GNU high school: teaching kids by contributing to open source

Today I'd like to spotlight TurnKey's unlikely relationship with Chelsea School, a high school in suburban Maryland. I'm going to try to tell this story on two levels:

  1. The straightforward who-what-why.
  2. Why you should care.

I'll start with the latter. If it works maybe you'll stick around for the full story.

Kids collaborate with NASA, discover cave on Mars

Recently, a 7th grade science class, using the raw data from a NASA satellite, made a remarkable discovery: a mysterious cave on Mars.

I found myself fascinated not only by the discovery itself and what it means for future Mars exploration, but also in how it was made. A discovery on another planet, made not by a team of highly credentialed professionals, but a bunch of kids! When I was in middle school this sort of thing could only happen in a cartoon. But it's 2010, and this is real life.

Granted this isn't the sort of thing that happens every day. But I think it questions the assumption that school kids can only learn by being spoon fed cookie-cutter, artificial assignments that bare little resemblance to real work, at least until they graduate.

What if instead we could teach kids by challenging them with authentic assessments? Real solutions to real problems, and not just in science where the bar to making new contributions is often set very high...

Open source and education: a match made in heaven?

All over the world millions of kids are studying computers and technology. Imagine what a difference we could make if we could figure out how to help the open source community embrace that opportunity.

What if we could help kids explore how computer systems in the real world work in a friction-less playground that allows them to crack open the box, explore its insides and tinker.

Imagine if with a bit of guidance we could teach them how to leverage open source and the unprecedented wealth of knowledge Google puts at their fingerprints to learn autonomously faster and better than we could ever spoon feed them with traditional methods.

Before you know it kids will be applying what they've learned and using open source to solve real problems in their environment. Remember, you don't have to be an experienced developer to add value to the open source community. There are many ways to contribute. Especially now that there is such an abundance of free components that often the real challenge is in discovering the good stuff and figuring out what to mix and match to get stuff done.

A pipe dream you say? Our recent experience suggests otherwise...

Chelsea School: greater expectations

Let me get something off my chest. I tried not to show it, but when Rik Goldman, an English teacher at Chelsea School, started posting to the TurnKey forums I was initially somewhat skeptical.

Chelsea School is a school that specializes in teaching students with language-based learning disabilities. Rik was in the process of guiding 6 students in their attempt to leverage off-the-shelf open source software to solve a real problem they had encountered: how to serve audible editions of assigned texts to students who would otherwise have difficulty accessing these materials.

The students had decided to focus their efforts on Ampache, a streaming audio and video server which they setup to serve as a compromise between text-to-speech software and an actual human reader.

They made it happen. In fact, not only did they leverage open source successfully in solving their local problem, they embraced the open source spirit, took the initiative and worked with us to help make it easy for everyone to use Ampache.

Chelsea School students realized that setting up an open source based solution like Ampache can require technical skills that would scare off your typical school. Not content with just solving the problem for themselves the students built and configured a virtual appliance in which Ampache was pre-installed and pre-configured on top of Ubuntu, a popular Linux distribution.

This made it possible to distribute and run a fully functional Ampache server from a USB key drive.

If that wasn't remarkable enough they then proceeded to develop and document a high-quality patch that would allow us to add Ampache to the next release of the TurnKey Linux Virtual Appliance Library.

Their patch automatically installs the required software components and then configures filesystem permissions, the Apache web server, MySQL database, and the Samba file sharing service. We couldn't have done it any better ourselves and we're supposed to be experts.

Frankly, this impressed the heck out of me.

This was no toy assignment. It's a working technology product that thousands of other users all over the world will use. An authentic assessment of the skill involved in planning, developing and implementing an innovation. A genuine achievement.

And they did it the same way we would do it. By googling, reading technical documentation, and consulting with others in the community. That along with a willingness to experiment through trial and error.

Then, as if to show us this was no accident, in the following weeks they would do it again and again with Elgg and LimeSurvey.

Allow me to emphasize that when they started out these high school students had no prior exposure to Ubuntu or Linux.

According to Rik, the students reacted strongly to working with Ubuntu and the open source community. They were keenly interested in the community development process and were eager for feedback regarding their contributions. They read excerpts from Stallman on the philosophy behind the free software movement, and signed the Ubuntu Code of Conduct.

Four of the six students even committed to maintaining the appliances as Ampache matures, even after they've left Chelsea School.

Meet the Chelsea School team

Rik Goldman: trained as an English professor, Rik formerly taught University and College literature and composition classes. Today Rik teaches English and technology at Chelsea School's high school division, which predominantly serves students with language-based learning disabilities that can have profound effects on reading comprehension and writing fluency. Besides literature, Rik has always been interested in computers, dabbling with everything from web development to system administration. This eventually led him to transition from English professor to instructional technologist and it's through this experience that Rik lost his tolerance for proprietary, closed software in education.

Adrian Madison: a junior interested in pursuing a career in Information Technology. At home his personal computer is now running Ubuntu and he's happiest learning new command line arguments. Adrian is hoping for a summer internship where he can put his new skills to use.

Curtis Fawcett: a senior in the software class that is debating between a major in English and a major in engineering. He's an avid reader with an incredible memory and a natural strength for critical thinking and analysis. He's putting these assets to use by taking a college class in CAD during his senior year. Curtis now runs Ubuntu on his home computer.

Jerel Moses: also in the software class, is enthusiastic about Ubuntu and the possibilities it offers for customized distribution. Jerel is simultaneously pursuing course work in web and graphic design. If he chooses to pursue a career in technology, he'll be the third generation of computer techs in his family.

Maurice Quarles: a junior whose at his best navigating a GUI efficiently to perform OS tasks and maintenance. Maurice is interested in pursuing a career in game design.

Steven Robinson: currently a freshman in the hardware class. He's the first student to start the Info Systems course while only in middle school and has a strong memory regarding hardware components and specifications. Steven's laptop is now running Ubuntu.

David Walton: a freshman, interested in pursuing a career in game design. He kept the team laughing when they ran into problems, and insists that when Windows XP shuts down, it's singing "have a nice day". David, like Steven, is an avid gamer and is eager to start a career in game design.

Plans for the future

Rik's plans include teaching more students about technology through authentic assessments. Starting an open source lab right in the school, and expanding the IT curriculum to include more advanced studies of Linux and the basics of programming/scripting languages such Bash, Python and PHP.

How do we scale this up?

Chelsea School has proven teaching students by contributing to open source can be a win-win for both education and the open source community.

In my mind the main question now is, how do we scale this up? How do we bring together more schools and open source projects? Just imagine if we can figure out how to make this happen on a large scale, what a difference we could make.


luke's picture

At Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia, we've got a GNU/Linux LTSP lab set up using Ubuntu Linux, and have a fairly thriving hacker community. (or so we like to think) At the nearby Arlington Career Center, we have summer classes in Scratch and Python programming, and are working on introducing more students into problem solving via OSS development. SchoolTool was developed here, and we're working on releasing an application for volunteer time tracking that's used by the local NHS. 

If you ever plan on expanding this program to more schools, shoot me an email!

Luke Faraone
Student, Ubuntu MOTU, Debian Maintainer

Liraz Siri's picture

Yorktown high school sounds awesome! I wish Python was taught when I was in high school. I had to suffer through Pascal. Ugh.

You know, I bet there's another great story to be told regarding the work you've been doing over at Yorktown bringing together open source and education. Sharing it might be a good way to light the way for other schools. Maybe even start a movement...

Also, there isn't exactly an official "program" per-say, but we'd love to help get additional schools involved in a similar framework though I'm not sure exactly how to reach out to additional schools.

Jeremy Davis's picture

I've made no secret previously about how impressed I am with what Rik's been doing but its great to see it so nicely written up all in one piece. I think its fantastic what Rik is able to offer these guys. Being able to allow students to actually create real world solutions rather than mickey mouse projects I think is fantastic. And what a confidence boost it must be for these students to have their product out in the public arena. Its exciting to hear others are looking at similar possibilities in their areas. I don't see how proprietry software could offer the same experience.

Great work Rik, great work students, great work Liraz & Alon. Turnkey Linux - what a team!!

Your encouragement throughout the process was enough to get us to overcome some of our most difficult obstacles. Your dialog is the purest example of what a strong community can look like that I can imagine.

My thanks to Liraz and the rest of the community for your feedback, encouragement, and suggestions.

AddiyaB's picture

Wow! They are so great! You can seldom see kids like that nowadays. They are truly a proud of the school and especially their parents. Congratulations for the parents for raising their children well. Understanding universe and the bodies of it needs a lot of understanding and patience. Imagine that you are imagining yourself being one of the sand grain. That's amazing. This kids should be given special assignments and studies because I can see that they are having a great future on their hands.

Chintan Kanadia's picture

Nice One, we are trying for same in India


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