Apps, eh? That’s surely some sorcery that only geniuses could figure out how to make, right? Well, geniuses and pretty much anybody else. Maybe writing the coding for an app from scratch requires MIT-level brains, but actually building an app that really works and that you could sell only takes a ready-made MIT template.
The MIT App Inventor is a beginner’s introduction to programming and app creation, a program that replaces codes with click-and-drag colored blocks to make real working apps. Think of it like the revolution in home computers in the 1980s. If you wanted computers to do anything back then, you had to type out a line of blinking green text that ended with “/run” or something. Then someone came along and put all those codes into buttons and icons we could click on with a mouse, and we went from having to understand computer language to just telling the computer what we wanted.
App Inventor is kind of the same thing, a next step that demystifies and democratizes the app-making process, says Anouk Stein. Stein is a seasoned app designer at the helm of “Zero to App: MIT App Inventor,” a free workshop for all at the Princeton Public Library on Thursday, April 13, at 6:30 p.m. Visit princetonpubliclibrary.org.
She was born in Germany to an actual rocket scientist father and a dressmaker mother. Her father was recruited by the U.S. space program in the 1960s, when getting to the moon compelled the American government to look beyond our own coasts for the best and brightest minds.
In 1988 she earned her M.D. from SUNY-Downstate and worked as a radiologist. She was, she says, a typical Type-A, career-driven woman in Arizona until the day she became a mother. At that point, she converted her drive into volunteering at her son’s school in Phoenix’s Ahwatukee neighborhood because, she says, “I just wanted to spend time with my kid.” He’s now a junior at the Lawrenceville School.
That was around the beginning of the century. In 2002 Stein finished a certificate program in computer programming at Columbia and settled in Princeton. By 2006 she hung up her radiology practice for good and started writing medical apps.
From there, she started volunteering at the Princeton Public Library, teaching workshops and programs through the library’s Tech Center.
App Inventor is designed with the absolutely inexperienced in mind, and that novice can build a real, working app within an hour. Stein says it really takes about six minutes, but the workshop is an hour to not rush people.
The first app Stein made was for her mother. It was a “panic button” app that allowed her mother to let everyone know that something was wrong, without having to dial a bunch of people. From there she was hooked, on the tech, on the creativity, and on the fact that making apps is just a lot of fun, she says. In fact, she describes App Inventor as something that looks like Lego blocks and pretty much works the same way.
Fear not. The technology behind app making is not what people learn in Zero to App, Stein says. It’s just moving colored blocks around, and those blocks only fit together if all the parts work together. “You’re not going to make a bug,” she says.
Quite the opposite, in fact. People who attend walk out with a working app, or even a few, she says. And these apps can access whatever your phone has — the camera, the pedometer, whatever. You can make fun apps or apps for exercise programs or games. It’s all right here in the blocks, she says.
When it comes to tough audiences, though, Stein says there are two types of people she most enjoys getting through to: older people and young girls. Both sets of people, she says, have a hefty amount of reservation entering into an app-building program. She gets through to older people by not being a 20-something whiz kid.
“I’m 55; I have gray hair,” she says laughing.
As people age, of course, there’s a tendency to be phobic about new technologies. Stein says she revels in the moment someone over 60 realizes she can make an app that works on her own phone — and can sell it online, even.
As for girls, she says, well, according to still-set stereotypes, girls are not supposed to be technically minded, much less interested in hard sciences. But just as it is for older people, young girls putting apps together leads to the realization that yes, they can make apps and can use them.
Speaking of stereotypes, Stein says she has to laugh when she teaches kids about app making. The boys always seem to want to make games that shoot and in which stuff blows up. The girls, however, always want to tell stories through their apps. More like game story development and universe creation than the action of it all.
The discovery is one reason Stein teaches about apps, but the other is the fact that we’re in a technological age, and it’s a matter of understanding the time in which we live.
“I just feel like people need to know about this,” she says. “It’s so amazing, it’s so accessible. There’s no real barrier to entry for anyone. I think it gives you personal power.”