March 26, 2008

Humanitarian projects and open source: Working together to revitalize computer sciences

Author: Tina Gasperson

Ralph Morelli, professor of computer science at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., has a double motive in spearheading the Humanitarian FOSS Project (HFOSS). The project's mission of providing free software development to help solve real-world social issues is a noble reason to rally the participation of college students who will spend their summers learning how to be part of the open source development community. But this NSF-funded project also hopes to show that humanitarian software development projects are a great way to revitalize undergraduate computing education.

Enrollment in US computer science programs has been declining in recent years, according to the National Science Foundation. NSF's Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) devised a special initiative, called CISE Pathways to Revitalized Undergraduate Computing Education (CPATH), to award grants to educators who are "creating new approaches" to computer science education.

HFOSS got its start after one of Morelli's former students, Trishan de Lanerolle, returned to Trinity after a vacationing in his homeland of Sri Lanka. "He came back and told me about Sahana, a disaster management and recovery system. He said he met some of the developers, and that this was an open source project. I had been getting interested in open source software, especially after reading in ACM a column by David Patterson, ACM's president. He said that undergraduate computer science curricula are not doing anything with open source, and we should be teaching it." Another column by Patterson that Morelli read, written soon after the Hurricane Katrina disaster, encouraged his readers to get out and help their neighbors.

"Computer science enrollments have been way down, and educators are scratching their heads saying, 'What can we do to get more students excited about CS?' This just seemed to be a real natural idea. It just seemed to click," Morelli says, "that yeah, maybe there was a way for our students to get involved in Sahana. Getting students involved in the open source movement and doing it in a way that helps the community taps into an existing community service culture at a lot of these campuses."

Morelli and de Lanerolle, now the HFOSS program director, received a $17,500 grant from The AidMatrix Foundation in the summer of 2006. Morelli rounded up half a dozen summer interns and found that they adapted easily to the LAMP architecture needed to support Sahana. "We found that our students could master the programming and systems management and project management skills that they needed to, and they were pretty enthusiastic about it." The Trinity interns teamed up with volunteers from Accenture Corp. and built a volunteer management module that became a permanent part of the Sahana project.

Morelli saw the potential for involvement in humanitarian-purposed open source software projects to completely revitalize the computer science program at Trinity and partner colleges Wesleyan and Connecticut College HFOSS applied for and was awarded a CPATH grant totaling $496,429.

Morelli says student response has been very good. "We have money for 10 summer interns for this coming summer and another 10 for next summer. We have more than 30 applicants for these 10 internship spots. We have a very strong pool of applicants, and we're happy that we have several female applicants. One of our goals is to try to attract a more diverse demographic to computer science. There's been some research to suggest that women sometimes respond better to the subject matter when it has an application they see as beneficial. That's what we're hoping will attract them. It's too early to make any conclusions about whether this approach will work more broadly, but we're pretty happy with the initial response."


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