Learn Computational Thinking with MIT App Inventor

Guest Expert:  Rosanna Kurrer – Cofounder and Digital Literacy Lead, Digital Leadership Institute

Literacy in the 21st Century will be more about learning to read and write, and having basic mathematical skills. Children growing up today are facing a future job market where a considerable proportion of the jobs do not exist yet, and if they do, these jobs will probably evolve to require different skill sets than they do today.

As the world is increasingly turning to digital solutions to overcome complex challenges, a new kind of literacy is being expected of the workforce, that which include a myriad of digital skills that young people sometimes find hard to fulfill. In addition, the pace of constant innovation comes with the need for life-long learning, as new technology is replaced by even newer ones.

This leaves educators and parents the question of what children should learn nowadays to be able to keep up with all the disruptions happening across all industries and fields of study? The answer to this question put forward by the tech industry is computational thinking.

Computational thinking is a problem-solving methodology that consists of concepts such as algorithm, abstraction, decomposition and pattern recognition, used by computer scientists to tackle complex challenges. Being skilled in using these core concepts in designing real-world solutions allows anyone to be able to adapt to evolving digital tools.

Illustration 1: The designer editor with the palette containing all necessary components such as buttons, labels and images.

The best way to teach and develop computational thinking skills is by creating computational solutions, such as mobile applications, which address real needs. The MIT App Inventor is a powerful tool that allows beginners to develop both simple and advanced smartphone apps for Android through the process of learning-by-doing. Students acquire the skills and mindset necessary for designing digital solutions, which then give them a firm foundation from which to learn other programming platforms.

The MIT App Inventor tool was developed in 2009 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Hal Abelson with the mission of democratising software development and encouraging people to become creators of technology. Seven years later, it has grown to a community of 5.7 million users from 195 countries, with over 19 million apps built.

Illustration 2: The blocks editor is where the coding is done, and is also where all the built-in commands for the components can be found.

MIT App Inventor for Android is a web-based application that makes programming visual through the use of drag-and-drop building blocks. Built-in components allow the user to develop sophisticated applications such as e-commerce apps which require cloud-based databases, or Internet of Things (IoT) projects that require interfacing with Bluetooth enabled micro-controllers. There are two editors with the following functions:

  1. Designer Editor:   allows the user to design how the app looks; and
  2. Blocks Editor:  used to program the behaviour of the app and its visual components, such as buttons and images.

It is also possible to live-test projects, while the app is being programmed by using the AI2 Companion App. This can be downloaded for free from the Play Store onto any mobile Android device. This makes it possible for users to test each step of the development of the app.

Illustration 3: The MIT AI2 Companion App is used to live-test the applications built during the development phase.

The MIT App Inventor programming tool has proven to be very useful for students, entrepreneurs and enterprises to build useful custom mobile applications, as well as to learn computer science principles in a project-based learning environment.  For this reason, we have chosen to showcase and teach this platform as a key tool in the Coding for Young People project.  If you would like more information about MIT App Inventor for Android or the CYP project, please contact us.