Tuesday, June 24, 2014

GetSET App Inventor Workshop

I have always wanted to try App Inventor, so when my friend asked me if I'd be interested to teach a workshop on mobile programming for GetSET in Santa Clara, I immediately said yes. But thing got a bit more complicated when I decided to move to Colorado. I wasn't sure I would be able to run the workshop until I gave a talk at Mills College and met Renee there, who volunteered to be my TA.


There were a few things we need to do to prepare for the workshop:

  1. Come up with a lesson plan
  2. Make sure we have Android devices
  3. Set up the workstations in the computer lab

Renee helped with all three. She was in Prof Ellen Spertus' class, who wrote a book on App Inventor. Ellen said that a good workshop format is demo-walkthough-explore, meaning that I would first code up an app in front of the whole class, explaning basic concepts. Then I would talk through a simple tutorial, with everyone following on their own computer. Finally it would be free time. The students could build whatever app they want. I thought this was a great format, getting more and more hands-on.

For the devices, Ellen lent me a few Nexus 7 tablets for the workshop, and Renee took care of the pick up and drop off. Finally, the compuer lab setup, which was the most complicated part. The workstations in the computer lab did not have wifi, so we had to use USB connection. GetSET was hosted by Santa Clara University, and only admins can install software. They asked me to send the list of software to be installed, but we needed to verify that the workstation could connect to the tablet after installation, so this could not be done remotely. Fortunaely Renee was able to drive down to Santa Clara for the initial installation. At that point we did not have access to the Mills tablets yet, so I borrowed a Nexus 7 from a friend to leave with the lab technician to repeat the installation across all the lab computers.


Yesterday was the big day. The workshop was 9am to noon, and Renee and I showed up at 8am to get everything ready, with two more volunteers. To our horror, the tablets were not connecting to the workstations. We had a few theories: the driver was installed under admin mode, but we ran the workshop in user mode. The Nexus 7 for the initial set up was first generation, but the Mills tablets were newer. In any case, we could not use the workstations. We ended up using laptops from the volunteers, which meant 4 computers, 10 students. Not too bad a ratio.

With all that taken care of, we were ready to make apps! I demoed a raffle app that say the name of the winner:

Then we walked through Hello Purr together. There was much laughter as the tablets meowed.

Finally it was free time. The girls really enjoyed making apps, and did not want to leave when I announced a bathroom break in the middle! Different teams made different apps. Some added doodling capabilities to the cat, some made whack-a-mole, some made a pirate ship go get gold, some made text-to-speech for Spanish. It was great fun.

Next steps

I really enjoyed running this workshop. App Inventor is a great way to introduce basic programming concepts because it is lightweight to set up, and running apps on the kids' phones made it much more personal. I am not sure how to graduate them from App Inventor to Android, though. App Inventor only has a subset of the Android capabilities, and right now there is no way to convert an App Inventor project to Java+XML for Android, so they would have to rewrite the whole app if they wanted to step beyond the App Inventor functionalities.

Have you taught App Inventor before? What do you do when your students want to step up the game?

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