By Karen Lang
Karen Lang is the curriculum developer at Technovation, and author of the book Become an App Inventor. She has been working on lots of exciting projects for the most recent Technovation season, including a project to support students interested in climate-related issues. She shares more about that project below.
For several months in 2022, Technovation worked with a group of Technovation alumnae who were passionate about the environment, to develop new curriculum units to assist future Technovation participants who were interested in solving climate issues as part of their project. Five alumnae joined our Climate App project, along with three technical mentors and myself.
Who was involved
Teams formed along geographic lines. Ana Balteanu and Zhibek Askar, who live in Canada, formed a team to work on SDG 12, Responsible Consumption. Giovanna Romero and Arlen Amezcua Ortiz from Mexico joined together to work on SDG 13, Climate Action. And Laura Mendes from Brazil worked as a solo team on SDG 6, Clean Water.
The mentors were perhaps the best people we could find to assist with coding on the App Inventor and Thunkable platforms. Natalie Lao is the Executive Director of the App Inventor Foundation, an educational nonprofit founded by researchers and developers at MIT and Google with the mission of empowering students to create meaningful technologies that can transform their lives and uplift their communities. She received her B.S., M.Eng., and Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. Mark Friedman is a co-founder of the App Inventor project and led its initial development at Google as tech lead and manager. He’s been working in Computer Science and Software Engineering for over 40 years. In the last 15 years or so he has been particularly interested in building tools that help kids create apps for social good, learn coding and bridge the digital divide. Dave Wolber is a professor of Computer Science at the University of San Francisco. He is the lead author of App Inventor 2: Create your own Android Apps and the recent book, Drag and Drop Coding with Thunkable. He also runs the coding education sites AppInventor.org and DragAndDropCode.com.
All three mentors were immediately on board with being part of this climate project, and all have long connections to Technovation. Mark states, “As a co-founder of App Inventor, we connected with Technovation very early on in both our histories. We recognized our missions as being very aligned. We created a tool which enabled their girls to easily create mobile apps. They had an organization that could bring the tools to wonderful use!” Natalie continues, “Both of our organizations share the mission of empowering young people to use technology to make a positive impact in the world. Many of Technovation’s curriculum modules are built with our platform, and over the past few years, I’ve had great experiences supporting the Technovation team and seeing the wonderful projects that Technovation girls have created.” Dave’s initial relationship to Technovation started with App Inventor too. “I was connected to Technovation some years ago as I was one of the early App Inventor teachers and the author of the App Inventor book and appinventor.org video lessons. I’ve worked with Tara Chklovski on various initiatives and built some video tutorials together.” When asked why he wanted to get involved with this particular project, he responded,
“Building an app within weeks is daunting even for experienced coders. A set of real and complete apps could be extremely helpful to new Technovators, so I loved the idea of bringing together Technovation alums to build out these exemplary apps. I also volunteer for these projects because working with the fabulous young women brings me great joy and hope for our future.”
The impetus for the project was to develop new curriculum units around specific SDGs in order to help Technovation participants by providing focused resources and inspirational stories. We chose climate-related SDGs as our initial targets, as we have found that a large proportion of Technovation submissions are related to climate. As Dave Wolber notes, “Young people are all in regarding climate change and sustainability and they have great ideas for how technology can be used to help. We need to encourage them to be entrepreneurial leaders in this space and facilitate their learning the skills they need to create solutions.“ Natalie agrees: “Technology can be a powerful tool for understanding and addressing environmental challenges. We’ve seen firsthand how students have used App Inventor to create innovative apps that educate their peers about climate change, recommend appropriate waste disposal methods based on recycling symbols, and coordinate neighborhood compost programs. This is a critical time for the planet, and change can be most powerful when it comes from the community level. By empowering students across the world with the tools and resources needed to create local change, we can foster a global culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.” Mark Friedman adds, “While reducing consumption can take us part of the way towards dealing with climate change, there is clearly a need for new technologies, and new companies to create those technologies in order to help clean up the mess we’ve created.”
Choosing which climate-related problem to solve, and starting to build a solution
After an initial kickoff exchange of ideas between teams, with multiple mentors to offer support and advice, each team worked on their individual app, meeting weekly with the mentors from July to December 2022. Teams had the goal of not just building their app to solve a problem for their selected SDG, but to also eventually publish it to the App and Play Stores. Ana and Zhibek created Option A, an app to tackle the problem of fast fashion. Laura developed her app, dropin’, all about locating both clean and polluted bodies of water in your community. And Arlen and Giovanna’s app, WE Heroes, focuses on awareness and education around endangered species. With the technical support of the mentors, they felt they could take their apps to the next level, beyond the typical Technovation project, and publish it globally for further impact. As Dave Wolber notes, “The sample projects created by the Technovation alums provide great examples of ideas, presentation materials, and code, all of which can be used by new teams in bootstrapping their projects.” He comments further, “Coding projects in the real-world invariably begin with existing code. Too often, in school settings, student projects start from scratch. The sample projects provide a way for students to learn by example and by developing software in the normal way: copy and remix!” Natalie Lao adds, “These climate units apply computational action to environmental challenges in an easy-to-learn way, helping students build the skills and confidence to tackle real-world problems.”
“As a woman in CS and AI, I understand the importance of breaking down barriers to technology adoption and empowering girls to leverage technology for social good. Girls across the world face significant and unequitable challenges in education, particularly in STEM fields. However, research has shown that girls’ education and leadership are crucial for addressing climate change and sustainability.”
Technovation’s mission is girls’ education, which research shows is one of the major ways to combat climate change. Our mentors are in complete agreement. Natalie says, “As a woman in CS and AI, I understand the importance of breaking down barriers to technology adoption and empowering girls to leverage technology for social good. Girls across the world face significant and unequitable challenges in education, particularly in STEM fields. However, research has shown that girls’ education and leadership are crucial for addressing climate change and sustainability. By providing them with access to these opportunities, we can unlock their potential to drive innovation and create lasting change in their communities. Girls and women bring unique perspectives and solutions to the table, and by empowering them with the knowledge and skills to design and build apps, we can create a more just and sustainable world. Mark agrees, “There’s been a history of girls moving away, or being pushed away, from STEM fields as they get older. We need to remove any and all educational barriers in order to solve the difficult and critical problems of climate change and sustainability.”
“By teaching girls how to build mobile solutions that address global issues, we can inspire them to become changemakers and problem solvers in their communities,” notes Natalie. “App Inventor’s approach is centered around the concept of computational action, which involves having students create authentic projects that solve real world problems to motivate them to engage in computing and develop deeper critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Additionally, this process helps students gain self-efficacy by recognizing the value of their work in the real world.”
Structuring the work: how we all worked together
The weekly project meetings started with a check-in from each team, followed by more in-depth code review and help on specific issues the teams encountered. The teams also acknowledged that the weekly meetings offered structure and motivation for them to continue working on their apps, even during busy times. Most of the girls are currently studying in university, so they often had to work around exams and school projects. I found the entire project to be inspiring and lots of fun. I looked forward to our weekly meetings, where I’d get to know the girls a little better each time, and learn what progress they had made. And it was a mutual learning experience for us all. Natalie agrees: “As a seasoned App Inventor mentor, I actually learned some fantastic UI/UX tricks and tips from the girls. They demonstrated how to create beautiful app interfaces using only the basic components of App Inventor, which was entirely new to me. I will definitely be using these new UI/UX hacks in the apps that I create in the future. This was such a collaborative and enriching experience that really drove home the huge potential young girls have when it comes to becoming leaders in technology and sustainability!” Mark adds, “It’s always fun and exciting to work with young people who have a passion to create solutions to real problems. Their energy and commitment is inspiring and gives me hope for the future.” Dave agrees, “I learned that our future is bright. I also learned some lessons on what works and what doesn’t with App Inventor and Thunkable, and places where inexperienced coders get stuck.”
With this project we hope to show good examples of tech-based solutions to climate change. All three teams were able to develop their apps and publish them to the Google Play Store. Publishing to the App Store is a bit more complicated, but some of the teams may continue work to make that happen.
Expert recommended resources
When asked to recommend additional resources for young people to use as they work on their Technovation projects, Natalie responds: “Become an App Inventor is a wonderful book with inspirational stories and app-building tutorials based on how real students around the world have created apps to solve problems. I would also recommend students to check out the App Inventor Foundation News Page, which regularly highlights computational action projects by students and teachers around the world.”
Dave also has some recommendations: “I’m a big fan of the blocks programming tool Thunkable and the book Drag and Drop Code with Thunkable(well, ok, I’m the author)Thunkable was inspired by App Inventor and is a great tool for building apps, including apps with database data. The book provides an excellent progression from ground zero to building apps with user login and dynamic data, with lessons on animation, maps, sensors, and much more along the way. The book is supported by videos and other materials on draganddropcode.com.”
As for the future, Natalie says it best, “Looking forward, I’m excited about the possibilities that new technologies will bring for student innovation. The next generation will have powerful AI tools at their disposal to solve problems in ways that we may not even be able to imagine right now. I believe it is incredibly important for us to teach students how to use these tools within the framework of computational action so that they can become responsible and engaged members of their communities who are empowered to build towards a more sustainable future.”
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can use technology to address climate change in your community, check out Technovation’s climate curriculum units, or our climate science playlist.