There is a huge push in our schools to introduce learners to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and to cultivate student interest in STEM. The reason is obvious. These are fields of technology that will be generating jobs in the future as well as making our world a better place. So, why do I say that STEM education and open source is a match made in heaven? Let me elucidate.
First of all, there is an enormous volume of open source software that involves STEM in one at least one capacity. Better still, many of these applications are free! Looking at the screenshot at left, we see the author’s session in Synaptic, a software management application for Ubuntu Linux. In the lower left-hand corner of said screenshot, we can see that my search for “math” generated 855 hits. Granted, not all of these are necessarily developed for elementary or secondary classroom use, but you’re sure to find an application that will meet your needs and pique your students’ interest.
One strong argument is the variety of applications available to help students learn computer programming. There is almost literally something for every taste. My regular readers will know what a big fan I am of Colobot. The premise is that you are an astronaut preparing a planet for colonization. Towards this end, you have programmable robots at your disposal. They just need instructions (programming) in order to do their jobs. The screenshot to the right shows Colobot’s Program editor window. For the artistic, KTurtle, part of the KDE Education Project, allows users to enter code to create colorful patterns. Laby gives the user a chance to troubleshoot and guide a robot ant through a maze, avoiding or overcoming obstacles. Laby even allows users to select from a variety of programming languages with which to work. Etoys integrates art and computer programming by allowing users to create pictures and then to animate these pictures using Squeak, Etoys integrated programming language. There are other applications, so please shop around to find one that you believe would best stimulate your students’ inner programmers.
Another supporting point for my claim is the number of programming languages available with the installation of an open source operating system, like Linux or BSD UNIX. Among these are C, C++, Python, Perl, Java and Ruby, which are among the better known, but there are others as well. Your students can use the above applications to learn to write computer programs and then chose a language through which their newly attained programming skills can be applied. Each language has its strengths (Perl, for example, is ideal for working with strings of text). I think the best approach is to help students select the programming language that best matches what kind of program that they would like to write..
Probably the strongest argument for my claim is that open source, by its nature, invites the curious. As users, students have a right, under the GPL (GNU Genreal Public LIcense), to change the software with the intention of improving it. For example, in Colobot, users can customize their astronaut (hair color, sunglasses, etc.). The one thing that can’t be customized is the gender of the astronaut. It’s always a man. We need a female astronaut as an option. How cool would it be to be able to say that your students created a female astronaut for Colobot? Or added enhancements to other pieces of open source software? Students could look at the development history of the software and see their contribution listed. How’s that for a well-deserved feeling of accomplishment? It might take a little time to find open source software that your STEM students will love, but the rewards will be worth it.
Breijs, C. (2017). KTurtle [computer software]. KDE Education Project: GNU General Public License.
Colobot [computer software]. (n.d.). GNU General Public License.
Etoys [computer software]. (n.d.). GNU Genreal Public License.
Laby [computer software]. (n.d.). GNU General Public License.
Vogt, M. . Synaptic [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
One of the two people who reviewed my book on Amazon stated that he was disappointed as he expected a collection of lesson plans with open source technology integrated into them. My line of thought was that I’d put enough effort into researching, organizing and presenting the book’s contents that I really didn’t want to construct lesson plans to go with the software. Here, I attempt to amend this. This activity incorporates science (ecology), mathematics and physical fitness. As this involves going outside, choose a week when the weather looks most cooperative.
This would work best with students in primary grades, but could be modified for intermediate-level students with ease. The best time for this is at the height of the fall season, when plenty of leaves litter the ground. Each student will need a plastic grocery bag or food storage bag. Each student will also need a Leaf Sorting Sheet (see below) and access to an electronic spreadsheet. In keeping with the open source theme of this blog, I chose LibreOffice Calc, but any such application will do. At the end of this article there are links to download the Leaf Sorting Sheet, in ODT format, and the Leaf Tally Sheet spreadsheet, which is in ODS format and can be used as a template to design your own. Note that the species of trees listed on these two items are indigenous to the northeastern United States, so please feel free to adapt them to match species found in your vicinity.
Introduce the activity by asking if anyone knows what a safari is. Tell your students that we’ll be going out to the playground on a leaf safari and, in so doing, will learn a little about local ecology. They are to collect as many leaves as they can, but they should try to select a variety of leaves. When we’re finished, we’ll take a look at what we’ve got and make spreadsheets and graphs showing our findings.
Head out to the playground, preferably between recesses, so your students will have fewer distractions. Give them 20 minutes to complete this task. They can work with a partner, if desired. At the prearranged time, call them back and head back to the classroom. Each student/group will need a Leaf Sorting Sheet. Give the students 10 minutes to sort their leaves and be prepared to answer any questions that may arise regarding leaf types and sorting practices.
When the sorting is finished, you can have your students open the spreadsheet that you have previously created. I’d suggest using mine as a template and make any changes needed to it. Anyway, each student, or group of two students, should have his or her own spreadsheet into which they will enter the quantity of each collected leaf type. When done, guide the students, if necessary, preferably using a projector connected to your computer, through the chart creation process. This will provide them with a graphical representation of their leaf collections. These graphs can be printed and put on display in the classroom. For closure, ask students what they may have learned while doing this activity. Were some species of leaves more prevalent? What does this tell you about the kinds of trees that grow in this area? Now that you now how to put data into a spreadsheet and to create graphs, in what other tasks could you use these tools?
I hope you’ll find this activity useful and that you and your students both enjoy and learn from it. I welcome any comments or ideas.
So what is Window Maker and why would you use it in a primary classroom? Window Maker is a window manager (graphical interface) for Linux/UNIX operating systems. Its most distinctive feature would have to be the dock. This is a place where dock apps and quick launches for frequently used programs reside. The dock first appeared in the interface for the NeXTSTEP operating system. It has since been adopted by Apple for its MacOS interface, among others.
That leaves us with the question of why use Window Maker in the primary classroom? The Window Maker dock supports dock apps, which provide information about the computer system upon which it’s running and about the world around us. It is this latter type of dock app that is the focus of this article. Using these apps and a projector, teachers can do a daily almanac with their students.
Looking at the screenshot of my Window Maker desktop, we can see that I’ve placed my dock on the left-hand side of the desktop. The topmost tile is the GNUstep icon (GNUstep is a project of which Window Maker is a part, designed to regulate and promote open source window managers that employ this style of interface).
The next icon launches a terminal emulator. Below this is the WPrefs tool for configuring Window Maker. Now we get to the informative dock apps. Wmakerclock provides us with day, date and time (time can be displayed in either 12- or 24-hour mode). Wimmoonclock provides information about the current phase of the moon. Wmweather+ provides graphical information about the current weather conditions according to a local weather station. Wmsun displays the times at which the sun rises and sets for the given day.
Wmbubble provides graphical information about CPU and memory usage. Wmwork tracks time spent on projects. Below this are two wmdrawers that scroll sideways, providing additional space on the dock. Lastly, wmshutdown provides a convenient way for shutting down/rebooting the system.
So, how would I use the Window Maker dock in my primary classroom? If your computer is connected to a SMART board or Smoothboard, it’s easy. Start the day with wmclock, so everyone knows what the day and date are. Write the day and date on the board. Moving down, you can integrate earth/space science into your class with wmmoonclock, noting the current phase of the moon and possibly recording this data as well. Then, move down to wmweather+ for a look at the current weather. Students could even compare the weather presented here with what they see themselves. Be sure to record this data, on an electronic spreadsheet perhaps, for graphing activities. Finally, we look at wmsun to find out when the sun rises and sets for the day. Likewise, this data should be recorded as it could be used in activities involving the seasons, as well as earth/space science To add to student engagement, you could have a rotation allowing each student an opportunity to do the almanac.
To enhance visibility, I’d recommend running wmagnify, a magnification program that, in spite of its name, is unrelated to Window Maker. This will open a small window within which whatever is under the mouse pointer will appear magnified. This is especially useful for wmmoonclock which provides information about the moon’s orbit with a click, but which utilizes such small type that it’s hard to read.
There are a large number of dock apps available, so I invite you to do some exploring. Some do similar things to those we’ve discussed, but offer a different take on what they do graphically. I’ve given you a start. Now you can begin the school year with a daily Window Maker almanac. I’m anxious to hear from readers regarding what they did with this idea, so feel free to contact me.
The Window Maker theme, Cottage, seen in the screenshots is available here.
Window Maker Development Team. (2014). Window Maker [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
Vogt, M. (2012). Synaptic package manager. GNU General Public License.
Do you know a writer who would benefit from a distraction-free writing environment? This writer could be yourself, a student or a colleague. Distraction-free refers to any application that allows you to work without inundating you with menus, pop-ups and other distractions. Thus you can just focus on the task at hand. FocusWriter is a distraction-free word processor that exemplifies this concept.
Once launched, FocusWriter fills the screen with an image of a blank piece of paper resting on a desktop or table top, as shown in the screenshot. The user just has to start typing. By default, FocusWriter runs in full-screen mode. This blocks out the operating system’s graphics, including the desktop/wallpaper, icons, window widgets, taskbars and docks/panels (if your OS has them). With said distractions removed, the user need only concentrate on his or her literary creation.
Don’t let the apparent lack of tool and menu bars fool you. FocusWriter is a full-featured word processor with support for .TXT, .RTF and .ODT file formats. Integrated features include, but are hardly limited to, text formatting, spell-check, a search-and-replace feature, smart quotes and autosave. Once a user has saved his or her work, this piece will be opened by default the next time FocusWriter is launched. Add to all of this the high level of customization available and you have a powerful writing tool.
Should you need to access the menu or toolbar, have no fear. Though said items are not visible on the screen, they can be readily accessed. Hovering the mouse pointer at the top of the screen causes the menu and toolbar to drop down. From here, users can save or load files, format text and adjust settings, among other things. Moving the mouse pointer to the bottom of the screen reveals a bar that lists open files in tabs, tracks the word count, tracks daily progress and provides a digital clock. Moving the mouse pointer to the left-hand side of the screen presents a panel that can be expanded to allow for easy page navigation. Opposite this, on the right-hand side of the screen, hovering your mouse pointer opens a scroll bar.
For educators, FocusWriter has much to offer. A timer and alarm can be set up so that students, and their teachers, can verify the amount of time invested in writing. Daily goals can also be established and monitored. It’s possible to enhance the distraction-free environment by adjusting the Focus Text option under the Settings menu. Here, lines or paragraphs not being currently worked on can be set to appear as faded. Students will love the fun ways in which FocusWriter can be customized. There are four themes from which to choose (I chose Space Dreams for the screenshot), as well as an optional typewriter sound effect. Finally, FocusWriter is available in over 20 languages. Get FocusWriter now and enter the world of distraction-free writing.
FocusWriter is available for Linux, Microsoft Windows and MacOS.
Gott, G. (2017). FocusWriter [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
Gott, G. (2017). FocusWriter. Retrieved from https://gottcode.org/focuswriter/.
This blog has danced away from open source educational technology of late, so I’d like to come back to my original inspiration for this blog -the aforementioned open source educational technology. I want to look at an educational suite designed with younger users in mind. pySioGame is just such a suite.
This application offers a delightful, engaging, intuitive and colorful interface. To the left of the main screen are two columns. These serve as your application menus. The left column lists categories of activities. The right column lists the activities for a given category. The scrolling wheel on the mouse can be used to navigate through both these menus.
Below the main screen is a gray field in which the title of a selected category or activity is displayed. This makes it easy to find a desired category or activity. The initial start-up conditions make it very easy to modify settings via the Settings button. You can add users, adjust the integrated narration (called eSpeak) and select a language, among other customizations. Completion of, and navigation through, the activities is handled through either the mouse or the cursor keys.
So, what kinds of activities are available in pySioGame? Here’s a brief list:
- Language Arts: letter and recognition and writing, reading, vocabulary
- Mathematics: number recognition and writing, counting (one-to-one correspondence), addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, geometry, time
- Art: color recognition, color exploration, paint application
- Memory activities
- Keyboarding/typing tutorial
- Games, leisure activities for one or more players
This list hardly does justice to the activities contained in pySioGame. Activity use is just as engaging as the interface would lead users to believe. Most activities require the user to use the mouse to click on an item and drag it to the appropriate box or place. Alphabet writing activities are done using the mouse. Certain activities require input via the keyboard.
Once an answer has been submitted, click on the green checkmark to the left below the main screen. Opposite this in the lower right corner are navigation controls and a button to end the session. As mentioned above, speech synthesis is integrated and it identifies items below the mouse pointer as well as given answers. Correct answers are rewarded with a splash screen and verbal reinforcement, both of a positive nature.
pySioGame is available in many languages including Spanish, German, Greek, Russian and English. Would be contributors are encouraged to contact the pySioGame people. This is an ideal educational suite for young learners and a fun way to reinforce what the older kids already know. pySiogame is available for Linux and Microsoft Windows.
pySioGame SourceForge page (for Downloads)
Imiolek, I. (2017). pySioGame [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
Getting back to educational technology, I’d like to focus on a tool that music teachers and their students will love. Rosegarden is an open source application for composing, mixing and editing music and sounds. It was developed around a MIDI sequencer with an understanding of musical notation and featuring support for digital audio.
Rosegarden is feature-rich, although this depends on the available hardware resources. The more recent or “cutting edge” the hardware, the more features available to the user. Rosegarden supports the importing and exporting of MIDI files. One caveat regarding this is that the Rosegarden Manual states that information about the file in question will be lost if the file is not saved in Rosegarden’s native .rg format. Such files are referred to as Rosegarden Project Files and contain all of the musical note information of the file in question as well as MIDI controller settings, plugin details and the names of any audio files included in the composition. Other supported sound formats include, but are not limited to, Csound, Hydrogen and MusicXML.
The default track-based overview allows users create sound “segments” by clicking-and-dragging or by double-clicking on the desired sound file. Additionally, Rosegarden offers some powerful editing tools. These allow users to get their ideas down and to tweak them as desired. There are three editing windows -the matrix editor, the notation editor and the event editor. These windows share a common interface for ease of use. Musical notes can be entered using either a MIDI keyboard or a computer keyboard. Furthermore, all editors offer unlimited undo and redo. The pan and zoom interface near the bottom of the matrix and notation editors provides axis-independent zoom and fast navigation.
Rosegarden offers many other features. The notation editor allows users to view the musical notation of their work, which can provide an alternative view of a composition. This editor can be used simultaneously with other Rosegarden components. Rosegarden will automatically update the work, saving recent changes simultaneously in all instances of it running in other components. Sheet music can be printed using LilyPond, an open source music engraving program. In terms of audio, file creation is easy. As mentioned previously, external sound files can be dragged from a file manager window and dropped into Rosegarden. From there they can be moved, resized, repeated and more. The synth plugin allows for accurate synthesis of MIDI tracks. The full-audio-effects plugin allows for the addition of audio effects to the composition. Add to all this the capacity to integrate Rosegarden with other Linux sound applications via the JACK audio connection framework and you have a very powerful and flexible sound mixing tool.
If you’re serious about sound mixing, you should definitely give Rosegarden a test drive. Rosegarden is available in English and, thanks to volunteers, in Russian, Spanish, Finnish, Japanese and Indonesian to name a few other languages.
Rosegarden is currently available for Linux and Microsoft Windows.
All images property of the Rosegarden Team.
Cannam, C., Bown, R. & Laurent, G. (2008). The Rosegarden handbook. GNU Genreal Public License.
Laurent, G., Cannam, C. & Bown, R. (2008). Rosegarden [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
Regular readers (or should that be “reader”?) of this blog know that one of my favorite open source games with educational potential is LinCity-NG. This is a port of the classic game SimCity. What makes it ideal for education is that you could build integrated units focusing on ecology and economics, as, in theory, it is possible to create a society that is self-sustaining economically and in balance with the environment. I say “in theory” as thia has never been accomplished by me. Until now, that is.
In order to succeed in attaining such a civilization, you must have one that is economically stable. This means that your citizens have to be employed, fed and comfortable. You also need a
decent technology level (called tech level in the game), which can be attained by constructing Monuments early on, Schools late and, eventually, Universities. Once this has been attained, you will attain the ability to create four things essential to having a self-sustaining, ecologically-friendly society -Recycling Centers, Parks, Solar Power Stations and the aforementioned Universities. Recycling centers cut back drastically on waste and can even be used to empty Tips (landfills in LinCity-NG) as they produce ore, steel and other goods through recycling. Check out the screenshot and you’ll see a Tip that has been emptied by surrounding Recycling Centers. This limits the waste of society to such things as air pollution. To combat air pollution, build Parks around Coal fired power stations and other sources of air pollution to shelter residences. (hint: holding CTRL and P will create a park with a pond.)
Solar Power Plants generate MHz, which can be used to power light and heavy industry, textile mills and other facilities of this nature. To power homes (KHz), you’ll need to connect these to Substations. Once you have Solar Power Stations, you no longer need alternative, polluting energy sources, like Coal fired power stations. You also no longer need Coal Mines. This greatly minimizes pollution in general, but especially air pollution. The one caveat that I would offer is that Solar Power Stations can occasionally catch fire, so be sure to have Fire Departments nearby.
Finally, there are universities. There has to be four schools for every university. Also, universities are more expensive to run. What you gain in exchange for this is the opportunity to more rapidly increase your tech level.
So, I have shared my successes with LinCity-NG. I hope that this well inspire others. None of my previous ongoing games in LinCity-NG have attained this level of success. I hope that you can attain it as well.
In February 2015, I wrote an article on an encryption program that runs from the Linux terminal -bcrypt. I am retracting this endorsement, as bcrypt has been found to be an insecure means of encryption due to vulnerabilities. In lieu of bcrypt, I would recommend scrypt, which also runs from the terminal as well and is secure. For more information on scrypt, read the scrypt man page.
For further reading about bcrypt’s vulnerabilities, you can read an article from the Hacker News, here.
One thing that has chagned quite a bit since I was a kid is the attitude that schools and teachers have towards comic books. When I was a child, if you had a comic book in school, you wouldn’t have it for long, as such things were viewed as the antithesis of education. The attitude now is that so long as kids are reading, it’s a good thing, even if it’s a comic book, which I think is a big improvement. My middle school library has a fine collection of graphic novels, in addition to the other media that they offer. Anyway, I thought that I would write about some open source comic book viewers that work with graphic novel ebooks and that you could use in your classroom.
Comix. Comix is a very versatile and easily customized comic book reader. Ir reads most common image formats, not just .cbr (the native format for digital comic books). Comix supports the storing of comic book libraries as well as allowing users to adjust how they view their comic book reading. Users can zoom in and out as desired. As it presents one page from the comic at a time, the page being viewed can be rotated to suit the reader. For the die-hard comic book fan, media can be displayed in two-page format, if desired. Archive formats supported include .tar, RAR and ZIP. Comix supports the use of bookmarks to mark pages of interest. Comix features integrated archive editing. Though Comix is available only for UNIX-based operating systems, it is available in over 20 languages. The screenshot at left shows the author’s Comix session, displaying a page from DC Comics’ Batman: Gotham by Gaslight graphic novel, as do the other screenshots featured in this article.
QComicBook. QComicBook is highly customizable and provides the user with every feature that he or she would desire through either menus or its toolbar. The Read Me file will tell you that the developers of QCmicBook sought to keep convenience and simplicity at its core. In addition to comic archive files (.cbr), it also supports handling of .jpg, .png, .gif and .xpm image formats, as well as PDF files. Users can navigate through a comic or graphic novel via a context menu, navigation buttons on the toolbar or by clicking on images of pages in the Thumbnail pane to the left of the main viewing pane. Other features include automatic unpacking of archive files, full-screen mode, double page viewing and continuous scrolling mode, among others. QComicBook is available for UNIX-based operating systems.
MComix. MComix is based on Comix, but offers a few embellishments. These embellishments pertain predominantly to a few bug fixes as well as improved stability. MComix’s creators boast that it is both user-friendly and customizable. The interface is very approachable, incorporating a menu, a simple toolbar and a side pane for selecting individual pages. It is designed specifically for comic books and graphic novels, and supports a variety of formats, including .cbr, .cb7, .cbt and PDF. What makes MComix really great is that it is available for both Linux and Microsoft Windows.
I’ve presented three comic book viewers here. So what can you do with them in your classroom? Just as you might buy printed graphic novels for your classroom library, it’s just as easy to buy them in digital format. You could set up a couple of second hand laptops (they’re cheap on ebay) with libraries of graphic novels on them. Your students then sign up for a time to use one of these computers to do some reading. You could even provide them with a reading log so that they can keep track of where they’ve left off rather than to have multiple students using the same integrated bookmark feature, which could get confusing.
Augustyn, B. et al. (1989). Batman: Gotham by gaslight. New York: DC Comics.
Casillas, L. & Brunner, M. (2013). MComix [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
Ekberg, P. (2009). Comix [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
Stolowski, P. (2012). QComicBook [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
Stolowski, P. (2012). QComicBook read me. Retrieved from https://github.com/stolowski/QComicBook/blob/master/README.