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Open Source and Computer Science Education

In his March 2006 column in the Communications of the ACM, ACM President David Patterson urged Computer Science (CS) educators to “Join the open source movement.” Despite the widespread use of the open source development model in the software industry, Patterson observed that “most schools still teach ‘write programs from a blank piece of paper’ programming.”

Patterson noted that students could be inspired and attracted to CS by getting engaged in open source development projects in the real world. That was in 2006. Today there are several college-based initiatives that have taken up Patterson’s charge. This article describes three such efforts.

In January 2006 as part of an independent study project, a small group of students and faculty at Trinity College downloaded the open source Sahana disaster management system, installed it on their server, and began studying the source code. Sahana was developed in Sri Lanka by a group of volunteer programmers in the immediate aftermath of the 2004/5 Asian Tsunami. Over the next several months the Trinity group designed and built a Volunteer Management module that was incorporated into the code base in December 2006.

In addition to learning how to manage and use the tools of the typical open source development environment such as Eclipse, Sourceforge, CVS, and SVN, Trinity students also learned how to interact with programmers and developers in Sahana’s development community, most of whom are based in Sri Lanka. Two students eventually went on to earn committer status in the Sahana project, thus becoming full-fledged members of the Sahana project team. You can’t really get more ‘real world’ than that. Continue reading.

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