Blockly Summit 2024 Recap

Jun 10, 2024 evan's Blog

Last week I went to Mountain View, CA to visit our friends on the Google Blockly team and to speak about the work we have been doing at App Inventor on generative AI, both in how block environments can invoke generative AI models as well as using generative AI models to code with blocks.

Blockly is a popular library for building web based block environments and is used by many different projects like Scratch,, and Microsoft MakeCode. However, it started its life as a replacement for App Inventor’s original block editor when App Inventor was a Google project. Over the years, the App Inventor and Blockly teams have collaborated closely on development, and we’re glad to continue to nuture that relationship via the Blockly Summit.

A picture of MIT App Inventor contributors taken at Blockly Summit 2024.

Pictured (L-R): Songlin Jain, Google Summer of Code with App Inventor participant (2022) and mentor (2024); Evan Patton, Lead software engineer for MIT App Inventor; Beka Westberg, previous Google Summer of Code participant (2020) and now Blockly team member; Mark Friedman, Technical lead of Google App Inventor and now at the App Inventor Foundation.

I conducted a 30 minute workshop on Aptly, our effort to bring generative AI coding capability to App Inventor. We started with an overview of App Inventor’s mission of computational action and how it has been realized to date by our over 21 million users. We believe that generative AI will be an important catalyst to further this mission. Attendees then got to see Aptly in action and try it out for themselves in a live coding demo that involved building a generative AI app to answer questions using Google Gemini via App Inventor’s ChatBot component.

The Summit program included talks from breadth of knowledge, including technical presentations from the Blockly team, artificial intelligence and block programming, and from curriculum developers and practioners using block based programming. We heard stories from folks like Shireen Hafeez, founder of Deaf Kids Code, sharing her experiences working with students with hearing impairments and an impassioned call for more accessible coding opportunities. Eric Rosenbaum of Scratch showed some of the latest AI features they’ve recently added, which lead into my talk about integrating AI as a block coding assistant. Josh Caldwell, a former middle school teacher who now works on learning design at Google, delightfully engaged the audience to think about different techniques for curriculum development in block environments. We also got to see applications of blocks to both real and virtual environments with demos from the Microbit Foundation and Microsoft (Minecraft Education edition).

One key thing that was mentioned multiple times, and has been a sticking point over the years, is the reiteration of the claim “blocks are just for kids.” I take issue with this for two reasons. Firstly, it assumes that environments that use blocks to program a device are somehow inferior to environments that use text. But pretty much every block environment I’ve seen has sufficient semantics to be Turing complete, and tools like App Inventor even compile down to build products that can be deployed to the Google Play Store and Apple App Store (App Store support is in beta and some beta testers have successfully published apps). Secondly, there’s a connotation in the statment “blocks are just for kids” that seems to imply that kids can’t do meaningful things (otherwise, why would being “for kids” matter?). Yet, the our team has seen so many examples of kids identifying real world problems and building solutions to those problems with App Inventor. Every leader in technology today was once a child, and today’s kids will be tomorrow’s technology leaders if given the right tools.