Quality In High School Students and Their Teachers


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Mar 30, 2010 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

A couple of weeks ago I went to Souhegan High School in Amherst, New Hampshire to vote, and while there talked with their computer technical person (they are mostly a windows shop, but also have MACs) and offered to do a presentation to the students and faculty on FOSS and free culture.

They asked their Community Service Coordinator, Ms. Maggie Paul to arrange it.

Ms. Paul arranged for 16 students, selected by their teachers, to come to a classroom at lunch time and hear my 45 minute talk. Also attending were Ms. Paul, the Community Service Coordinator, the technical person from Souhegan and a coordinator from another school in the area, since that schoool had just gotten an application that ran on a local Linux server.

Ms. Paul also supplied homemade Tacos, cookies and soda (both Coke and Mountain Dew) and made arrangements for an LCD projector.

I brought Fedora CDs donated by Red Hat and T-shirts donated by O'Reilly. Special thanks to Brian Stevens, CTO of Red Hat, Inc. and John Flanagan, the Director of Release Configuration Management for Red Hat, who had the Fedora CDs shipped overnight to Westford, Massachusetts. John then drove the CDs and some Fedora stickers up to a meeting place so the students could have nicely printed Fedora CDs instead of what I would have burned in my CD-ROM burner. I had known both Brian and John for many years at Digital Equipment Corporation, and their “extra mile” meant a lot.

I was warned by the school staff that these were "high school students" and it was "hard to keep their attention". I started with a slide that showed five people that did amazing things with FOSS before they were 22 (one as young as 11), most of whom are now very successful and one of whom was a former student of Souhegan. Further in the talk I showed a high school in Curitiba, Brazil that had built their own computer lab from cast-off, donated computers, and how they had “learned twice” from that experience.

I had to go very quickly to get through the talk, only had time for about three questions (all of the questions were good) before they had to go off to their next class. The staff was amazed that there was rapt attention paid through the entire session.

Ms. Paul asked if I would be interested in giving a course in FOSS for their adult evening program. I explained that my travel schedule usually prohibits long scheduled sessions, but I would be happy to put together some one or two day "workshops" that could be presented on the weekends. The school has a nice lab filled with relatively new machines. I pointed out that with the correct software we could teach either high performance computing or "cloud" computing just by putting the right software on the machines.

Ms. Paul took lots of pictures of the group, and said that I could use one of the pictures in my blog talking about the experience.

Finally, I also left at the school library a Fedora CD and a copy of “Crafting Digital Media” by Daniel James, which shows how to use FOSS to create audios and videos, something that I thought the majority of the students might like.

Before he left with his T-shirts and Fedora CD, Ryan Stack, one of the students, asked me which language I would recommend as a "first language". I told him "Python", and later (through email) I helped Ryan find the proper packages for python on the Fedora 12 CD. He had been trying to install Python from the source code package and "having problems". I directed Ryan toward Yum and Fedora's graphical installation menus. He did manage to get Adobe Flash installed completely by himself even before he called me.

I told Ryan that the Python Special Interest Group (PySIG) was going to have their monthly meeting the following night and that he might want to go and introduce himself. He looked at the schedule and said that he might go to the “new users” part of the meeting, from 6:30 P.M. To 7:00 P.M. He had such a good time (managing to write his first Python program, and therefore his first program ever, there at the meeting) that he stayed almost to 8:30 P.M. He then excused himself so he could go home to do his homework, but before he did I took a picture of his first PySIG meeting. While I will not point him out specifically, I will give you a hint that he is neither female nor does he have any grey hair. That eliminates everyone else in the picture (and me, behind the camera).

I continue to receive emails from Ryan, usually with short, concise questions or observations that I answer.

I have also received an email from another student, a senior, that lamented they did not have more computer science classes at their high school.

To this second student I wrote back and said:

I too would like to see more computer science classes at Souhegan.

Unfortunately a lot of times classes in public schools are limited by budgets, time slots and other pressures. And, as a senior you might not be able to benefit from those future courses directly.

As a future Souhegan alumni, you should make your voice heard for future students.

Part of my message to the attendees that day was that Free Software (and Free Culture) allows you to take control of your own education, and that learning does not have to be dull and boring.

Friday I am going to visit the Milford, New Hampshire High school and try to schedule the same talk. I hope to get enough students in the area to formulate a group of School Linux User Groups (hmmm, I just realized they would be “SLUGS”) who might then meet at least once a month off-campus to try and attract a good speaker.

Next week I will approach a Community College in the area for the “off site” meeting place.

I know that there are other FOSS people that reach out to students in this fashion, and this was not the largest group of students, but as I said in my blog yesterday, it is not the size of the group that matters, but the quality. I met a quality group of students, faculty and staff at Souhegan.

My thanks to Maggie Paul, Jeff Hall, John Routa and the rest of the staff of Souhegan for putting this together. And once again thanks to John Flanagan and Brian Stevens of Red Hat, Inc.

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