Thunkable grew out of a research collaboration between Google and MIT, known as MIT App Inventor, which was inspired by MIT Scratch. Co-founders Arun Saigal and Weihua James Li took the premise of App Inventor, introduced it to a broader market and made it available to more students to learn how to build mobile applications.
As CEO, Saigal focuses his attention on the company's intent to help students become self-directed app creators. “We created a variety of tutorials that enable students to quickly walk through the app building process. At the same time, it’s very important to empower teachers and engage parents. We have extensive documentation and teaching materials for educators to guide students as needed. And we hope that parents are more engaged when students come home with their apps that they can actually test on their own devices.”
Saigal knows the importance of managing and growing the Thunkable team with the purpose of delivering a streamlined product to both teachers and students. “A primary focus of mine is making sure we are all aligned on our vision, and making sure that Thunkable is the best place for anyone to work.”
On Thunkable, a student can design and build apps using a simple drag and drop interface. An editor page allows users to easily organize and customize different features, including color, font, and shape. Students then program the functionality of their apps using blocks. Each Thunkable block represents different lines of code. When the blocks are “thunk’d” together, the user is creating different connections and functionality within the app. The apps are then downloaded directly to personal devices or uploaded to the Google Play Store or App Store.
“Anyone can tell you, when you learn to code, you spend a lot of time learning the syntax behind programming languages and building simple things that are not particularly interesting. It’s not fun. It’s not exciting,” explains Saigal. “For everyone on our team, we had all dealt with this problem. And with traditional coding education, it takes a long time before you can build something meaningful.”
Teachers include Thunkable in their classroom to help teach a subject. Students build an app to help them understand a concept within the subject of a class such as History or Math. The process is not difficult for the teachers or students. With Thunkable it is easy for the students to build code for their app. “We created a tool that teaches students to code by building something they would actually use, and allow them to instantly download projects to their phones and upload them to app stores,” explains Saigal. “Our focus is really on the students, helping students become self-directed app creators. To do this, we created a variety of tutorials that enable students to quickly walk through the app building process.”
Once the students build something they are usually enthusiastic about programming. “They didn't necessarily think they were a developer and all sudden, they have been able to actually build something and see it live on their phone. And that's incredibly powerful. So our goal is to get them to that point as quickly as possible in school so they’re actually seeing and interacting with something on their phone,” explains Saigal.
At the same time, Saigal knows the importance of empowering teachers and engaging parents. “We have extensive documentation and teaching materials for educators to guide students as needed. And we hope that parents are more engaged when students come home with apps they can actually test on their own devices, and we have terrific partners that are working to empower students around the world. We are honored to be partnered with the Congressional App Challenge, the Hour of Code, Technovation, and the National Science Foundation.”
Using Thunkable, students build the apps with a purpose in mind. For example, four students during an after-school program from Holyoke Public Schools built an anti-bullying app. Two high school students from Grants Pass, Oregon built an app called “Dice” that is currently the #1 ranked dice app on the Google Play Store. Their app allows users to customize different combinations of a die, shake their phones to roll and have the app speak results out loud. The app has over 500,000 downloads worldwide. “We're the only tool that allows you to build a native iPhone and Android app. We teach kids to learn to code. And they can also actually put something on their own device, which is really special,” adds Saigal.
According to Saigal, one in one thousand will learn how to develop an app through the standard programming tools available today. “Thunkable is empowering everyone to go from being a passive consumer to being an active creator of their own technology. We created a tool that teaches students to code by building something they would actually use, allowing them to instantly put their own apps on their phones and upload them to the app stores. Instead of worrying about where the semicolon or indentation goes, they can focus their energy on the big picture of what they are trying to build,” concludes Saigal.