OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

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Freshmen Develop Open Source Solutions

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Carlos Jensen has a problem with computers of today — “they are almost too polished,” he says.

Now an assistant professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Oregon State University, Jensen recalls his early programming days when the computer seemed like a blank slate — a few hours of programming and some imagination and you could come up with something that no one had seen before.

But for students today, who can buy or download just about any program they can imagine, it seems that everything cool has already been done. Or if it hasn’t been done the task is overwhelming.

Or is it?

Although computer programs have become so complex they are rarely accomplished by single person, teams of programmers can work together to create new innovative software. Open source is one such method of software development in which programmers freely share source code and work in a collaborative community of hundreds or even thousands of others.

There is a growing demand from companies like Intel Corporation and IBM for people trained in developing open-source software because it fosters rapid innovation at low cost.

Indeed, Jensen says that those students who have taken advantage of the training opportunities provided by the Open Source Laboratory at OSU gain rare skills which command large salaries when they graduate. Working in large groups, these students have contributed to important open-source projects such as Linux Kernel and Drupal.

So, the question Jensen has been tackling is: How to engage more students in open source earlier in their education? A three year grant from the National Science Foundation set him on his way to making this happen.

The first step was Beaversource, a platform where students can create collaborative projects but are spared the hassle of setting up and maintaining their own server. For example, the OSU robotics club used it to coordinate students from all branches of engineering to work on their Mars rover for the last three years, publishing their work live for everyone, including their competitors. It didn’t seem to hurt them any — last year they won first place.

“The cool thing is we are backhandedly teaching them how to use open-source tools,” Jensen says. “They take to it like fish to water.”

The OSU program is a role model for engineering programs focused on open-source software.

Another powerful teaching tool has been OSWALD (Oregon State Wireless Active Learning Device), developed at OSU by a team of engineering faculty and students. Contemporary features, such as a touch screen and an accelerometer, enable development of programs like those found in smartphones. But it is also a fully functional PC, just in a very small package — about the size of a portable gaming device.

And it’s made to be played with. The clear back makes the inner workings visible and invites curiosity. The schematics are published, so if someone does not like the antenna, for example, they can add their own.

OSU’s innovations and successes with open-source development got the attention of Intel Corporation, which is committed to supporting education and motivated to promote the skills and training they need for their industry. This year Intel Corporation is providing $210,000 to integrate Beaversource and OSWALD into the freshman curriculum at OSU.

“The earlier work gave us the tools to teach open source, and what Intel is helping us with now is polishing the concept and getting it to the point where we can realistically use it in every classroom,” Jensen says.

In a pilot program this year 14 high-achieving incoming computer science students in OSU’s Intel Open Source Learning Company worked hands-on with instructors and mentors to develop new open-source learning materials and programs that will become part of the computer science curriculum next year and contribute to open-source projects and research.

Computer science freshman, Emily Dunham, admits she was a little nervous when she first joined the Open Source Learning Company, wondering if her skills were up to the task, but has flourished in the program for which she now serves as a spokesperson.

She says the mentors encouraged everyone to follow their passion, which in her case was making the documentation and tutorials easier to understand for students who may have never programmed before. It is a way, she says, to promote diversity — the lack of which has lately been recognized as a national problem in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

“I feel that the work we’re doing through the Open Source Learning Company is going to help make the curriculum more approachable to people who we really need to have in these fields…it will allow more people to experience the benefits of electrical engineering and computer science,” she says.

In their projects, students use Intel’s emerging version of Linux, called MeeGo, and next generation Intel hardware. Any improvements they make will be shared with MeeGo’s open-source community, creating direct benefits for future consumers, Jensen says.

“The OSU program is a role model for engineering programs focused on open-source software, and will continue to grow the expertise and skills within the open-source community,” says Doug Fisher, vice president of Intel Corporation’s software and services group.

Next year, the program will be expanded to include the entire freshman class.

“The information gained this year will feed into next year’s courses and at the end of the two-year period we will have transformed the freshman experience to be more hands-on, more exciting in terms of technology, and more personally meaningful to the students,” Jensen says.

~ Rachel Robertson