How To: Founding an Open Source Software Center at a University


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Raising open source awareness in any organization is a very important, and sometimes difficult, task. Particularly important is open source awareness among college students. These are the engineers and computer scientists of the next generation who will be able to usher these modern practices into their workplace. This article discusses the process that was used to form the Rensselaer Center for Open Source (RCOS), a very successful open source center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).

The goal of an open source center is to engage students eager to change the world by developing innovations that could lead to next-generation open source platforms. The center should provide a creative, intellectual and entrepreneurial outlet for students to use the latest open source software platforms to develop applications that solve societal problems. Moreover, the center helps to provide a rich undergraduate experience by offering hands-on experience that positions students as tomorrow’s global citizens and leaders.

We have distilled our experience to a list of items that are necessary (but not necessarily sufficient) for the success of such a center:

1) Gather 20-40 eager undergraduate and graduate students committed to practicing and progressing open source software and ideology. This can be done using the normal student club channels, including advertising in the campus newspaper and listing the organization in any available student activities lists.

2) While a student club is better than nothing, they are often not officially recognized by universities. To make the open source center more official, gather a small team (around 3) of dedicated faculty members. They will share the burden of not only keeping the center on track and organized, but will also serve as liaisons to the university. The lead faculty advisor of RCOS reports to the Dean of Undergraduate Education to keep him informed of the activities of the center. With help from the students, the advisors maintain the center website, review project proposals, and facilitate student peer group meetings and discussions. As another example, by cooperating with the Web Technology Group student club, a free and open source digital signage project, Concerto, was born and became widely used at RPI and elsewhere.

3) Write reasonable proposals to funding agencies, alumni, and companies who may be interested in open source. This funding can support some student projects, as well as purchase any necessary
equipment.

4) Get the center’s faculty advisors or local corporate scientists to teach a course each year on open software practices. The course at RPI was featured here. This course should cover more formal aspects of open source, including licensing, meritocracy economics, and other software practices. This course not only provides a formal introduction to open source, but also provides another source of students for the open source center.

5) Interact with the local state and city government and involve students in projects to help the community. This will provide a good source of projects for students as well as good publicity for the center. For example, an RCOS student worked with a local fire department to create a fire department management system to allow them to digitally maintain records they had been maintaining on paper. This in turn allowed the department to focus more on their true responsibilities rather than filling out paper work.

6) Maintain a dashboard of student projects. This allows an outside observer to quickly see the types of projects the group is working on, and the quality of the work they are capable of.

7) Gain support from the university administration, including the registrar, the library, the computing center, and academic departments. This mutually beneficial relationship is exemplified in the cooperation that was necessary to complete the Course Scheduler project. This project pulls the latest course offerings from the university and allows students to create their ideal course schedules within the constraints of the course offering schedule.

8) Students learn most from their peers. To encourage this, we provide a virtual community space (a chat room) where students can ask for help, share their expertise, and bounce ideas off of each other. The immediate responses in this type of setting are always very well-received.

9) Provide opportunities for the students to listen to external speakers. By providing greater exposure, students will begin to network, leading to internships as well as other exciting opportunities like Google Summer of Code.

10 ) Select a small group of senior students to be peer mentors who will provide guidance and feedback to other students. These peer mentors will also come up with new project ideas and provide valuable support to the faculty advisers.

11) Provide some sort of refreshment (pizza, cookies, etc.) during meetings. Like it or not, food attracts students! While we would hope the students would be motivated on their own, if it takes a little bit
of encouragement to get them into the room, that's OK. Once they are there, the conversation and ideas will start to flow.

We hope that the above items provide a good starting point for other universities to start a similar center to RCOS. We are happy to further share our experience by answering any questions you may have. Just email rpiopensource@gmail.com, and good luck with your new open source center.

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4 Comments

joeythibault's picture
Open Minded

I'm curious what type of student is attracted to this extracurricular activity? Are the students generally in school for software development or similar fields, are there software novices and just students that want to be involved? Any info on the above questions would be appreciated.

Great article!

-Joseph

mskmoorthy's picture
Community Member

These students are in school (RPI) studying science (computer science, mathematics, information technology, physics), engineering (electrical engineering, computer engineering, civil engineering, mechanical engineering,aeronautical engineering) or humanities (science, technology studies, electronic media and arts). We try to encourage lower class men (freshmen, sophomores) to join. Some of the students are novices and some are experts and there is a liberal sharing of knowledge among them). Many of them do this outside of class work, and some students do it for credit. http://rcos.rpi.edu and the links there of give you a broad picture.

Mukkai S. Krishnamoorthy
http://rcos.rpi.edu

RemyD's picture
Open Source Evangelist

0) http://rcos.rpi.edu/donor

Granted, getting funding and support is a chicken-and-egg type situation. Bootstrapping via The Opensource Way to build a strong program in line with the principles and core values mentioned here, will indeed make this type of windfall more likely, but does not necessarily precede or even supersede community.

You folks at RPI are blessed, and it's great to see the impact your program is having. Sean's investment was a major piece of your particular puzzle, and definitely worth mentioning.

Remy DeCausemaker
Research Associate
Lab for Technological Literacy
Center for Student Innovation
Building 87-1680
Rochester Institute of Technology
Rochester, NY 14623

kjcole's picture
Open Minded

After many years of trying, a few of us have finally managed to get 6 students to actually come to a meeting to discuss the possibility of having a computer club... Open source isn't even on their radar yet, other than the fact they're the latest victims of a rant by that one crazy guy on campus who's has been talking about it incessantly for the past 18 years. [Said lunatic pleads the 5th.] ;-)

(We're a liberal arts school, with a low percentage of techies.)