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Teachers Learn How to Create Mobile Apps

Goal Is to Incorporate Computational Thinking into Classrooms

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Twenty undergraduate educators from across the county participated in a workshop hosted by UMass Lowell’s Computer Science Department on developing apps for mobile devices and how to incorporate the technology into their coursework. Speaking to the attendees, at right, is Assoc. Prof. Fred Martin.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

“It was great.”

“I really enjoyed it.”

“It was very helpful.”

These are just some of the comments from college teachers from across the country who participated in a workshop hosted recently by UMass Lowell’s Computer Science Department.

Called “Computational Thinking Through Mobile Computing,” the workshop, which is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), aims to build a national community of undergraduate educators who are focused on teaching computational thinking via mobile computing.

Computational thinking is a problem-solving method that uses computer-science techniques to find solutions to complicated problems, understand complex systems and increase efficiency in many disciplines, says computer science Assoc. Prof. Fred Martin.

“It’s a fundamental skill for everyone, not just computer scientists,” notes Martin. “Its concepts are needed by students and informed citizens and workers.”

From Creating Cool Apps to Flipping Classrooms

Martin says the ultimate goal of the NSF project is to introduce undergraduate students to computational thinking in the classroom by engaging them to create apps for mobile phones and tablets that are “both useful and personally meaningful.”

The workshop is part of a collaborative project among UMass Lowell, MIT, Wellesley College, Trinity College and the University of San Francisco. Faculty participants plan to incorporate the MIT App Inventor, a web-based app developer for Android phones, into their courses during the 2013–14 academic year.

“App Inventor is a great educational tool,” says Jean Griffin, who teaches introductory computer science at the University of Pennsylvania to undergraduates, high-school students and teachers. “I find it to be an effective way to engage young learners in computer science, design and technological innovation.”

Adrianna Holden-Gouveia, an adjunct instructor at Northern Essex Community College, enjoyed playing with App Inventor and seeing what could be done with it.

“The workshop presentations were really useful,” says Holden-Gouveia. “Having those three days of dedicated time to develop Android apps was really nice — I got some ideas of how to integrate it into a couple of classes and see which tutorials would work best to assign to my students.” 

She adds: “Professionally, I found that getting to network with other teachers was valuable, especially those who had used App Inventor in classes, since they were able to give feedback about what worked the best. I love updating my skills and learning about new technology.” 

Vanderbilt University assistant professor Julie Lynn Johnson says learning how to connect to the software wirelessly and how to resolve connection issues was a huge help.

“I also learned about alternative funding sources for App Inventor projects,” says Johnson. “I’m definitely going to use more of the learning resources. I will ‘flip’ my classroom and use videos created by Dave Wolber of the University of San Francisco. This will introduce first-year students not only to apps and the App Inventor but also to the flipped classroom model of learning.” 

“We are currently developing online curricular modules that use mobile app programming to teach computational thinking principles and mobile computing design concepts,” says Martin. “These modules include web-based tutorials, video lectures, screencasts, programming exercises and quizzes — online materials that give students more in-class time to engage in active learning.”