks some mandarin Chinese.

"Lauren is fortunate in that she takes to things easily. She was reading from the age of three and over the summer got through dozens of books - Harry Potter being her favourite", her parents tells me.

This week she's up for an award in the You Did Good category at the Dot.ie Visionary Awards in Temple Bar and over the summer was invited to visit the Irish bases for Google, Twitter and LinkedIn.

"You know they even have a swimming pool in the Google offices," she tells me with a smile beaming across her face.

And rather than play online games Lauren has a novel way of finding the perfect website-based pastime specifically for her, she tells me: "Well rather than play other games I can just design exactly the kind of game that I want to play myself - it's really not that difficult."

Last month Mary Moloney, formerly of technology consultants Accenture, succeeded James Whelton as CEO of CoderDojo and she hopes that Ireland can produce more young coders like Lauren in the coming years.

"By 2016 the world will have a shortage of one million coders so it's imperative that we start children young and teach them that programming can be exciting from both an inventive and social perspective," she says.

She adds "with areas such as analytics and 3D printing set to really take off in the coming years it's vital that we're ahead of the curve. At CoderDojo though interacting with peers, making friends and enjoying coding is a foundation block of what we do. It has to be fun to keep the young people interested."

So is CoderDojo really for everyone? Mary Moloney believes so.

"If your child can spell and has basic numerical skills then they should be able to pick up coding. Older generations might get apprehensive as they think it's highly specialised but building websites, games and apps can be achieved by most."

Another CoderDojo enthusiast is 17-year-old Catrina Carrigan who developed the Piano Rock Star website which is now being used as an education tool in the British school system.

"It's a music instrument website with a piano, guitar and drums made with HTML, CSS and JavaScript," explains Catrina - who wrote the code for it when she was just 15.

The young Dubliner attends CoderDojo sessions every weekend at DCU and says the volunteer-based organisation has changed her life.

She told the Weekend Review: "I definitely wouldn't be where I am today without CoderDojo. Even if I had somehow decided to learn to code and managed to make the piano game by myself, without the support of all the mentors and the Coolest Projects, it would never have made it to the GCSE curriculum."

Catrina has also worked on a business continuity app for a hospital and is currently designing a social network for studying.

She tells me how learning through CoderDojo differs from conventional class tuition.

"CoderDojo helped me learn how to code because of the structure being very different to school. At the weekly sessions you also have a bit more control over what you learn. You can really choose what particular programmes you want to pursue. In project time it can be even better when you really get to go at your own pace. You have full control of what you want to do. As soon as you have some sort of interest in technology or wonder how games or robots are made, CoderDojo is a very interesting and enjoyable place."

And what of the future for the young programmer?

"Well I definitely want to do a Computer Science course in University next year - I'm not sure which one or where - but it's the field in which I want to remain".

So while older generations greet descriptions such as 'scratch, robots, multiplayer games, HTML5, Java script and canvas game development' with a shake of the head - these terms are becoming the narrative of an increasing number of our children and teenagers - with CoderDojo providing the space in which our bright stars of the future can shine on the worldwide stage.

Coderdojo? Do the maths  

Chloe (16) and Chris (18) Burke, Navan, Co. Meath

As they, like the rest of the secondary-school student population, tried to get their heads around the complexities of theorems, sister and brother duo Chloe and Chris Burke decided to put their heads together and design an app which would help young people understand tricky maths.

"Two years ago we heard of CoderDojo on RTE's Dragons' Den programme and decided to give it a go here in Navan," explains Chloe.

"I was a little nervous about going to the sessions at first, I thought it would be all boys but immediately I realised that wasn't the case".

Given their different ages Chloe (16) and Chris (18) decided to split responsibility for the content of their new app, called App Theorems, with Chloe looking at the Junior Certificate Cycle and Chris the Leaving Certificate.

"We wanted to come up with something which would help teenagers better understand theorems", explains Chloe. Using HTML, CSS, Javascript and Phonegap to build the app, they then went on to make it available for free on Android Play store.

Now Chloe mentors at the local CoderDojo centre in Navan. and she explains that coding is not 'nerdy' as some people might think it to be. "I sing in the school choir and do first-aid with the Red Cross so I, like all other young coders and web developers, have lots of other interests too. It's just something we love doing when we can and young people would be amazed at what they could design if they just tried out a few CoderDojo sessions," she says.

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