Coder Dojo in MS Dublin

Last week we finished up for the summer after a pilot run of Coder Dojo sessions which were held at the Microsoft Dublin campus over the last couple of months. It was an absolute blast and everybody involved had fun, learnt some stuff and generally got a lot from it.


What is a Coder Dojo? So you can read reams about the movement on this website and others, but in a nutshell it’s a coding club for kids, usually run weekly for a couple of hours per session. The kids are usually roughly aged between 7 and 17. The focus is on child-led learning, with the goal being that the children themselves set the agenda and ideally you get to a stage where you have multiple project groups working on ideas with various technologies that they have chosen themselves. The children are then supported by volunteer mentors who hopefully know bit about the technology in question and are at least a step or two ahead of the kids.

 Starting off anew though you are going to have to introduce some technologies and basically give lessons – and see how everybody gets on. With kids starting afresh we found it better to follow a very loosely structured lecture series – it doesn’t take long (first session) before the kids get creative and add their own code to give their webpages a personal touch. We were lucky to have a very enthusiastic group of mentors; one who was a veteran of other dojos and got us out of the blocks the first week with a lesson on HTML delivered in a manner that appealed to the audience (without in-depth explanation of unnecessary stuff). And we continued from there with other mentors who researched suitable “starter” technologies and some who basically learned Scratch to be able to teach it. Once the kids had the power of choice we soon had two groups each week; one focused on Scratch and the others adding ever more functionality and styling to their personal websites. The parents really seemed to enjoy it too – most were employees and had their own laptops and while most them spent their time catching up on work, but there were certainly a few who followed the lessons and even a one or two who every so often enthusiastically beat the kids to the punch with answers to questions!


What did we learn

 The logistics behind organizing something like this on a corporate site involved a fast learning curve in our corporate policies as well as our security and facilities procedures, Irish child protection law insurance requirements etc… I will deal with all that in a more specific posting. Right now I want to talk about the actual dojo sessions and how they evolved, even in the short term of the pilot sessions.

Starting with pure beginners? Then start with something universal.

Some of us dreamed of getting the kids onto Visual Studio Express and writing .Net applications (and may still have that as an eventual dream). But we had a couple of planning meetings among the mentors and decided that given the ages involved we would need to start by getting the basic concepts across. We thought about Scratch, Kodu and smallbasic, but then a couple of us attended a “mentors meetup” with mentors from various Dublin dojos and got convinced of the merits of getting straight into HTML and web development. This worked really well. It is pretty universal in the sense that they had all browsed the web, clicked on links etc… before so it was great for them to see how pages are made and also in the sense that you can build almost anything (including W8 apps) with HTML, CSS and JavaScript these days.

Give them choices

 After a few weeks the web development lessons had got to a point where we were adding more JavaScript and kids were asking how to do things like drop-down lists etc… and it was just getting a little advanced for some of the younger ones. So we started a Scratch session and from then on they could choose which room they wanted to attend. As Scratch lets you get animations and sounds straight away we thought they would all switch, but it actually evened out at about a 60:40 split in favour of HTML most weeks.


Take breaks

We didn’t always have full lessons going on and officially everyone is free to take a break at any time, but a parent pointed out to us early on that young kids cannot usually concentrate on something for 2 hours (I should know this stuff – I have three under the age of five). Children will also usually defer to adults to tell them when to take a break, so we subsequently had at least one official break period at each session which let the children relax and recharge a little. 

Keep researching

We have an enthusiastic mentor team who have been very proactive in researching suitable languages and technologies. We have a host of technologies lined up to play with after the summer and are looking forward to trying some stuff like Kodu, Touch Develop, Construct etc…  and of course to seeing how the children use them, like or dislike them and if we get some projects spinning up with them.

People are awesome

Truly this has been a feel-good project from the start. We have had people back this from right across almost every function in Microsoft Dublin. Everyone we spoke to wanted this to work and helped us to navigate the projects legalities, facilities and security, health and safety requirements, HR and child protection policies. The mentors gave up their time not just to mentor at each session, but also to come to occasional meetings and to do a bit of prep and research. We got a project corporate sponsor here in the European development centre who provided some budget for nibbles at the first and last session and very kindly sponsored T shirts for the kids for the last session.


Celebrate at the end of term

The last session was great. The children were nowhere near as shy as we expected and nearly all got up and proudly presented their work on the stage using the big screen while wearing their brand new Dojo T-shirts. It was fantastic to see Over a cup of coffee and a biscuit (fruit and juices for the children) afterwards we chatted with the parents and got their thoughts on format and scheduling etc… All were happy with how it had gone and the 5pm Wednesday timing seems to work well. The children all promised to come back at the end of the summer and get stuck into bigger projects and we all signed off happy it had gone well and inspired by the potential for the future once we restart. One parent has since told me that she found it very tough to get the T-shirt off her son to wash it, as he was so proud of it he wanted to wear it every day!