Sheridan prof teaches app building to all
Having first-hand insight into how time-consuming and labor-intensive it can be to build an app, Thakkar was admittedly surprised when one day, his 13-year-old son came home, proudly declaring that he had fully designed an app at school earlier that afternoon.
“For our students at Sheridan, building an app – especially for the first time – can take a full semester,” says Thakkar. “I was impressed by his speed, but also intrigued by his enthusiasm – that app development isn’t only something young professionals are interested in.”
The experience led Thakkar to discover the tool that helped his son create the award-winning app meant to help students prepare for spelling bees: the MIT App Inventor. The virtual programming platform, run by the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology, encourages budding programmers of all ages to create their own apps, often with the intent of tackling global challenges. With a focus on accessibility and innovation, and using simple drag and drop technology, can have an app up and running in less than 30 minutes.
Impressed by the platform’s efforts to democratize apps, making them available to everyone, Thakkar decided he wanted to help fulfill MIT’s mandate to empower kids to achieve social impact through technology. In 2017, he earned the title of MIT Master Trainer in Educational Mobile Computing – a certification designated by MIT that requires intensive training, including time spent at MIT’s Boston Campus. Today, thanks in part to professional development support from Sheridan, Thakkar is one of only three individuals in Canada to have that designation.
Part of Thakkar’s motivation in becoming a Master Trainer was to give school-aged children the same opportunities to play and experiment with technology as his son.
“It’s not as commonplace as you may think for a family home to have tablets and devices that are easily accessible,” he explains. “I sit on the Parent Involvement Committee of the Peel District School Board, so I see the range families in the Peel community, and the students that are marginalized.”
Thakkar decided to share his newfound knowledge through the MakerSpace Creative Hub – a joint venture between the City of Brampton, the Brampton Library and Sheridan College that provided free programming to introduce interested Bramptonians to engineering and technology concepts. Thakkar hosted drop-in sessions with several other Sheridan professors to teach whoever was interested how to build an app of their choosing, using MIT App Innovator and tech supplied by the library. “We’d see all sorts of school-aged children interested in learning about web and app development, but I also worked with small business owners – entrepreneurs who wanted to expand their business, and needed an app, but didn’t have the funding to hire someone or the knowledge to do it themselves.”
In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible to meet in person, Thakkar combined his desire to teach youth about computing with another passion: preserving the ancient language of Sanskrit. Teaming with a fellow master trainer in India and the Indian Institute of Technology, Thakkar hosted a hackathon encouraging participants to find ways to teach, promote and preserve the language. The workshop was attended by more than 500 participants worldwide.
Most recently, Thakkar has been hosting summer camps, teaching kids under 17 how to create an app as part of FAST’s programming under Sheridan’s Youth Amplified initiative. The MIT App Inventor Camp was one of the most well-attended virtual summer camps of Summer 2021. Anna Strachan, Acting Associate Dean of Sheridan’s Magana School for the Skilled Trades, says her young son was so excited by the camp that he attended it twice. “I hadn’t seen him that happy since the start of the pandemic,” Strachan said.
And in 2022, Thakkar and fellow FAST instructor Amandeep Kaur led the camp for a second year, with campers demonstrating their creations to each other to parents at the end of the week.
Thakkar hopes to teach app development to fellow faculty members and hold more virtual workshops in December, over Computer Science Education Week and the globally recognized “Hour of Code.”
“To see the sparkle in someone’s eyes when they realize they’ve made a functioning app is very exciting,” says Thakkar. “I’m just happy to be a conduit in making that happen and am willing to work in whatever way I can to spread that knowledge, whether it be through workshops, hackathons or training sessions.”
And while Thakkar recognizes it takes a few more steps to design an app the traditional way – the way he teaches in his Sheridan courses – he emphasizes to his students that if they learn the nuts and bolts of the development process, they can be the ones to create tools that help other new coders in the future.
“It’s one thing for young students in elementary school to be empowered to solve problems using plug and play platforms, or drag and drop tools, but I tell my students that they need to learn how to code from the ground up so that they can develop better, more advanced tools for the future. Tools that everyone can use, no matter their age or social standing.”
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