Coding in Glasgow’s public libraries

by Stacey Dingwall

Last week saw the annual CILIPS Autumn Gathering take place in Glasgow. CILIPS is the Scottish branch of the professional body for librarians and information professionals in the UK (CILIP). The Autumn Gathering provides professionals in Scotland with an opportunity to get together to discuss issues and trends within the sector and share best practice.

The day saw a range of sessions alongside two keynote addresses from Marc Lambert, CEO of the Scottish Book Trust, and Diane Bruxvoort from the University of Aberdeen. One of the most interesting talks I attended was given by Martin Goodfellow, who is the Coder in Residence at Glasgow Life. Martin previously worked on the Future Makers project, providing 5-17 year olds in Glasgow with the opportunity to learn digital making skills. The project was made possible due to the city winning Innovate UK’s Future Cities Demonstrator competition, and £24m in funding to explore ways to improve the city and the quality of life for its residents through technology.

For the uninitiated, Martin explained that coding=programming. It’s a form of computational thinking: something we all use in everyday life, e.g. in deciding when to stop looking for something, be it when shopping or looking for information.

Coding in Libraries

Martin’s remit is to support the creation of coding clubs in Glasgow’s public libraries. Glasgow is the first library service in the UK to have a Coder in Residence, and Martin is based at the city’s Mitchell Library, which has its own Digital Making Space and recently opened Scotland’s first Google Digital Garage.

In partnership with CoderDojo Scotland and Virgin Media, the first Glasgow coding club was set up in the Mitchell’s Digital Making Space. The club hosts regular CoderDojo events, and the clubs have started to roll out to several of Glasgow’s local libraries.

The events are aimed at young people aged 8-17 and operate democratically, in that there is no set curriculum in place at the clubs. Instead, participants work on their own projects or suggest ideas for the club to take part in. Martin described some of the projects the club have been involved in, noting that these are sometimes in collaboration with other cultural events in Glasgow. For example, during the last Celtic Connections festival, some of the young coders were involved in building a program that saw Scotland the Brave remixed using various different effects. He also showed off a 3D printed Mitchell Library created by the club in Mindcraft as part of the BBC’s Build it Scotland event, which is to be included in a forthcoming visual map of Scotland.

Making not consuming

Martin explained that club had used Sonic Pi in order to create the music program. This is just one of the software packages that participants can access at the clubs, alongside tools including Raspberry Pi and Scratch. He also demonstrated one of the outcomes of the club’s use of Twine, which had resulted in the creation of a ‘choose your own adventure’ style game, which sees players either going from the Mitchell to a secret Biffy Clyro gig, or missing out on the gig, depending on their choices.

Here, Martin placed an emphasis on public libraries being seen as not only a space where people can use technology to access resources, but also learn how to use technology: digital making, not just digital consumption. This is similar to the makerspace movement in libraries, which we looked at on the blog last month.

Teaching children how to code is part of the gamificiation of education trend, which takes concepts that children are used to in video games and uses these to support educational attainment. Gamification in general is a key trend at the moment, as seen in apps like Pokémon Go which is suggested to produce physical health benefits for players.

Martin highlighted that the clubs have worked with the STEMnet Ambassador programme, in which people volunteer to support and encourage young people to participate in, and enjoy, STEM subjects, both in and outside of the school setting. With the UK facing an estimated shortfall of 40,000 STEM workers per year (often blamed on societal stereotypes which can discourage certain groups  particularly girls   from studying STEM subjects), the work that the programme and initiatives like the coding clubs do is vital.

The future

The fact that there has been no real need to promote the coding clubs in Glasgow beyond using social media shows that young people are interested in STEM subjects, if they are presented in a way that is enjoyable and accessible to them. Martin spoke about Glasgow’s participation in National Coding Week last month, during which the clubs hosted a range of events including intergenerational sessions, which saw parents come in and learn from their kids about coding. The idea of ‘teaching an adult to code’ is one that is hoped to be continued in the coding clubs. The other key aims include having a club running in every one of the city’s public libraries, expanding the clubs into schools, and ensuring their sustainability.

If you liked this, you might like our other posts on STEM and digital participation:

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