Build Your Own Android Apps With MIT App Inventor

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Working with MIT App Inventor
Image by: Jason Gipson-Nahman

I don’t consider myself a programmer or a coder. I’m a bit of a computer geek with a little programming experience, but the bulk of it was over 10 years ago. I have dreams of getting back into it and actually becoming decent, but between being a high school teacher and raising two small children, I can’t justify making it that high of a priority. However, one incredible tool I’ve found that is not very time intensive is MIT App Inventor. App Inventor is a blocks-based programming language similar to Scratch that allows you to create simple apps for Android phones and tablets. It feels much more grown-up than Scratch, and it’s appropriate for middle-schoolers on up to adults. App Inventor was originally created by Google but is now maintained by MIT. It’s great for me as a hobby, and hopefully will help me introduce my kids to programming when they’re ready. I’d love to be able to use superheroes to explain programming to my kids like Randy Slavey, but I’m way too rusty for that. App Inventor will do for now.

With App Inventor’s drag-and-drop interface, you can easily build a simple app in less than an hour. And if you’re not a beginner, there are lots of advanced features available for those with more programming experience. A ton of resources including tutorials and instructions for sample apps can be found at appinventor.org. This simple I Have a Dream app is a great place for beginners to start, and it’s perfect timing for African-American History Month.

As of late, I’ve been trying to create some custom apps to get my son excited about reading. There are some great apps in both the Google Play Store and the App Store, and my wife (iOS) and I (Android) have a number of them on our devices. However, my 4-year-old son doesn’t get overly excited about any of them. What he does get overly excited about are LEGO Super Heroes. So I figured if anyone could get my son excited about reading, it’s LEGO Batman and LEGO Iron Man. I let him take pictures of his favorite minifigures, and then I built an app in which he had to correctly choose the first letter of the name of the superhero or villain on the screen. I spent one afternoon getting a rough version of the app up and running, but it did the trick. The most complicated concepts in the app were if-then statements and lists. My son enjoyed going tapping through his favorite LEGO heroes and villains, and he can confidently tell you that Iron Man starts with I and Joker starts with J. I’m not going to upload the app to the Play Store (although you can with App Inventor) and make a lot of money, but I successfully built a custom app that helps my son with his reading skills. I’m more than happy with that. My next goal is to work on some interactive ebooks in Spanish. App Inventor should be great for that.

What do you need to get started?

Getting up and running in App Inventor is pretty simple. All you need are the following:

  • An Android phone or tablet – You can actually use App Inventor without it, as there is a built-in emulator for testing apps, but it’s fairly limited.
  • A browser and internet connection – App Inventor is cloud-based, but you can also download an offline version if you really need to.
  • The MIT AI2 Companion app You install this app on your Android phone or tablet, and it allows you to easily test out your app while you’re designing and building it. If you don’t have wifi, you can also connect your phone or tablet to your computer via USB.
  • A Google account – You need a Google account to login to App Inventor. If you’re an Android user, chances are you have a Google account.

If App Inventor piques your interest to learn more about programming in general, check out Melissa Ford’s post The Geek Immigrant’s Guide to Learning Coding.

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