Empowering kids to address Covid-19 through coding

When schools around the world closed their doors due to the coronavirus pandemic, the team behind MIT App Inventor — a web-based, visual-programming environment that allows children to develop applications for smartphones and tablets — began thinking about how they could not only help keep children engaged and learning, but also empower them to create new tools to address the pandemic.

In April, the App Inventor team launched a new challenge that encourages children and adults around the world to build mobile technologies that could be used to help stem the spread of Covid-19, aid local communities, and provide moral support to people around the world.

“Many people, including kids, are locked down at home with little to do and with a sense of loss of control over their lives,” says Selim Tezel, a curriculum developer for MIT App Inventor. “We wanted to empower them to take action, be involved in a creative process, and do something good for their fellow citizens.”

Since the Coronavirus App Inventor Challenge launched this spring, there have been submissions from inventors ranging in age from 9 to 72 years and from coders around the globe, including New Zealand, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Italy, China, India, and Spain. While the App Inventor platform has historically been used in classrooms as an educational tool, Tezel and Hal Abelson, the Class of 1922 Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering in Computer Science, explain that they have seen increased individual engagement with the platform during the pandemic, particularly on a global scale.

“The nice thing about App Inventor is that you’re learning about coding, but it also gives you something that you can actually do and a chance to contribute,” says Abelson. “It provides kids with an opportunity to say, ‘I’m not just learning, I’m doing a project, and it’s not only a project for me, it’s a project that can actually help other people.’ I think that can be very powerful.”

Winners are announced on a monthly basis and honor apps for creativity, design, and overall inventiveness. Challenge participants have addressed a wide variety of issues associated with the pandemic, from health and hygiene to mental health and education. For example, April’s Young Inventors of the Month, Bethany Chow and Ice Chow from Hong Kong, developed an app aimed at motivating users to stay healthy. Their app features a game that encourages players to adapt healthy habits by collecting points that they can use to defeat virtual viruses, as well as an optional location tracker function that can alert users if they have frequented a location that has a Covid-19 outbreak.

Akshaj Singhal, a 11-year-old from India, was selected as the June Inventor of the Month in the Young Inventors category, which includes children 12 years old and younger, for his app called Covid-19 Warrior. The app offers a host of features aimed at spreading awareness of Covid-19, including a game and quiz to test a user’s knowledge of the virus, as well as local daily Covid-19 news updates and information on how to make your own mask.

The challenge has attracted participants with varying levels of technical expertise, allowing aspiring coders a chance to hone and improve their skills. Prayanshi Garg, a 12-year-old from India, created her first app for the challenge, an educational quiz aimed at increasing awareness of Covid-19. Vansh Reshamwala, a 10-year-old from India, created an app that features a recording of his voice sharing information about ways to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 and thanking heroes for their efforts during the pandemic.

Participants have also been able to come together virtually to develop apps during a time when social interactions and team activities are limited. For example, three high school students from Singapore developed Maskeraid, an app that connects users in need of assistance with volunteers who are able to help with a variety of services.

“The ultimate goal is to engage our very creative App Inventor community of all ages and empower them during this time,” says Tezel. “We also see this time as an incredible opportunity to help people vastly improve their coding skills.  When one is confronted by a tangible challenge, one’s skills and versatility can grow to meet the challenge.”

The App Inventor team plans to continue hosting the challenge for so long as the pandemic is having a worldwide impact. Later this month, the App Inventor team will be hosting a virtual hackathon or worldwide “appathon,” an event that will encourage participants to create apps aimed at improving the global good.

“Our global App Inventor community never ceases to amaze us,” says Tezel. “We are delighted by how inventors of all ages have been rising to the challenge of the coronavirus, empowering themselves by putting their coding skills to good use for the well-being of their communities.”

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