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An ending and a beginning….

January 12, 2011

I’ve been on semester break since mid-December and I’ve used some of the time to reflect on my experiences in involving students in the Caribou project as well as plan for going forward.

The fall 2010 semester ended in success with the Software Engineering teams presenting their final reports. Students contributed new keyboards and other enhancements to Caribou. We held advertised the demonstrations and students created some very professional presentations.


Justin Duperre, Todd Binger and Jon Polaski presenting Caribou enhancements.

I was very proud of the effort that students put in, and while they may have been disappointed to not have code integrated into the larger project by the end of the class, I thought they did a great job in learning Caribou and in making enhancements. I was also proud of the way that students took on new technology. We all started the course knowing nothing about Caribou and little or nothing about GNOME and students jumped in and figured out how GNOME worked and how Caribou fits into AT.

Tony Tran, Brian Palasz and Andrew McGrath presenting future directions for Caribou.

I’ve spent the past several weeks thinking about what went well in the course and what didn’t. I am teaching a follow-on course, Advanced Software Engineering, this spring and we will continue to work in the OSS world. However, I have few lessons learned that I’ll apply both to this spring’s course as well to future offerings of the Software Engineering course:

  1. Get students more directly involved in the projects. I felt like in the first coruse I was too much of an intermediary in the communications and students need to be more immersed in the project.
  2. Have students take ownership of a portion of a project. Towards the end of last semester, I think that some students started to realize that they could make a meaningful contribution. I’d like this realization to come earlier in the course.
  3. Spend more time clearly identifying a portion of the project to be worked on, perhaps by picking a bug to fix. We spent a fair bit of time in the fall figuring out what needed to be done in the project and what we should do.
  4. Do more small-group meetings and individualized learning. This will give me a better idea of where students are in their learning as well as give students more space to ask questions. I can do that this semester as I’ll have a small group.

Right now I’m trying to decide whether to continue to focus on Caribou this next semester or to allow students to pick an OSS project of their choice. I’d like to provide some flexibility, but I don’t have the time to understand lots of OSS projects at a detailed level. And should we keep students in teams or shall we use the OSS environment as the team experience? Classes start January 18th so we’ll be embarking on this new adventure soon!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 18, 2011 9:49 am

    Are there some hackers from within GNOME that can be dedicated contact points for your students (not necessarily holding office hours or being on call, but committing to answering every student email they get during a 10-week period within 24 hours, for instance)? If so, I’d say yes, stick with it! (If there are students from the past semester who are able and willing to be these mentors, that’s the best case imo; though they’re GNOME hacking novices, they’ll have their feet wet and can bridge well between WNEC and the online community, plus leadership development and all the usual good stuff there.)

    If not, if you can get that commitment from some other open source project, I’d go for that one. It’s the in-project mentorship that seems most difficult to get… if you’d like, I can ask people on the GNOME and Fedora planets if they can advertise for mentors for your students.

    It would also help to articulate some sort of reciprocal benefit for them. “Here’s what the students can do coming in, and the work we completed last semester, so you can see the sort of work we’ll do if you give us a hand up working on the part of the project you’re interested in.” Maybe even specifically ask for tickets, or for people to join you on IRC (or over the phone, etc.) on the initial class day to help you select a problem to solve.

    I’m not sure if these are coming too late since your class apparently starts today, but I’m curious to hear how it went. Let TOS know? 😉

    • January 22, 2011 3:43 pm

      Thank you for the helpful comments! This time around, I have only students who were with me last semester and I’ve decided to let them choose their own projects. They’re experienced enough with OSS projects to know how to get started and I think they’ll be more motivated if they’re picking something they want to work on. And I’m proud to say that four of the five students already have identified contacts within HFOSS projects and are scoping out their projects. One student is working on GNOME AT OCRFeeder, one on OpenMRS, and a team of two are working on the The Spatiotemporal Epidemiological Modeler (STEM) Project. So far so good!

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