Coolest Projects: Tech Fueled by Slushie, Not Coffee

This was the first conference I’ve been to at the RDS where no one is drinking coffee; instead, a long queue has formed for the blue slushie machine.

The occasion is Coolest Projects, CoderDojo’s annual awards ceremony for some of the world’s youngest entrepreneurs, and Launch’d, a full day tech conference. The hall is packed; parents watch over child engineers and game designers lost in their laptop screens, fueled by creativity, ambition and a mild sugar buzz.

In the short time since CoderDojo was founded in 2011, what was once an after-school computer club has grown into a global movement with over 1000 Dojos in 63 countries. The Coolest Projects event, now in its fifth year, is a chance to showcase the work of Dojos from Ireland and abroad. The event had over 700 registered projects and according to the organisers attracted over 10,000 children, parents and the odd Tyrannosaurus rex.

CoderDojo is open to students aged between seven and seventeen, though some of the contestants are even younger (the littlest coder is Mayo’s Tiernan Mangan, aged five, who has created a ‘ninja slayer’ computer game). Participants are grouped by category–Hardware, Websites, Apps, Games, Evolution (enterprise and advanced projects) and Scratch (games and animations developed using the Scratch platform.)

Given only a small expanse of table space in a crowded hall, young contestants had to get creative to showcase their work. Hardware projects had the edge here–Oculus-enabled games and robotic spiders instantly attracted a crowd with their demos. One particularly spectacular project from CoderDojo Castleknock aligned with the 1916 commemorations. The interactive educational experience recreated the GPO during the Rising with Lego figures and LCD screens.

The software category showed plenty entrepreneurial spirit too: contestants blu-tacked printed Powerpoint diagrams to the walls around their stands explaining their projects, along with signs and hand-drawn company logos mimicking the look of grown-up tech companies. In this sense, Coolest Projects encourages kids to not only dream up and build their projects, but to promote and explain them to the public. It’s a valuable experience close to that of the grown-up startup world. They learn to pitch, hack and–eventually–market to customers.

The handmade signs promote games with names like ‘Eggy the Egg’, ‘Tower of Treachery’ and ‘Turkey Apocalypse’. There are hardware projects too, including a bot which builds bridges, a flood detector and something called the ‘Game Hat’. The young contestants are almost frighteningly professional–at one point a boy of around twelve hands me his business card.

At Coolest Projects, tech is a family affair. Siblings compete against each other while parents watch out for judges (they are easily discernible by their blue t-shirts). At the Intel stall, I watch an assistant hold up a floppy disk to a parent and their wide-eyed child, and ask “ever seen one of these?”.

The talks at Launch’d are made to appeal to both grownups and children. They included appearances from figures as diverse as the game designer, developer and hero to many Brenda Romero, Digitalachemy CEO Aidan Hughes (he of the 70 million App Store downloads) and the Commish herself, who moderated a talk on startup funding. At one point Open Knowledge founder Rufus Pollock compared the quest for a more open web to Harry Potter, noting that usually “the dark side tend to have more money…”.

A talk from Irene Guedan of Intel Security on digital safety for young people brought home the fact that the internet is not always a friendly place, that all too often it can leave young people feeling powerless. I can’t help but think, however, that giving children digital skills–as CoderDojo does–is the best preparation for a digital future.

Prizewinners included a gardening-themed game, the ‘Pretendo’ Raspberry Pi games arcade, and a Rubik’s Cube solving robot, projects which showcased as much creative thinking as technical skill.

“On Saturday we witnessed the next generation of tech innovators. 800 young people from across Europe came to the RDS to showcase their tech creations. We saw everything from websites to cutting edge Mobile Apps to IoT solutions which were truly inspiring; these young people are going to redefine our future and on Saturday we got a glimpse of what this future will be,” Noel King, Co-creator of Coolest Projects and Launch’d, said.

It’s exciting to think there’s all this initiative, creativity and potential in Ireland right now, and in those so young. And it’s exciting to think about what these children will go on to achieve, growing up feeling that coding, design and entrepreneurship are not only achievable, but fun.

Pictures: Conor McCabe Photography

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