Cleaning up after Anti-Social Behaviour in Galway Forest

On St. Stephen's Day and yesterday, a small group of us undertook litter clean-ups in Terryland Forest Park. In scenes repeated in parks, woodlands and beaches across Ireland, we came across trails of destruction left by drinkers. Beverage cans, bottles and detritus were evident in a number of areas. The bad weather before Christmas did not deter their activities. 

This social problem that is destroying communities, neighbourhoods, natural habitats and other green zones countrywide has to be faced up to and tackled by society. Otherwise the work of both dedicated volunteers and state personnel over many years will have been wasted.

In 2014, a combination of introducing high cash refunds on beverage cans/bottles; setting up volunteer park rangers units; promoting 'Forest Outdoor Classroom' initiatives for youth groups and schools; increasing convictions for those damaging woodlands through anti-social behaviour; and involving more local communities in eco-initiatives should make a positive difference.

Clay Modelling, Computer Coding & Holistic Education in Galway

 In my last Coderdojo computer coding class of 2013, I got all the participants (parents and children) to build Christmas-themed computer applications. 

But first they had to create all the digital characters ('Avatars' or 'Sprites') by hand using model clay or Mála in Irish

Once that was finished, the participants digitised the little clay figurines using a camera to upload to their computer and later onto their 'Scratch' computer language applications. The clay models then becoming animated characters within their very own computer festive game or digital story!

A Holistic Approach to Learning

I undertake this exercise, not only to make the computer coding lessons more exciting, but to ensure that the participants continue to develop hands-on artistic skills. For as educators, we must ensure our young people to develop a holistic approach to life, to use their hands to make things out of solid materials and not rely solely on using digital skills for a virtual world. With this ethos, I host my classes very early on Saturday morning so that the children can still attend outdoor team sporting activities such as hurling, camogie, soccer and rugby. Likewise, I also ensure that parents are active participants, leaning to code alongside their children, this encouraging bonding with their sons and daughters. I also recommend adults to implement a digital detox period in their homes. Maybe one night or even a few hours weekly where all computers and internet connected devices are switched off.

Ireland’s experiences a Digital Creative Revolution

There has been a huge growth of interest and activity in computer programming in Ireland over the last two years. We are last transforming our young people from being passive Digital Users into active Digital Creators.

This phenomena has resulted from the happy convergence of a number of factors:

The free online availability of Scratch

Developed by a team at MIT Media Lab in the USA, it has an easy-to-use structure based around snapping together visual blocks of computer code that control sound, music and images. Hence it is ideally suited to young people as it compliments their artistic interests with a new digital dimension in order to create computer games, animations and stories.

The establishment of Coderdojo

Started in Cork by James Whelton and Bill Liao, this volunteer-based computer club movement has taken Ireland and not the world by storm with a presence in 27 countries. In Ireland, there are Coderdojos in nearly every major city and town. Some clubs such as Athenry in county Galway have grown into high learning centres providing a broad range of online tools and projects.

Third Level Outreach Programmes

The active participation by highly motivated and visionary third level Outreach science and technology officers in promoting and organising computer programming courses for schools across Ireland. Lero in Limerick and DERI (now INSIGHT) in Galway have been particularly prominent in this regard. Since 2012, Lero has worked with the Irish government in producing a syllabus for a computer coding module that will be included in the revised national Junior Certificate that will be introduced in 2014/2015. Whilst Lero concentrated on teaching the teachers, DERI took their digital missionary zeal directly into the classroom with an awareness of the need to embrace schools located far from the urban technology corridors, in isolated rural areas or on remote islands.

Mentoring from Industry and Colleges

The high level of skilled mentoring that is now available from industry as well as from third level colleges in assisting schools with computer coding classes has seen a remarkable surge over the last two years. Most of the volunteers mentors involved are young enthusiastic engineers and researchers, characteristics that allow them to be viewed as positive role models by pupils and students of both primary and post primary schools. 

In Galway, the Galway Education Centre, NUI Galway, GMIT, Aviya and Hewlett Packard collaborated in rolling out coding courses to sixty one schools in Galway and Mayo during the school year 2012/2013.

Government Introduces Coding into Schools for the first time

Finally there has been a realization by the Irish government that computer programming needs to become a subject in the second-level educational curriculum in order to create a world class Knowledge Economy and Society. 

Without such digital skills being taught, there was/is a real danger that Ireland’s youth will be educationally deprived of the skills needed to survive in and to shape the 21st century.  Too many of the jobs being created in the vibrant IT sector in Ireland are being filled by people imported from overseas.  Whilst at the same time, we are witnessing 1,500 young Irish people emigrate weekly. The result was that the country was/is developing a two tiered society, one in which the indigenous population could be concentrated in the lower  strata if nothing fundamental changed in the schools system.

Young Tech Savvy Government Ministers

Fortunately, the present state Department of Education has a number of ministers that are fully aware of this serious gap in the learning system and are doing something about it. Sean Sherlock is doing a great job as the country’s first designated Minister for Research and Innovation. Ciaran Cannon, Minister of State for Training and Skills, has become an avid champion of the Irish coding movement. In his home county of Galway, he is encouraging and working closely with partners in the educational and commercials sectors including the Galway Education Centre, leading edge corporations, COderdojos, GMIT and NUI Galway in developing Galway as a vibrant hub of digital creativity of international significance.

Galway Science and Technology Festival
Ireland’s largest festival of science and technology is held annually in Galway. The two week event ends with a fair in Galway university attended by circa 25,000 visitors that has become a showcase not only for locally based leading edge biomedical, marine, IT corporation and indigenous industries but also for schools and college projects.