Meet Scotland's young coding stars

IT'S no secret children enjoy playing games on smartphones or tablets. But an increasing number are also creating their own digital pastimes with skills they've learnt outside of school.

Youngsters take part at a recent Coderdojo held in Glasgow Science Centre. Picture: Claire Quigley
Youngsters take part at a recent Coderdojo held in Glasgow Science Centre. Picture: Claire Quigley

Coding - or computer programming as it was dryly known in the early days of desktop PCs - is still viewed in some quarters as a dull activity best left to men with beards who work alone.

However, younger generations, unburdened by 20th century stereotypes, look upon it as an enjoyable experience they can share with friends away from the classroom.

Andrew Parry knows coding is a skill valued by an increasing number of employers - but that’s not why he’s choosing to learn the subject in his spare time.

“I like having the capability to create similar games and websites to those I saw when I was younger,” the 15-year-old from Glasgow said. “I also like that in programming your creativity and logic merge well as you think of solutions to design and problems.

“It has been marketed as a useful career, but the real reason more young people are learning coding, in my opinion, is the desire to be able to recreate something cool that someone else has made. It inspires you.”

Rachel Spiers is also learning to code in her spare time.

“I think it’s hard to learn to code in a school lesson,” she said. “Fifty minutes isn’t long enough to learn on unreliable school computers. Set up and glitches take up a lot of time.”

The 13-year-old from Inverkip instead accompanies her younger brother Evan to one of the regular Coderdojo social events that take place across Scotland.

“I think more young people are coding because they are using computers and apps everyday,” Rachel added. “Sometimes you think: ‘it would be useful if I could make an app for that’. And some people have become pretty rich from just one good - or cheesy - simple app.”

Rachel, Evan and Andrew are among more than 2000 young Scots who have attended a Coderdojo event in the past 18 months.

Dojo is Japanese for ‘place of the way’. The term originally referred to temples but became synonymous with martial arts training centres. While there is no sumo wrestling at a Coderdojo, the same principles of learning and sharing knowledge apply.

Craig Steele has worked full-time for two years on establishing the free-to-attend events across the country, with funding being provided by tech giant Mozilla and UK innovation charity Nesta. They are like any other out-of-school clubs, but with laptops instead of sports equipment.

“It’s a fun environment where everyone can go to learn,” Steele said. “It’s not just the young people who learn - so do the volunteers and the technology specialists. We all learn from each other.”

The dojos are open to children aged from 12-17 and take place at 18 venues across Scotland.

“To get on with programming you need to be quite confident with spelling and using a computer,” Steel said. “We found 12-17 seems to be a good age for it.

“At a Coderdojo, the young people will generally arrive with an idea of something they want to work on - maybe they want to build an app or a game. To begin, there will be a display from one of the volunteers on what they’ve been working on, then we might chat about how it works for 10 minutes. The kids can choose to join in or work on their own project.”

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Coderdojos are deliberately held outside of school hours.

Steele added: “It’s meant to be like a club. We don’t want the young people to think this a chore. We try to find interesting venues - for example, in Stirling, we’re based in Creative Scotland’s offices in the Old Town Jail. You wouldn’t expect a Victorian building to be hosting a digital skills club.

“At our clubs across Scotland in the past 18 months, 2283 young people have attended 175 dojo sessions. If that many people are coming along, there’s obviously an interest in the subject - contrast that with the numbers choosing to study the subject at school, which are actually going down. T

“There are high schools in Scotland with no computing teachers but there are thousands of jobs in IT that require those skills.”

Of course, most young coders are quite content to enjoy their hobby at this stage. But parents are aware of the potential future benefits.

Barbara Speirs encouraged her two children to attend a Coderdojo after spotting a poster in Glasgow Science Centre.

“It amazes me what the kids can do - I remember BBC computers at school and ZX Spectrum programming,” she said.

“But what Coderdojo has achieved is remarkable and far beyond anything their dad and I could imagine.”

Daughter Rachel added: “The mentors help us to bring our projects life, give us suggestions and we can give them ideas too.”

These young coding stars could all teach us a thing or two.