“Empowering Communities Through Mobile App Development: Inspiring Girls & Women with AI & App Inventor”: Dr. Natalie Lao with App Inventor Foundation (Video + Transcript)

March 26, 2024

Dr. Natalie Lao (App Inventor Foundation Executive Director) showcases how mobile apps serve as the most accessible pathway for under-resourced populations to acquire technology skills. She spotlights the remarkable applications girls and women worldwide develop with artificial intelligence and App Inventor to uplift their communities. Viewers will learn ways to contribute to this empowering movement, including volunteering as community judges for global Appathons, translators to bring the platform and curricula to more communities across the world, and technical contributors to the open-source project.


In her ELEVATE session, Dr. Natalie Lao, Executive Director of the App Inventor Foundation, discusses the organization’s focus on empowering communities, particularly girls and women, in the field of tech and AI.

App Inventor is a free and open-source web platform that allows anyone to create mobile apps, with a focus on accessibility for under-resourced populations.

Natalie Lao ELEVATE quote our goal is to reach million girls by and teach them ai and technology development

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Transcript of ELEVATE Session:

Natalie Lao:

Thank you everyone for joining the session. I’m really happy to be able to share some of my work and my organization’s work, and we’re really focused on how do we empower communities around the world in tech and AI, and specifically focusing on girls and women. So Sukrutha already gave a great introduction for me. I’m Natalie.

I’m currently Executive Director of App Inventor Foundation. We’re a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in the US and I’m also currently Expert on Mission for UNESCO. I’m developing the UN’s AI competency framework for school students. In the past, I spent 10 years at MIT and I’ve also worn several other hats in tech, as a high school teacher, and in the startup world.

First, what is App Inventor? We’re a free and open source web platform that allows anyone to make mobile apps. The reason that we focus on mobile apps is because it’s the most accessible modality for under-resourced populations. In the US, even about 15% of households don’t have a computer or a tablet. A smartphone is their only computer in the household, and it’s a great way to get children involved in tech and across the world and globally, that number goes up to 50% in some regions.

We’re able to have a lot of impact by teaching engagement and technology through smartphone usage. App Inventor has had 10 years of research from MIT and Google behind it, and our goal isn’t just to teach how to code, it’s to engage students in community engagement and development. We see that after one year of learning how to create apps with App Inventor, students feel like they’re able to effectively change their communities.

Here are some of our impact numbers from the past year. In 2023, we had 11.2 million users from every single country in the world. This has been really huge for us. We’re also really happy that about half of our users come from the Global South and the developing world. This is our global reach. The US is our number one user base, but we have huge adoption in Asia, the Middle East, and we saw last year in Saudi Arabia our growth was over 400%. That was also super amazing.

We also work with organizations both domestically and internationally. We have a partnership with Amazon Future Engineers where we go into classrooms and we teach teachers how to work with conversational AI and App Inventor. As I mentioned before, we’re partnered with UNESCO and UNICEF. And then also with Girl Geek X, we recently joined The AI Forward Alliance, which is sponsored by Technovation, UNICEF and the Grameen Foundation.

Our goal is to reach 25 million girls by 2030 and teach them AI and technology development. We’re taking a lead in mentorship and teacher development in that. If you’re interested, actually we’d love to see you reach out and I’ll have information at the end of my presentation for how to join us. If you’re familiar with Scratch, we see App Inventor as kind of the bridge between something a bit easier, like Scratch, that’s for elementary and middle school students, and then something like Python. That’s where we fit in, in the development pipeline.

I briefly wanted to go through our education philosophy, which really goes into how we design the platform and all of our educational programs. Our philosophy stems from constructionism, which Seymour Papert said best. We believe that, “Children learn best when they’re actively engaged in constructing something that has personal meaning to them.”

With that, we also look towards self-efficacy theory, which is rooted in over 40 years of education research. It’s basically if students feel like they’re able to do something, they actually gain the skills to do that faster and more competently. If we break that down into its four components, this is how we run all of our programs.

The most important component of self-efficacy is an active mastery, which is successful hands-on learning experiences in AI or development. At the end of every App Inventor workshop or class, we want students to walk away with a fully developed app for their own smartphones, and that’s kind of a complete experience of success.

The second is vicarious experiences, which is seeing and hearing about people of similar backgrounds succeeding in these activities. As we know, women are underrepresented in AI and tech, so we do our best to work with organizations and feature stories about girls and women doing amazing things in their community with AI and tech.

The third is persuasion and support, which is being encouraged by respected friends and advisors. In our programs, we actively try to have scaffolded activities where students are encouraging each other, and we also bring in mentors to give students additional feedback, constructive feedback, and also of course positive encouragement.

The fourth is physiological experiences. We want all of our activities to be non-stressful and for students to have positive reactions to them. One thing I wanted to share is our Appathons for a Cause program. We started this program about two years ago in order to build community across the globe. We’ve had millions of users, but our team is really small and we didn’t really know what our students were building unless they made New York Times and they shared it with us.

We launched this new competition that’s completely free and virtual. Anyone of any age can attend. And the goal is to find a problem in your community that you’re really passionate about and build an app for that problem. We ran it last year for the first time under the App of the Season banner, and we saw an extremely diverse range of participants. 55% of students who participated came from the developing world. The youngest was eight years old and the oldest was 60 years old.

We had some really lovely family groups who made apps for grandma or the community senior center. 43% were women or non-binary, which is a huge number for these types of events. We also saw that about 60% of participants were beginners to programming. It’s a very easy entry level hackathon to participate in. And in the past year we launched our own chatGPT and image AI extensions, and we saw that 43% of app submissions used AI, which is something, of course, that we’re all trying to encourage.

Now I wanted to share a few stories of our students who’ve created some amazing apps. This is Gitanjali Rao. She is currently actually a freshman at MIT, but when she was in high school, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, made headlines and she really wanted to help, so she used App Inventor and some really inexpensive, affordable sensors to create an app that detected the water quality and could tell when lead was in the water. She donated this to communities in the area, and she was named Time Magazine’s Kid of the Year. And currently, she’s still using App Inventor to create new apps. Her newest app is one that’s meant to be anti-bullying, and it’s called Kindly.

We also work extensively with communities internationally. The Dharavi Slum in India is the largest urban slum in the world, and there’s a group there called Dharavi Diary that educates women and girls in tech, in civil engineering and a lot of programs, and we’ve been partners with them for many, many years. A few years ago, this group of girls found that there was a lot of sexual harassment in their community. Their mothers, when they came back from work, would get called out and it would generally feel very unsafe.

They used App Inventor to develop an app for women in the area that if you shook it in your pocket, it would have this very high-pitched police siren. It would scare people off. And when you did that, it would log it in a cloud database and share with other people on the network so they knew when these things were happening and to avoid the areas. And they recently gave a TED talk, I think, in India.

Then this past year we worked with a team of girls from Montana in the US. In Montana, there are lots of indigenous peoples, and there’s also an issue with human trafficking, especially of the indigenous community. They created an app with AI and databases that taught people how to find when this was happening and kind of train students to recognize in AI generated chat rooms, what kind of questions lead up to this type of behavior.

They also created a database for people to report when they potentially saw human traffickers or victims of human trafficking, and they won the congressional app challenge for their district. We got to meet them in Washington DC last year! And since I have a bit of time, I just wanted to share a video of another team who won our app challenge this year. This is a team from Texas who created a mental health journaling app with App Inventor and AI.

Jocelyn: Hi, I’m Jocelyn.

Jack: I’m Jack.

Jocelyn: And today we will be explaining Calmify and our inspiration behind this app was advocate for mental health wellness through a journaling system.

Jack: What makes our app unique is its special AI emotion detection. After we finish setting up this new user account, the first thing we’ll be greeted with is the journaling page and the different happy and sad emojis you see up there help the user to track their mood across past journal entries.

Jocelyn: Here are some different journaling scenarios, and a user will have the ability to record some roses, thorns, any emotions throughout their day.

Jack: They can also add a picture, really nice picture in my opinion, and they can add some activities they did during the day. And so after finishing up their journal entry and submitting, the app will take the journal entry and plug into OpenAI software to detect how the day was, what emotions filled it, loneliness, happiness, stress, for example and will recommend a personalized arrangement of features to help address any negative emotions present. If it’s a happy day, it might just congratulate the user. If it was a stressful one, it could recommend some stress relieving resources, and we will be going over these resources next.

Jocelyn: Here’s some modules and you can actually edit your profile. So your first module is a personal AI friend you can chat with.

Jack: Our next module or resource is the memory lane where you can view memories you added or the app added from your happy journal entries, and researchers have found that looking and reminiscing over your past happy memories can help improve one’s mood.

Jocelyn: All right, our next module is an activity planner. So based on the activity you have chosen, the app will design an activity plan based on your location.

Jack: Next are multiple music therapies you can use to calm yourself, meditate, or to help you fall asleep.

Jocelyn: Our next module are stress relief techniques, including paper ripping and pillow punching.

Jack: Finally, we have some help resources, including hotlines and what they’re about. You can dial from the app directly if you need to.

Jocelyn: Thank you.

Natalie Lao: I love this video and I love to share it with as many people as possible. In our app competitions, we encourage students to choose a problem they’re passionate about in their community. Over the past three years, we’ve seen a huge uptick in mental health related apps. This is just one of the amazing ones we’ve seen.

Jocelyn: Hi, I’m…

Natalie Lao: This is my last slide. We’d love for you guys to reach out and get involved. Our mailing list can be found at the bottom of our website appinventorfoundation.org. If you’d like to volunteer, there’s a lot of opportunities in judging for our Appathons. If you speak other languages, translating our open source education materials is also really helpful.

Our code base is open source, so if you want to get involved technically, we always welcome that. And if your company has a CSR program, we’d love to get in touch.

In the next month, we’re actually collaborating with MIT to launch their first global AI hackathon, and we’d love to have community judges sign up. If you’re interested, please reach out and sign up for our mailing list and I’d be happy to take any questions. Oh, yes. Yes, I saw the first question about how to get involved.

Yes, about IP protection. The creator of the app owns all of the IP. Most of the students who use our apps, they’re able to, sorry, who use App Inventor, they’re able to download the files and upload it to the Google Play Store or the Apple Store, and they own all of that. We don’t take any part of their profits. We’re completely nonprofit.

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

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