“Kids Are Human!” | MIT News

Professor Hal Abelson has dedicated his career to making information technology more accessible to all and empowering people – especially children – through computer science. But his storied career in computer science began when Abelson came to MIT in 1969 to pursue his interest in mathematics.

“What I want to remind students is that they don’t have to know what they’re going to do with the rest of their lives,” Abelson said. “I get a lot of emails from high school students asking what they should study, and I say, ‘Gee, you should try to do something that doesn’t even exist yet!'”

Today, Abelson’s work focuses on democratizing computer science and empowering children by showing them that they can make an impact in their communities through the power of technology. Throughout his career, Abelson has been instrumental in numerous educational technology initiatives at MIT, including MIT OpenCourseWare and DSpace, and serves as co-chair of the MIT Educational Technology Council. He is also a founding director of Creative Commons, Public Knowledge, and the Free Software Foundation.

Today, his App Inventor platform, which allows adults and children to create their own mobile applications, has more than 1 million active users.

“Making education — both content and tools — publicly accessible may seem like an obvious idea now, but it was truly unthinkable before Hal Abelson did it,” Fred Fort Flowers and Daniel Sanjay Sarma, Fort Flowers Professor of Mechanical Engineering and former Associate Professor. MIT Open Learning Chair. “Millions of students today are given the gift of learning on their computers and smartphones, and they may never realize that it all started with a wildly creative and courageous breakthrough from the past. Thank you, Hal!”

When smartphones started hitting the market in 2008, Abelson was on sabbatical at Google. The potential of these powerful yet small personal computing devices inspired him to create a platform that would enable children and adults without a background in computer science to create mobile phone applications. Abelson recalls that while working in the lab of the late Professor Emeritus Seymour Papert, he and his colleagues dreamed up the game-changing potential of smaller, more personal and affordable computers for children.

When Abelson came up with the idea for the App Inventor platform, he recalls that “mobile phones are going to have a huge impact on how people interact with computers. I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be cool if kids could actually program on these phones?”

Abelson’s work aimed at democratizing access to computing was largely inspired by his early experiences as a graduate student at MIT in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Fortunately, after enrolling at MIT, Abelson ran into a high school friend during student protests who suggested he check out the AI ​​Lab (predecessor to the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab). There, Abelson met Papert, a pioneering computer scientist known for his views that computing could be used as a teaching framework. Having just heard Papert speak on his vision, Abelson jumped at the chance to work with Papert.

While working as a researcher in Papert’s lab, Abelson worked on the development of Logo, the first programming language for children, which allowed users to program a turtle’s movements. Abelson went on to direct Apple Computer’s first implementation of Logo, which led to the widespread use of the programming language on personal computers beginning in 1981.

After graduating from MIT, Abelson became an instructor in the MIT Department of Mathematics, assisting the computer science course taught by the late Robert Fano, professor emeritus, while continuing his research with Papert. By the end of the semester, Fano emphasized to his students that computer programs and systems are really all about human-to-human communication. It was a radical concept from the ’70s, and one that Abelson took to heart.

Computation as a means of enabling human communication is a key concept that Abelson and Matsushita Professor of Electrical Engineering Gerald Sussman used to develop their course, “Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs.” Through the publication of a popular companion textbook and their lecture videos, the course is widely credited with influencing computer science courses around the world.

While continuing his work as a computer science researcher and educator, Abelson remains focused on finding new ways to help improve access to information technology because of his strong belief in educating people of all ages that they must use to effect change The importance of power in computer science.

Today, App Inventor has expanded significantly, with participants developing everything from tools to help people reduce their carbon footprint to apps designed to improve mental agility and mental health. Abelson noted that when young people are given the tools to create meaningful technology, they can come up with some incredible inventions. For example, students at an elementary school in Hong Kong developed an app designed to help elderly citizens with dementia by providing users with location information and other services when they need help. Abelson explained that the app stands out because when users need voice commands, they deliver them using recorded voices from family members, an example of the unique perspective kids can offer when creating computing tools.

Abelson and his colleagues are now planning the next phase of the App Inventor platform, including creating a foundation that will not only focus on giving students and educators the tools to create mobile apps, but also broad K-12 Lessons and more personalized lessons are designed to help teachers use the tools of the App Inventor platform in the classroom.

A key concept behind App Inventor, Abelson explained, is an idea called Computed Actions. “Computational activism is not just computational thinking, it’s really realizing that someone can use computing tools to do something that makes a difference in their life and the lives of their families.”

In the future, Abelson also hopes to help children use AI. He envisions a future where children around the world can experiment with and use AI technologies in the same way children help design experiments that end up on NASA space missions.

“Part of democratizing access to computing is realizing, oh my god, even kids can do it. Even kids can do serious stuff. That’s part of my vision for the future and what I’d like to see the App Inventor Foundation participate in part of it,” Abelson said. “I think we can really help make information infrastructure participatory so that even kids can be part of it. Kids are people too!”

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