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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.
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.
You can’t say that open source developers don’t appreciate the holidays. So, why would I make such a strange statement? Well, bear with me, while I elucidate on this.
Let’s take a look at a piece of open source software with which you’re probably familiar –VLC Media Player. VLC is a versatile media player, available for Linux/UNIX, Apple MacOS and Microsoft Windows, to list a few of its available platforms. Formats supported include, but are certainly not limited to, AIFF, AVI, MIDI, VCD, Apple QuickTIme, MP4, Ogg, DVD video and WAV. So, how does this versatile application get into the holiday spirit? By default, when it is launched, the VLC window displays a picture of an orange and white striped cone, like one you’d see at a construction site. Starting one week before Christmas, this image changes to an orange and whitecone bedecked with a Santa hat.
The next program I’d like to address is Potato Guy. As the name would imply, this is a port of the small children’s toy, Mr. Potato Head. This game was developed by the same team that developed the K Desktop Environment (KDE) and is one of the games that can be installed as part of KDE. It can also be run just fine without KDE. The biggest difference between Potato Guy and Mr. Potato Head, apart from the former being software, is that it offers a variety of what it refers to as Playgrounds. These include, among others, two Potato Guy sessions, Robin Tux (Robin Hood with Tux, the Linux Penguin), Robot Workshop, The Moon and, you guessed it, Christmas. The user has access to tree decorations, presents, snowflakes, stars and an interesting assortment of animals that can be used to create a jolly little woodland Christmas scene. Potato Guy, also known as KTuberling, is available for UNIX-based operating systems.
Another game that gets into the spirit of the holidays is SuperTux.. SuperTux is an open source spin-off of Nintendo’s Super Mario. Using keyboard or joystick, the user has to guide Tux the Linux Penguin across Antarctica on a quest to rescue his girlfriend Penny from the evil Nolok. On the way, Tux has to jump over or duck under obstacles, avoid or overcome adversaries and pick up goodies. Tux eventually discovers red flowers that endow him with firepower, the attainment of which is indicated by Tux donning a red firefighter’s helmet. This time of year, however, the red helmet appears as a Santa hat, making Tux look very festive indeed. SuperTux is available for UNIX-based operating systems, Apple MacOS and Microsoft Windows, among others.
Finally, there’s a little program that will liven up your Linux/UNIX desktop for the holidays, xsnow. Xsnow can be run from a terminal and, by default, puts fir trees on your desktop, makes snow fall and wind blow and even shows Santa and his reindeer riding though it all. The snow flakes actually accumulate on open windows and menus. Xsnow can be configured from the command line to tweak options like background color, trees/no-trees, number of snowflakes, wind speed and the size of Santa’s sleigh to name a few. You can read all about these options in the xsnow man page. Xsnow is available for UNIX-based operating systems.
So now you can liven up your computer experience for the holiday season. From all of us here at Energize Education, we hope you and your family have a joyous and safe holiday season!
Bischoff, E., Calhoun, J. & Cid, A. A. (2016). KTuberling [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
Jansen, R. (2001). Xsnow [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
SuperTux Team. (2016). SuperTux [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
VideoLAN. (n.d.). VLC media player [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
While looking for an open source technology to review, I came across WriteType, .an open source word processor geared towards school-age children. I work in special education in a middle school and all too often I hear students lament about having to type out assignments. WriteType through the combination of an accessible interface and valuable features, strives to be a word processor that students can readily use.
Let’s start by checking out the WriteType window, shown in the screenshot at left. As can be seen, the interface is WYSIWYG, offering a menu bar and the top of the window and simple toolbars below this. WriteType offers only the most common word processing features, such as text and paragraph formatting. Features can be quickly and easily utilized via either the menu or the toolbars. Simply put, everything a user needs is here. There are no tabs or complex menus offering features that can confuse new users and into which one could get lost . This functionality is further enhanced by context menus accessed by right-clicking on the text or area in question.
So, what makes WriteType ideal for students? The integration of certain tools takes much of the pain out of writing. One of these tools is word completion. As the screenshot on the right shows, as they type, users are presented with a list of suggested words in the gray field on the right-hand side of the screen. Simply click on the the desired word in the list, or press an indicated function key, and the complete word is inserted into the document. Another useful feature is the fact that WriteType can read back what users have typed, which will help them to catch mistakes prior to proofreading or printing.
If these features aren’t reason enough to give WriteType some serious consideration, other features include auto-correction and grammar checking. Users can also add words to the integrated spelling list. Text highlighting allows users to mark areas of text in need of attention. Distraction-free mode allows users to work without the added distraction of a menu and toolbars. Other customizations include adjusting read-back speed as well as changing the font size of the suggested word list. WriteType also offers multilingual support. WriteType can be readily customized further via the Settings option under the File menu. Documents can be saved in either the native WriteType format (.wtd), as formatted text (.html) or as plain text (.txt)
WriteType is available for Linux, Microsoft Windows and Apple MacOS. WriteType teacher workshops are available for free to schools in the Minneapolis area.
Documentation: a word processor to help students write. (n.d.). GNU General Public License.
Shinn, M. (2010). WriteType [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
If you haven’t heard of Scratch, then you’ve been missing out and so have your students. Scratch is an open source programming environment, with an integrated programming language also called Scratch, created by MIT with the goal of introducing users, especially young people, to computer programming. Users can create interactive stories, games and graphics. Furthermore, these creations can be shared with others via Scratch’s Web site. This is an excellent way to introduce your students to STEM.
What makes Scratch so special? To begin with, the interface is unlike that of any application of this type that I have seen. A menu bar/toolbar is provided for frequently used tasks, such as opening saved projects and sharing completed projects. From there, the interface goes in its own unique
direction, but still remains very user-friendly. In lieu of the traditional text editor/display pane layout, Scratch utilizes four panes, each with a specific purpose and interface. Operation and manipulation of objects is almost entirely point-and-click. This is arguably from where much of its ease-of-use comes.
One of the biggest differences between Scratch and other applications of this type is how the programs are written. Rather than typing code into a text editor, users are provided with a switchboard at the top of the leftmost pane. The buttons on the switchboard represent eight categories of commands that can be employed. The commands appear below the switchboard and can be added simply by clicking on them and dragging them to the pane on the right. Here the commands can be connected in a fashion that combines a flowchart with puzzle pieces. Programs, called scripts, can be created for any object (sprite) that the user creates. These scripts integrate variables as well, such as waiting times for events or results of interaction with other objects.
Finally, one of the really cool things about Scratch is the integrated graphics system. This includes a versatile drawing tool as well as graphical images included with Scratch. The drawing tool runs in its own window and provides users with everything they need to create colorful, detailed sprites. These sprites can in turn be modified under the Costumes tab in the same pane into which programming commands are placed. Using this feature, animations can be easily created using two or more costumes for a sprite. Users can also create backgrounds or select backgrounds from Scratch’s media library. The author used just such a background for his outer space scene shown in the screenshot above.
I cannot even begin to do this application justice here. Check out the Scratch creations submitted to the Scratch Web site. Try it for yourself. Then introduce your students to Scratch and watch worlds unfold.
Scratch Web site: http://scratch.mit.edu/
WinFF is an open source media converter for Linux and Microsoft Windows. Users can convert both audio and video files from one format to the other. Supported formats include, but are not limited to, MP3, WAV, AVI and WMV. I used WinFF to convert a colleague’s digital camera video to a format Windows could read.
Jack Germain of LinuxInsider wrote a glowing review of Energize Education through Open Source. You can check this out here. I want to personally thank Mr. Germain for taking the time to read my book and write this well thought out review.
If you’re looking for a versatile and user-friendly mind-mapping tool, check out VYM (View Your Mind). Among its other attributes, Users can add images and links to external files and Web pages. VYM mind maps can also be customized in a variety of ways, such as font size and background color.
GCompris, the open source educational suite, is available for Apple iPad. Look for the app entitled Yellow Duck. It’s free, but in order to enable all features, you must purchase Yellow Duck for a very small fee.
Xsnow is a great way to bring some holiday cheer to your UNIX/Linux desktop. It’s an open source program that creates a scenic snowfall on your computer. You can control such factors as snowflake color, wind direction and the size of Santa’s sleigh.