Inside the DigiPen cafeteria on a recent Saturday morning, it’s not easy interviewing Paul Griffaton. As the 8-year-old sits in front of his brand new Chromebook, most of my questions are met with one word answers, or simply silence.
But Paul isn’t really being rude. Rather, the second grader is completely engrossed in a Scratch coding development lesson that is likely much more interesting than a reporter’s distracting inquiries.
Finally, Paul’s father helps me grab a few seconds of his son’s attention.
“You can make funny things and games,” Paul said when asked why he likes learning how to code. “And you can make all kinds of entertainment for yourself.”
Paul is just one of many youngsters being exposed — and becoming attached to — computer science thanks to CoderDojo, a worldwide programming club for kids aged 8-to-17 that is free, volunteer led, and teaches the basics of coding.
The organization was founded in 2011 after James Whelton formed a club to educate his younger classmates about computer development as an 18-year-old in Ireland. Whelton found it to be extremely popular and decided to launch the first CoderDojo in Dublin. Three years later, there are now more than 480 “Dojos” across 48 countries.
The first Seattle CoderDojo was held in the back of a Microsoft Store one year ago. Greg Bulmash, a content developer at Microsoft, started the club after he tried putting together a meet-up for parents that were teaching their kids to code. Along the way, he learned of CoderDojo.
“I thought it’d be great to teach my son the skills I wanted him to learn, but the closest one was in San Francisco,” Bulmash explained. “I was already looking to start a meetup, so I thought, why the heck not.”
That first meeting in September drew about 20 kids and three volunteers. Since then, though, interest has grown as the group found a bigger space at Amazon’s South Lake Union headquarters while adding an Eastside location at DigiPen and attracting guest speakers like Code.org co-founder Hadi Partovi.
Then there was the cafeteria, where 25 kids had been selected to receive Google Chromebooks with Linux thanks to a sponsorship from Codestarter, a San Francisco-based non-profit that donates laptops to young programmers in need.
CoderDojo typically asks kids to bring their own devices, but a new partnership with Codestarter has provided laptops to those who may not be able to afford one at home. Those that complete a course and attend six of the next eight CoderDojo meetings are allowed to keep the laptops.
Tom Preston-Werner, the Codestarter co-founder who previously created Gravatar and GitHub, said he hopes the Chromebooks help the students become even more interested in computer science.
“These laptops can help the kids least likely to have laptops go through the sessions and it further incentivizes them to keep showing up,” Preston-Werner said.
He added that he was drawn to the CoderDojo after seeing how diverse a group that the program attracted.
“It’s remarkable,” the former GitHub CEO said. “It’s almost always 50-50 boys and girls, and every kind of person you can imagine is represented.”
It was neat seeing the kids in the DigiPen cafeteria fire up their new Chromebooks and immediately jump into a Scratch lesson as each parent watched. The kids, who ranged from those in elementary school to teens almost ready to graduate, all seemed excited to not only use the new laptops, but also learn how to develop and code on them.
One nice aspect of CoderDojo is that it acts as a club, not a class. That means no fees, no requirements for attendance — parents can bring their kids in when convenient. But some students have clearly become hooked, despite the fact that the group meets on Saturday mornings.
“We have come every week since the summer,” said Remi Griffaton, who brings all three of his kids to Seattle CoderDojo. “My son likes it very much, and now he’s doing Scratch at home. He’s even getting his friends introduced to it, and is showing them what he’s doing on Scratch.”
For Bulmash, the Seattle CoderDojo he started is all about equipping the kids with confidence. He knows that not every student is going to become an all-star coder — in fact, many may pursue studies in a completely unrelated field. But at the end of the day, it’s the exposure and experience that counts.
“If they have the confidence to say, ‘I can program, I have the basics, I can pick this up if I want to’ — then at some point in their life when they are challenged or want to learn something to advance their career, they’ll just go, ‘I can do this.'”
The parents seem to be big fans of the club, especially those that know their children do not have access to these types of lessons at school.
“There’s really no technology learning at my son’s school,” said Jeanne Garland, who brings her 15-year-old to Seattle CoderDojo. “This is just a really nice way to provide that type of thing. I don’t know if my son will be a programmer, but I think this just helps develop creative talents in regard to technology. It’s just good for the brain, and he enjoys coming.”
For many parents, the club goes beyond teaching the basics of computer science.
“I just want to start my kid with basic understanding about logic,” said Raj Agrawal, whose 9-year-old attends the club. “I think this will help her develop some life skills.”
The Seattle CoderDojo has grown into something much larger than Bulmash ever predicted. But as it continues to welcome more and more future coders, he certainly has no plans of stopping.
“Sometimes, I wonder what I got myself into,” he said. “But once you have so many kids and so many parents you’re making happy, how do you leave it behind?”