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Early access to open source

Published Date: 
Friday, June 8, 2012

Carlos Jensen, assistant professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) at Oregon State University, recalls his early programming days when a few hours of programming and some imagination could produce state-of-the-art results. Today, computer programs have become so complex that they are seldom accomplished by a single person. 

Luckily, programming tools are evolving, too. Open-source software development makes it easier than ever to bring fresh ideas to fruition. Through open source, programmers freely share source code and work in collaborative communities of hundreds or even thousands of programmers. 
At Oregon State's Open Source Laboratory, students gain rare skills in collaborative programming. That's why Jensen and his colleagues at Oregon State are doing all they can to encourage more students to engage in open source earlier in their education. Their teaching tools include Beaversource, a platform where students can create collaborative projects, but are spared the hassle of setting up and maintaining their own server. For example, for the last four years the awardwinning Oregon State Robotics Club used Beaversource to work with students from all branches of engineering to build their Mars rover, with great success. 
"The cool thing is that we are backhandedly teaching them how to use open-source tools," Jensen said. "They take to it like fish to water." 
Another powerful teaching tool is OSWALD (Oregon State Wireless Active Learning Device), which was developed at Oregon State by a team of engineering faculty and students. OSWALD is a fully functional personal computer that comes in a very small package about the size of a portable gaming device. Contemporary features, such as a touch screen and an accelerometer, enable developers to create programs like those found in smartphones. 
Oregon State's successes with open-source development grabbed the attention of Intel Corporation. Intel actively promotes student learning, helping students to develop the skills and training they need to compete in a quickly changing industry. To support Oregon State's efforts to promote open source, Intel provides funding for a program called the Intel Open Source Learning Company (ILC). 
ILC gives high-achieving first-year computer science students an additional challenge by working hands-on with instructors and mentors to develop new open-source materials and programs that will become part of the computer science curriculum and contribute to open-source projects and research. 
"It's all about creating a healthy environment for software innovation and collaboration," said Alan Crouch ('86 CS), vice president of Intel's Service Provider Division, who was instrumental in getting the ILC off the ground. "Open-source platforms give us a foundation for rapid software development in industry and university collaboration. Shared goals, deep long-term relationships, and a clear vision for open-source innovation impact are the keys to success." 
Emily Dunham, one of the first computer science students in the program, admits that she was a little nervous when she joined the ILC in her first year, wondering if her skills were up to the task. Yet she flourished in the program and even served as its spokesperson. 
"Being part of the ILC was extremely beneficial to my confidence in my own technical skills, and helped me build valuable connections in OSU's open-source community," Dunham said. This year, she is working at the Open Source Laboratory, which is a coup for a second-year student. 
About half of the ILC's first cohort found placement in jobs or internships related to computer science. "In the past, we've lost some of the top students to other majors, so the best news has been that all the ILC students are still in computer science," Jensen said. "They formed a tight-knit group, which is exactly what we were trying to do." 
--Rachel Robertson