How to set up an open source scholarship at your university

By establishing a scholarship program at your favorite college or university, you can help launch the next generation of open source developers.
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How to set up an open source scholarship

Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

Have you ever considered helping the next generation of developers take their first steps into the wonderful world of open source?

By offering a scholarship or award, you can help students—some of whom may have never considered sharing their work—join the open source community. Whether these students are aspiring open source software developers or enthusiasts of music, movies, beehives, or buildings, sharing a little upfront can help foster the open source talent of tomorrow.

Here's how to start your open source scholarship, in five easy steps:

1. Contact the development office at your chosen university

This is painless—institutions are eager to help their students, and most can provide a draft document for your scholarship and help you personalize it.

The most coveted scholarships, of course, are those that provide full tuition. (Many students in the U.S. take on monstrous debt to finance their education and will appreciate any financial assistance.) In countries like Finland, where education is free, you might consider offering tools or other prizes instead of cash. However, a scholarship of any size or type can make a difference to a hard-working student. If you choose to offer something other than a cash scholarship, make sure your award is of value to a student. For example, my research group sponsors an open source 3D printer for the top incoming students at Michigan Tech. Most students would be interested in products like open source phones, tablets, laptops, and e-bikes.

2. Work with the university's rules and regulations

Financial scholarships or awards of in-kind products are often tax-deductible, which could enable you to be more generous. A scholarship is considered a charitable donation if the fund it goes into is tax-exempt. If this is important to you, be sure to obtain a receipt with the institution's federal identification number. This approach is also a great incentive for your company to consider matching your gift.

Be sure to clearly establish and communicate the eligibility requirements for your scholarship or award. You could base these strictly on grades or academic achievement, or on something more targeted, such as students who are studying a specific subject or who come from a particular community or state.

3. Set an application deadline

When choosing a deadline for applications, keep in mind that students have busy schedules. Be sure to allow enough time between the announcement of the award and the deadline for students to complete the application process. Also, give yourself ample time to carefully review the applicants, and plan a time for the award announcement. The first year, it will likely be difficult to anticipate how many entries you will receive (the university may be able to help you with this), but in subsequent years the number will become more predictable, and you may need to alter the guidelines to manage the process.

4. Work with the university on the application process

Keep the application as simple as possible. To encourage the open source philosophy, ask applicants to submit their original work into the creative commons as the primary requirement. CodaLab Competitions on Github is one of many tools that can help with this. Some companies offer a platform for competitions, such as GrabCAD Challenges.

For example, working with the Appropedia Foundation, we requested that students do the following:

1. Create a free user account on Appropedia, the largest collaborative website dedicated to sustainability, appropriate technology, poverty reduction, and permaculture.

2. Choose a project you completed during high school that made the world a better place and that would be useful for others to replicate. Then share it with the world!

3. Create a page documenting your project on the wiki Appropedia. If you haven't used a wiki before, see the help page and practice editing your own user page. Projects can be in any discipline—here are some examples:

  • Share code written for an overseas humanitarian medical project

  • Describe how to improve the fuel efficiency of your car

  • Share how to organize a tutoring center for young children or peers

  • Provide open hardware documentation/instructions for unmanned aerial vehicles built to monitor forest fires

  • Share how to start a recycling program or organize a highway cleanup in your area

  • Explain how to test for pollutants in a local river

  • Share how to educate your peers with a song or video made to promote a social cause

  • Document how to start a business with social benefits

  • Share how you cut your summer job’s energy use by convincing your boss to do LED retrofits

  • Show how your art project inspired or educated people about human trafficking

  • Share how to grow a successful garden in the UP

4. Apply by submitting your project page (for us, a short half-page application set up by Michigan Tech Admissions).

5. Spread the word

When you have set up your process, ask the university to add your scholarship to their website, and if applicable, to email qualified students directly. You may also consider using conventional advertising routes. Finally, if you have the time and resources, create a short video to attract potential applicants.

A final note: If your scholarship succeeds, consider setting up an endowed scholarship fund in which interest from your fund is used for your scholarship every year in perpetuity. This is a great way to leave a legacy, and it offers obvious tax benefits.

Good luck!

Joshua Pearce
Joshua M. Pearce is the John M. Thompson Chair in Information Technology and Innovation at the Thompson Centre for Engineering Leadership & Innovation.

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