New Coder Dojo Hackers Club Reflects Galway’s Digital Vibrancy

Back to the Future!
Over the last few years, Galway has undergone a remarkable digital renaissance that has brought back memories of the city in the 1980s when Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), then the world’s largest minicomputer manufacturing corporation, was exporting computers all across Europe from its factory in Ballybrit; when the first satellite link between Ireland and North America was established at the state telephone company’s HQ in Mervue; when parents were buying their first ever microcomputers such as the Sinclair ZX81 and Commodore Vic 20 in computer retail outlets that were springing up across the city so that their children could learn the new art of coding; when a few visionary young mathematics, business and physics teachers were introducing computers into the schools; when DEC had linked the city’s second level colleges through a computer network system; 
Early 1980s: DEC Galway had computer links to 10 second-level schools
when recently qualified college graduates were establishing ‘software houses’ in little backwater offices; when small-to-medium companies en-masse were buying their first computers to run their accounts and send out letters; when the Ireland’s first Internet newsletter for  worldwide readership was being distributed by DEC’s Liam Ferrie; when electronic courses at the Regional Technical College were filled to capacity; when Apple’s Macintosh Destktop Publishing system let to the appearance of regular low cost community newsletters across the suburbs;  when new programming courses could not keep up with the demand from enthusiasts of all ages; and when students at Galway University (NUIG) were brought up before the authorities for accessing the college computer systems by circumventing its security system (what we now call ‘hacking’!).

12 yr old Harry Moran demonstrating his PizzaBot App to a spellbound audience during the
Galway Science & Technology Festival Exhibition
Once again a vibrant Digital ambiance is starting to permeate the schools, colleges, workplaces and streets of the city and county fueled by a volunteer army of largely young enthusiastic and selfless Internet activists the like of which exists nowhere else in Ireland.
However as with the recent establishment of the Ballinfoile Mór Cumann na bhFear/Men's Shed, it is about Irish people recapturing the ability to use their hands and intellect to make things again rather than just be the passive recipients of items imported from overseas.
We are beginning to move away from being a nation of digital users to a nation of digital creators.
The increasing roll-out of coding classes to schools provided by volunteers from the corporate sector, NUIG, GMIT and from concerned individuals; the annual hosting of a national children’s Lego Robotics competition; the IT summer camps at NUI Galway; the establishment of groups such as 091Labs, Camara and Coder Dojos; the high uptake by older peoples and other communities of Web Awareness courses; the massive crowds that attended events held during the Galway Science & Technology Festival (24,000+ at the Sunday Fair on NUIG campus); the existence at NUIG of world-renowned science research institutes such as DERI; the establishment of Ireland’s only Computer and Communications Museum (at DERI) and the presence of global technology leaders in the city such as Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, EA, Medtronic and IBM is radically changing the local landscape that in time could metamorphose into an innovative sustainable Knowledge economy and society providing a healthy future for Ireland that will benefit other countries across the planet.

As Community/Education Outreach Officer at the Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI) at NUI Galway, I am part of this process of change which involves some very exciting initiatives.

1. Launch of Galway City 'Coder Dojos' Club
Galway Coder Dojos first group of volunteers with founder Adrian Bannon on the extreme right
The city’s first Coder Dojo club will be launched next Saturday in DERI. The engine behind this initiative is young local lawyer Adrian Bannon supported by a merry band of enthusiasts including Padraic Hartley of 091Labs ‘hackerspace’ group and Michael Madden of IT NUI Galway.  The new club will meet weekly in DERI before transferring in early April to the College of Engineering & Informatics located on the main campus. It will provide an opportunity for students, pupils, teachers and technology enthusiasts to meet like-minded peers in an informal social and learning environment where they will be educated in new skills particularly in coding and generate interesting ideas and discussions amongst themselves. It is anticipated that, over time, this pioneering club will led to the setting up of Coder Dojo clubs in schools across Galway city and county.
2. Scratch Programming Courses in Galway Primary Schools
 Children displaying their Scratch project to their fellow classmates
Computer Science is unfortunately not a subject in the Irish schools system which is symptomatic of a systematic failure by successive governments who have failed to grasp the serious damage that its absence from the educational curricula is doing to the country’s future.
Since early 2011, I have campaigned and organised cross-sectoral groups to lobby ministers on this issue and will soon be part of a delegation  to meet  Seán Sherlock T.D., Minister of State with responsibility for Research and Innovation, on this issue.
Over the last year, I have enjoyed teaching Scratch programming in primary schools in Galway and Mayo, complementing the excellent work being spearheaded by LERO nationwide It has been personally very rewarding for me to see the practical effects of this initiative through the creation of an array of fascinating computer animation projects by the young participants.
DERI is now collaborating with Hewlett Packard, GMIT and the Galway Education Centre to ensure that even more schools can benefit from mentor-assisted classroom computer programming courses. The project will be known as HP Headstart. On behalf of DERI, I will be acting as project coordinator and over the next few weeks I will be teaching Scratch to the DERI, HP and GMIT mentors.  Tuition will be held in participating schools and consist of one-hour classes over a period of six weeks.

3. Galway city’s only After-School Computer Club
DERI's Michael Kerrin teaching Python at St. Mary's Computer Club
Last year, Laura Dragan and Pierre Ludwick from DERI provided an after-schools C++ programming course to students at St. Mary’s College. This after-school club, the only one of its kind in Galway, was very well received and it continues this year with DERI’s Michael Kerrin teaching Python.

4. ‘Bullding a Mobile App’ Workshop
DERI’s Caoilfhionn Lane will provide a workshop on ‘How to Build A Mobile App’ at 7pm on Tuesday February 28th in DERI. Open to the general public, the aim of this workshop is to show beginner or non-programmers how to create a simple phone app using Eclipse and the Android SDK. They would learn how to install the Android SDK and the Android Phone Emulator and explore a sample game, ’Lunar Landing’.
5. Retro Games Night, March 2nd, Computer Museum

SuperFrog on the Amiga (World's first multi-media computer)
A Retro Gaming Night will be held at 7pm on Friday March 2nd in the DERI-based Computer and Communications Museum of Ireland.
The event will allow visitors to play classic games such as Sonic the Hegehog, Donkey King, Pacman, Asteroids, Space Invaders and Super Frog on an array of vintage microcomputers & consoles (late 1970s-mid1990s) that include Atari, Sega Mega Drive, Playstation 1, Nintendo Gameboy, Amiga & Commodore 64.
6. Computer and Communications Museum of Ireland 
Visitors interacting with the Museum's artifacts
The facility, established by and presently housed in DERI, is officially recognised as the Computer and Communications Museum of Ireland and has become part of a Galway science trail.
It has a cross-sectoral Board that draws its membership from HP, GMIT, NUIG, Engineers Ireland, small businesses as well as DERI (Mike Turley, Lukasz and myself). 
Its primary aim is to introduce visitors to the rich communications technology heritage of Ireland and of the world and to inspire young people towards innovation, science and engineering.
For National Engineers Week (Feb 27 – March 2nd), I am augmenting the present collection of artefacts with some exciting new additions including one of the finger controlled keysets that was invented and used by Douglas Engelbart in his legendary Mother of all Demos’ (1968) that is on loan from Karl Flannery of Storm Technology, as well as a library of 1960s Science Fiction comics, films and toys that inspired children of that era to create so many of the technologies we use today.

7. Visits to Schools & Student Tours of DERI
Post-primary students visiting the DERI science institute at Galway University (NUIG)
Second-level schools will visit our institute during National Engineers Week (Feb 27 – March 2 and DERI personnel will travel out to at least one school during this period.
These tours and visits will give students the opportunity to meet with DERI researchers and find out about the work and the exciting leading edge products, processes and services being created at DERI.
They are also part of a larger network of tours that cover four other world-class science institute specialsing in research varying from climate change, to biomedical to optics.

'Knitting in the Classroom' - Giving A New Lease of Life to a Traditional Craft

One of my personal highlights of 2011 was in convincing Lawrencestown National School to exhibit at the Galway Science and Technology Science Festival Exhibition. Nothing special about that one might say as I annually coordinate the involvement of schools into this one day fair that is the highlight of a 2 week festival which this year took place in Galway University (NUIG) attracting over 24,000 visitors representing the largest crowd ever to appear on campus.
But what was different about this school was that they were demonstrating something that many people might feel has absolutely nothing to do with science or technology, namely the ancient handicraft of Knitting.

Yet this popular misconception could not be further from the truth. For mathematics is at the core of this traditional craft that produces fabric from a strand of yarn or thread.

Whilst working in the school during the course of the year, teaching the basic concepts of engineering using K’NEX, I noticed that the pupils of both sexes would sometimes take up knitting during lunchtime if it was raining outside. The classrooms also a fine display of woollen animals and objects.
I was intrigued!
The children told me that it was due to the pioneering efforts of teacher Davina Daly that the children were learning the joys and creativity of knitting. Rather than just buying ready-made toys, clothing and gifts as most children have done for the last few decades, these boys and girls were making their very own scarves, rockets and animals out of fabricating yarn with each item that they produced stamped with their own unique style and individuality.
Over the next few months, I noticed too that a few other schools were also doing likewise, once again due to the initiative of individual teachers.

Daire's window display of 'wooly monsters' at Halloween

'Knitting with Granny'
Then in September I found my own 11 year old son Dáire starting to take up knitting with a passion as a result of a new national educational scheme known as Knitting with Granny, whereby older women were being brought into the classrooms to show young people how to knit.  Dáire created an ever-growing menagerie of animals that began to populate the whole house. I was hooked!
More Wooly Monsters!

Not only are primary schools reviving and giving a whole new lease of life to a very important aspect of the country’s heritage, stitching is introducing these young people to a practical understanding and usage of mathematics via the counting of stitches, the calculation of gauge (that is the number of stitches and rows required to knit a 10cm square for a particular yarn), the creating of patterns and the quantification of yarn required.
 Some of Dáire's Christmas knitted Santa Claus and helpers

The Makers
As with my work in helping to introduce computer programming into primary and post-primary education sector, Knitting in schools is part of a vision of educating our people to once again become designers and makers of practical things rather than just users and recipients of items manufactured outside Ireland. It will help our national move from a having a culture of dependency to a culture of creativity.

According to Davina, “The knitting craze started in our school two years ago when Evelyn Reidy a friend of my mother's dressmaking instructor Mary passed away. Evelyn's daughter gave Mary all her knitting needles and wool. Mary passed all the knitting materials on to my mum and then to me. I didn't want the wool to go to waste so I brought it to school. The children from second to sixth class took and used whatever wool they needed.
Jean Greenhowe has a fabulous collection of knitting booklets for irresistible dolls and toys  I have bought a number of them - The Scarecrow Family, Little Gift Dolls, Knitted Clowns, Jiffyknits, Knitted Animals, Christmas Special and Christmas Treasures. The children have knitted various items from these booklets. Some of the children buy knitting magazines. Another mom gave her son a magazine that had knitting pattern for boys in it. There was a pattern of a rocket, a dinosaur and a turtle. Some of the children knitted them.

The first stitch the children learn is the Garter stitch (AKA plain stitch). Every row is knit. Once the children have mastered this stitch they learn how to cast on and off stitches. They knit simple hairbands (sweatbands for boys) and wrist bands to practise this stitch. Then they learn the Stocking stitch (aka purl stitch - knit on the right side, purl on the wrong side).
After this they learn how to read patterns. As the patterns get more and more complicated they learn more and more knitting techniques: inc = increase stitches, dec = decrease stitches, psso = pass slip stitch over and so on.

They've knitted dogs, owls, turtles, bears, scarves, penguins, santas and snowmen.
One boy knitted Mrs Claus for his grandmother (finished height 36 cm).
At Christmas the children knitted Christmas trees, Christmas stockings, candy canes, garland rings to hang on their Christmas trees. At Easter they knitted chickens. One girl knitted a rattler for her baby brother and another knitted Binky the Golfing Clown with the help of his Granny.”

Wooly Science
The school exhibited their Knitting project during the  Galway Science and Technology Festival Fair that was held in NUI Galway on November 27th and was visited by over 24,000 people. With the theme of Wooly Science, their stand was one of the most popular as visitors were enthralled to see a line of children knitting away whilst explaining the mathematic basis of this ancient handcraft.