Young Digital Diplomats from Cork Inspire Tech Innovation in San Francisco

As technology continues to advance and serve as a means of connecting people in cities, towns, schools, businesses, and more across the globe, a new generation of digital diplomats begins to unite like never before. Five middle school students and junior computer coding experts from Cork, Ireland visited San Francisco, CA to exchange coding insights and other Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) activities in April. 

The idea for the exchange started when the Mayor of San Francisco, Edwin Lee, visited Cork over St. Patrick’s Day in 2013 and dropped in on a CoderDojo session at Cork Institute of Technology’s Blackrock Castle Observatory. CoderDojo is a non-profit global movement started in 2011 by a Cork high school student, aimed at giving other students the opportunity to hone in on essential tech and coding skills by learning from their peers and professionals. Impressed by the talents of these young coders and motivated by a need to bring STEM programs to schools in the bay area, Mayor Lee invited a group of five dedicated Irish CoderDojo students to come to San Francisco for a sister city exchange. 

Excited to accept their invitation, the young digital diplomats, Áine Ellen O’Neill (13), Ruth Whelan (13), Emily Mary Ray (13), Andrew Barret (13), and Matthew Mallon (12) accompanied by their Blackrock Castle mentors, Clair Sweeney Alan Giltinan, and Adrian Collins, Deputy Lord Mayor of Cork, Lorraine Kingston, and CEO of Cork Chamber of Commerce, Conor Healy, set off on a weeklong coding adventure both in the air and on the ground.

With a new direct flight from Dublin to San Francisco, Aer Lingus helped cover the flight costs between the two sister cities, as the students rode on the inaugural flight over to San Francisco on April 2nd. The group got off to a unique and triumphant start when, instead of the usual movie viewing on the back of a headrest, they got a beautiful view of the Triangulum Galaxy during their flight. 

The group used Aer Lingus’ Wi-Fi to gain live access to the robotic telescope “Tara” in California’s Portola Valley, technology developed by Blackrock Castle Observatory. While reflecting on this historical in-air event, Emily said, “it was a tiny bit of magic, but for us at CoderDojo, coding always brings a bit of magic.”

Once in San Francisco, the Coders toured a software design company called GitHub where they had the opportunity to see a day-in-the-life of a modern tech company office and, perhaps, a place not too dissimilar from an office where the students will work in the future. The visit sparked some new interests for the students, as Matthew said, “We attended another CoderDojo session there and learned about binary which is really fascinating. I might try [to] learn binary next.”

While touring another tech startup company, TinyCo, the students sat down with engineers and spoke with the CEO about how to start a business. Úna Fannon from the Mayor’s Office in San Francisco explained, “The session with the CEO really highlighted future possibilities.” This opportunity showed students that they have the potential to start their own companies one day. 

On the other side of things, students were able to show off their skills as they mentored other middle school students at the California Academy of Sciences (CAS) on how to code a video game called “Save the Galaxy,” using an astronomical photo they took during their flight as the background image. “It was really fun and gave me an insight into what it was like to be teaching rather than learning,” said Matthew. After getting to know their new friends, the students plan on staying in touch using apps such as Snapchat and Instagram, as Ruth explained, “we are now ‘space pals,’ 21st century pen-pals.”

Other memorable activities during their trip included tours of Alcatraz, the Exploratorium at Golden Gate Park, the indoor rainforest, earthquake exhibit, living roof, and aquarium at CAS, and dinner at Boudin Bakery.

This digital sister city exchange was celebrated throughout San Francisco and Cork by community members, parents, teachers, and students alike. Coincidentally, this sister city connection is generational. Áine O’Neill’s grandfather was the Lord Mayor of Cork who originally signed the two cities into sisterhood.  “I love San Francisco, and ever since my Granda told me about when he was there as Lord Mayor in 1986…I have always wanted to go there,” she said. Given the rising popularity of the tech industry and over two decades of sisterly bond, there was great media coverage for the events and their hashtag #CorkSparksSFTech helped get the message out. 

Having the opportunity to meet and work alongside professionals and peers with similar interests was the overwhelming highlight of the trip, as Matthew insightfully remarked, “coding is about making new friends, giving important skills for [the] future and opening doors to unbelievable opportunit[ies] like this one.”