On his electronic business card, James Whelton described himself as “CoderDojo Co-Founder, Hacker & Social Media Connoisseur.” The tag line “Not another victim of conformity” comes next. After spending time with him at a recent Irish International Business Network event in New York, I can easily see this is an understatement. Forging his own path since he was a 13 year old geek, today the 20yr old from Cork is building a global education movement, one club at a time.
Whelton started the prototype for Coder DoJo when he was in sixth class and taught himself how to program. Frustrated by the lack of entry level IT classes, he later setup a computer club in his school (PBC Cork) and started teaching his friends basic HTML and CSS. Things escalated when he met Bill Liao, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who was interested in addressing the need for computer technology education in Ireland. Bill saw the potential and wanted to grow the project into something bigger. In June 2011, the first CoderDojo was launched and today there are over 100 clubs spread across Italy, Sweden, South Africa, Japan and many other countries. In the US alone, there are more than 25 local CoderDojos, with the most recent one set up in Silicon Valley, California.
CoderDojo has developed its own company motto to describe its mission and culture – Above All: Be Cool. Kids even wear this motto on tee-shirts. Putting “Be Cool” in the vernacular emphasizes that bullying, lying, wasting people’s time is uncool. You need to “be cool” and apply yourself in a nice way to fit in here.
Coder Dojo is already having an impact on children’s lives. One in particular is 13-year-old Harry Moran, whose Pizzabot game topped the Apple download charts when it first launched, beating gaming phenomenon Angry Birds. Harry learned how to write code at CoderDoJo computer club at the Glasheen Primary School in Cork.
Adults are also benefiting from the initiative. CoderDojo offers a way for experienced developers to “give back” to the community and share expertise. Rebecca Garcia, a co-founder of CoderDoJoNYC echoes this sentiment- “I don’t teach kids for the money, I teach them for the chance to ignite that spark. To show them that you can build whatever you set your heart to.”
Recently, James became the youngest-ever recipient of the prestigious Ashoka Fellowship, joining social entrepreneurs that include Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia and Nobel Prize-winner Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank. With the recognition comes a cash prize of 100k that according to James will be put towards building infrastructure. “Now that we are launching all over the world, we need to have the right legal and organizational structure in place. We need to protect and expand our model and protect the children. This all comes with scaling an idea into a global entity,” he explained at the Irish Consulate of New York hosted event.
Co-founder, Bill Liao at the recent Dublin Web Submit summarized it nicely, “Ireland is a nation of storytellers and poets and code is another language for self-expression. While it could be the initiative that produces the next generation of software developers– the CoderDojo kids are clearly turning this coding revolution born in Ireland into an international phenomenon.
This article first appeard in the Huffington Post.
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