Best In Class: Our Pick of Northern Ireland’s Tech Educators #1

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  • With technology developing at an ever faster pace - and the flow of new tech skills critical to our economy - the role that tech educators play in Northern Ireland has never been more important.

    Over this, and subsequent weeks we would like to celebrate (in no particular order) some of our tech educators...

    Andrew Bolster (Farset Labs)

    Andrew is a Systems Researcher with a wide range of skills and experiences across technical, business and entrepreneurial fields. He completed a PhD in autonomous systems at the University of Liverpool as part of an Anglo-French Defence Programme on Autonomous Submarines for Marine Survey and Monitoring. He is currently a Data Scientist at Sensum and the founder and director of Farset Labs – a Belfast based charity that is a hub for the tech community in Northern Ireland.

    Farset Labs is also highly engaged with local community, voluntary, and public sector consultations on a range of topics from Open Data and Government Transparency to Strategies for supporting the transition from primary health care to social support structures. As part of its charitable outreach activities, the organisation operates Dojo-style events for under 18's to explore and experiment with technologies ranging from robotics, game development, electronics, programming and data science. Andrew is also co-founder of CodeCoop-NI, which aims to provide peer mentoring and networking for adults to hone tech skills and enter the STEAM field.

    Q&A

    What made you want to get involved with tech education?

    I've been involved in tech education since I was around 11 or 12, being associated with different clubs and societies in school, including delivering physics, electronics and history education to hundreds of primary school children when I was 16. This love of education and knowledge sharing has continued throughout my career, ranging from being a STEMNET ambassador for years, to regularly judging events such as the First Lego League and the BT Young Scientist / Young Engineer competitions.

    What do you enjoy about it?

    They say "teaching is learning twice" and I couldn't agree more - it's all very well thinking you understand something, but unless you can explain it to a five-year-old, it's all a bit pointless. Another aspect of the joy of teaching is the vastly different perspectives young people can have. Many times I've been floored by someone looking at something that I'd been deeply involved in and just by asking a "naive" or "silly" or "stupid" question, I've had to completely reevaluate my thinking on a subject. Finally, I fundamentally believe that the only way to make our wee place in the world better is to improve it ourselves. Air dropped "programmes" and national "projects" have their place and their purpose, but sometimes the biggest impact you can have is to just go into your local community and share your little bit of experience and knowledge with a small group of people. If everyone did that we'd all be better off!

    What are the challenges you face?

    All of Farset Labs operations are volunteer driven and in almost all cases, the mentors giving their time to outreach events are paying members of Farset Labs as well. With any volunteer driven, self-funded programme, we have three key constraints; mentor availability, equipment funding, and space. Even simply keeping the building itself powered, heated and rent paid is a significant majority of Farset Labs revenue, and with our volunteer base most active in education and outreach, there is not much resource to dedicate to fundraising activities. An additional constraint is that equal access to facilities and programmes is a key part of Farset Labs charitable aims, so we are very reluctant to charge significant amounts for the events and programmes we facilitate, instead encouraging suggested donations for event attendees, usually £3.

    What’s in store for the future of Farset Labs?

    We've survived through the blood, sweat, tears, and limited free time of the amazing community that has grown around Farset Labs for over five years now. There are not many such programmes that survive independence for that long without collapsing under their own optimism, or being taken over by outside forces with a particular agenda. My only plan is that Farset Labs is still providing a open space for the tech and craft community in Northern Ireland for many years to come, and that a continuing pipeline of fresh talent and perspective can keep us grounded in the needs of that community and not to get carried away with ourselves. Northern Ireland needs a neutral, unbiased, independent learning and exploration space space in the often highly siloed and specialised technology and craft sectors. With the engagement and continued support of the sector, Farset Labs can continue to be that space.

    Andrew Bolster: @Bolster

    Farset Labs: @FarsetLabs

    URL: http://www.farsetlabs.org.uk/

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    Art Knipe (Code Co-Op NI)


    This picture was provided by Dr. David Kane, Director @ Farset Labs


    Art Knipe is a software engineer at ShopKeep in Belfast where most of his time is dedicated to the JavaScript domain. Art is involved in Code Co-Op which runs free-form socials and set coding challenges at Farset Labs. The group also creates coding challenges on Github here. Code Co-Op is designed for people who prefer to learn outside of formal programmes and enables them to come together and help each other out. The group receives continuous support from Farset Labs and the wider Code Co-Op community.

     

    Q&A

    What made you want to get involved with tech education?

    The open knowledge culture made me want to join the technology field; being part of the community made me love it. I want more people to enjoy the same.

    What do you enjoy about it?

    Keeping the value of learning and sharing at the forefront of what we do, selfishly, makes it a better community for each person involved. Most of all, spending time with people on the warpath of learning is a lot of fun. Self-set learning is chaotic, with far too many resources available and little guidance in choosing into which to invest your time. Getting together lets us chat about the good, the bad and the practical, over a cup of tea.

    What are the challenges you face?

    Time is at a premium, and many people gave up theirs to help Code Co-Op grow. Since the beginning, we’re experimenting with ways to make it easier to make these contributions. It’s a challenge we welcome with enthusiasm. 

    What’s in store for the future of Code Co-Op?

    In short, our community determines our future. Based on most recent feedback we specified a code of conduct and are working on making our resources more accessible. Whether you want to get involved or have ideas you’d like us to try, we’d like to hear from you.

    Code Co-Op NI: @CodeCoopNI

    URL: https://www.meetup.com/CodeCoop-NI/

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    Gemma Crothers (Kainos)


    Gemma Crothers has over a decade’s experience in the IT industry in a variety of consultancy roles. As Tech Outreach Manager at Kainos, she heads up their education outreach programme, which is designed to inspire, enthuse and educate young people to secure the future of the digital economy. Gemma has developed a wide range of programmes for schoolchildren and students, through to teachers and policy-makers. Partnering with organisations like The Prince’s Trust and Code Club, as well as establishing large-scale events like Kainos CodeCamp and Kainos CodeShow, Gemma heads up an on-going programme which helps hundreds of young people each year to improve their digital skills, develop their creativity, and understand the opportunities available to them through a career in IT. She also works with organisations like CEA to refine and shape the ICT curriculum at all levels, ensuring teachers are confident in their own knowledge and understanding, and empowered to deliver effective and exciting digital education. Altogether, Gemma’s work with Tech Outreach has directly benefitted the lives of over 4,000 young people across the island over the past four years.  

     

    Q&A

    What made you want to get involved with tech education?

    I’m passionate about Tech Education as I believe today’s students are the future of our economy. Digital literacy and critical thinking skills are an essential part of modern society, enabling our young people to become fully functioning digital citizens. Never before has society and industry as a whole moved so quickly and most of the jobs that will exist in 50 years haven’t been invented yet. I want the next generation to be aware of the hundreds of job opportunities that exist outside of traditional stereotypes of ‘working in tech’ and show young people that they can not only be part of the digital revolution, but drive that change.

    What do you enjoy about it?

    I love working with people and the fast pace of the role. Most of my working week is spent meeting partners, schools, charity organisations and attending events. It’s great to see young people who were ‘technophobes’ realise how useful technology can be in their day-to-day lives. My favourite part of the school visits is helping to build confidence and boost the morale of young people. We’ve helped students build a website in half-a-day and  they have come away with a great sense of achievement. It’s really rewarding to see how Tech Outreach builds staff morale, team building and providing a sense of giving something back to the community.

    What are the challenges you face?

    Time and scale! Kainos is expanding, and while this means we have a bigger pool of volunteers, it also means we’re getting busier. In an ideal world, we’d love every staff member to volunteer at least one day a year, but sometimes project commitments restrict us. We still manage to reach 1000 volunteer days a year though! However, even with an excellent level of engagement from staff, there’s only so many schools we can visit over a school year. That’s why we’re working with CCEA and MakeMatic in 2017/18 to digitise our materials to allow us to reach a wider audience.

    What’s in store for the future of Kainos’ Tech Outreach Programme?

    As well as continuing to work with our partners (Code Club, Prince’s Trust), we will also be participating in the W5 STEM ambassadors programme in 2017/18, providing W5 with a wide range of volunteers from all areas of the business. Kainos CodeCamp goes from strength-to-strength each year and as well as developing additional content for 2018, we’re planning to also hold our first-ever Kainos CodeCamp in Poland! In November we’re sponsoring the Friendship Four and W5 Festival of STEM at the Odyssey, which will hopefully inspire and enthuse a whole new audience of students. March 2018 sees us acting as Gold sponsor for Future2018 - a coding event run by teens for teens. And of course we have the BelTech EDU day in April, hosting 500 students from across Northern Ireland.

    Gemma Crothers: @CrothersGemma

    Kainos: @KainosSoftware

    URL: https://www.kainos.com/givingback

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    Lisa Donaldson (Women Who Code)


    Lisa is Youth Outreach Lead with Women Who Code Belfast (WWCB). She is currently supporting Business In The Community/Code Club on the ‘Time To Code’ initiative which involves 25 schools across Belfast & the North West. She will be Mentoring on the upcoming Tech Know Clubs school project which is a partnership between STEM UK, Allstate and Go Berserk! Lisa is also visiting with schools under the CAS Barefoot programme, which offers free support to Primary School teachers to encourage them to use tech in the current curriculum. She is also putting the finishing touches on a new blog site to help people (primarily mums and women) get involved with tech.  It will offer club and educational resources, a calendar of events across Belfast (and beyond) and contacts with other working groups. 

    Q&A

    What made you want to get involved with tech education?

    I was looking for a club for my daughter, who became quite interested in coding and graphic design last year. I wanted her to meet other girls around her age with similar interests. There were none locally however and those that I did find were already oversubscribed. I spoke with Claire Burn, who had been Youth Lead with Women Who Code before taking becoming Director. By then I was becoming frustrated and said if there wasn’t a club for girls already, I would make one!  She promptly thanked me for volunteering and told me the job was mine!

     

    What do you enjoy about it?

    Watching natural leaders work together with empathy is something I think many managers could learn from children.  Watching a child’s face light up when code works and equally watching them persevere when it doesn’t too. One of my favourite things though has been meeting pupils at careers fairs. Some confidently stride towards us full of questions, which is deeply gratifying. But some will shrug disinterestedly - so I like to ask them especially about their ambitions and explain - with examples - how their chosen field is inextricably linked to technology.  Seeing that young person consider this new information is really fun.  It’s even more fun if a parent then also asks about avenues they might pursue tech in too!     

    What are the challenges you face?

    One challenge is having enough time. We coordinate events, create programmes, share news, find helpers, secure premises, help facilitate and partner with some amazing people across all the three sectors. It’s a lot to take on! Another big challenge involves resources. Everything I do, like many of us in this area, is on a voluntary basis. For me it is more demanding and infinitely more rewarding than any full-time post I have ever had. But it is also genuinely troubling to me that when a volunteer steps away, maybe because of other commitments, everything they do ceases to be. I really believe we need to invest in leaders and that a networked, long-reaching, innovative and applied youth strategy is still sorely lacking. 

    What’s in store for the future of Youth Outreach?
    The first WWC training session will be on 28th November at the Ulster University Belfast Campus, in partnership with the W5 STEM Hub, CoderDojo Foundation, Code Club and facilitated by Athena Swan (UU). We will be training STEM Ambassador volunteers from within our tech community to become real-world mentors for new and existing clubs from January. This event will also allow us to network together and discuss what new approaches we can organically grow from within our own community. Additionally WWC will continue to create STEAM events for our younger children too and I am excited about our paper circuit event at the Museum to celebrateBelfast Design Week  on November 5. We also hope to work with the Regional & Metropolitan Colleges to video link up an Hour of Code (HoC) event in December to celebrate HoC week. Details ofsimilar events globally can be found at https://hourofcode.com/uk

    But if I had to say what the key to success ahead is and what will encourage more children, especially girls, into tech? Hands down, it is the STEAM approach.  

    Lisa Donaldson: @Liscagodo

    Women Who Code Belfast: @WWCBelfast

    URL: https://www.womenwhocode.com/belfast

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    Victoria McCallum (Women in Tech Belfast at Lean In)


    Victoria McCallum is a diversity and inclusion advocate and works to support Women in Tech Belfast, and is the instigator of the Women in Tech Lean In circle; and course co-ordinator at Queen’s University Belfast for Code First: Girls.

    Q&A

    What made you want to get involved with tech education?

    I had purely selfish reasons for getting involved in tech education. Three years ago when I first decided I wanted to learn to code, I looked around Belfast for a course and couldn't find any. Through my research I found out about Code First: Girls - a social enterprise headquartered in London, that provides free coding courses for women at university across the UK and Ireland. As I was a part-time student at Queen's University Belfast at the time, I decided to set up a course here. Since then, I've helped to keep the course running over the past six semesters as I think it's such a great initiative.

    What do you enjoy about it?

    Tech is an incredible industry and it upsets me that so many people are missing out on well-paid and interesting work simply because it's just not something that they've ever considered before. I particularly love the idea that maybe the course converts some women into tech! I know it definitely can work, as a few months after I completed the course I left finance and became an apprentice software engineer! Also, I love the final presentations at the end of each course - each semester the websites that are built get more and more impressive. Not every student finishes the course, as you can't expect everyone to like coding, but the ones that do, work really hard and they never cease to amaze me with what they are able to create in just eight weeks.

    What are the challenges you face?

    Finding volunteers to teach and support the course each semester.  It's a big ask - asking people to give up two hours a week (plus prep time) for eight weeks to teach this course. We fortunately always end up with a mix of developers that currently work in industry and QUB computer science students. This year we have an all-women team of amazing role models to teach and support the course - all of whom have been a Code First: Girls student at some point over the past three years and wish to give back!

    What’s in store for the future of Code First Girls?

    I hope the initiative continues to grow out of London, especially around Ireland, and I hope I can help continue the course at Queen's University Belfast for many more semesters to come! 

    Victoria McCallum: @v_mccallum

    Lean In: @LeanInBelfast

    URL: https://leanincircles.org/circle/women-in-tech-belfast  

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