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Teaching open source at UMass-Amherst

by Shauna April 30th, 2013

A staff member works with attendees to make a contribution to an open source project.

On Sunday, April 14th, we ran our ninth Open Source Comes to Campus event, at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Many thanks to Tariq Ahmad, Andy Yee, UMass IEEE and UMass ACM. Check out the photo gallery!


  • Introductions & laptop setup
  • Intro to open source communications tools
  • Version control demo
  • Career panel, featuring Albert (Nexenta), Jason (consultant), Marina (RedHat), and Will (Mozilla)
  • Lunch!
  • Ethics & history of free software (shortened version)
  • Github group demo
  • Contributions workshop
  • Wrap up


Asheesh Laroia, Shauna Gordon-McKeon, Marina Zhurakhinskaya, Owen Taylor, Jason Woofenden, Will Kahn-Greene, Albert Lee, R. David Murray

Contributions by students

  • One attendee fixed a bug in HexBog, a browser-based word game maintained by staffer Jason Woofenden.  Together, they completed a long-standing wishlist bug to improve the animation that brings new tiles onto the board.  Now new tiles slide into view with lovely timing, instead of appearing suddenly and then sliding down a bit, as they did before.
  • An attendee helped improve the OpenHatch website by making sure readers looking for more help with Git were directed to the correct IRC server.
  • A group of five attendees took on a bug in jMonkeyEngine where the colors of a pair of axes needed to be switched.  They downloaded the software development kit, went through the beginner tutorial, followed the instructions for debugging, and even asked for help in the IRC channel, but were unable to find the axes in question, either in the running software or in the code where they were defined.  Despite these obstacles, the students seemed engaged, and swapped contact information so they could work together on the bug after the event.
  • An attendee who’d asked to contribute to BitCoin was able to fix a file descriptor leak bug. He added an else statement to catch a condition, then worked with the project maintainers to make sure his commits were formatted correctly and efficiently.
  • Another attendee spent some time improving demos for PsychoPy. The maintainers of PsychoPy have collaborated with OpenHatch to define a set of standards for project demos which multiple attendees have worked on over the course of several events. She chose to help standardize escaping, and plans to refine and submit this contribution after the event.
  • A pair of attendees attempted to correct the behavior of a selection tool in K-9. They were able to replicate the bug and made some progress locating the problem code, but weren’t able to fix the issue.
  • Three attendees collaborated to fix a bug in the GNOME shell where non-links were being misidentified as links.  Investigating and testing the bug required a copy of GNOME, so they worked with a staff member – one of the maintainers of the GNOME shell – to get a virtual machine on their Mac systems.  After figuring out how to reproduce the bug, they found the regular expression in the GNOME source code which was used to identify the links and figured out the appropriate change to it.  They worked through the difficulties posed by a new operating system, a large code base, and a 20 line regular expression to produce a patch, which has now been landed and will be in the next release of GNOME.


  • Our hosts at UMass graciously invited students from other schools at the area. There was a strong showing from Mt. Holyoke college, who joined over twenty students from UMass. Students from Amherst College, Hampshire College, and Greenfield Community College also attended.
  • For this event, we tried a new, more personalized email process which involved in depth conversation with potential attendees to find projects they were interested in working on. This process seems to have worked very well – while past events have had attendance rates as low as 25% of sign-ups, at this event 56% of sign ups attended. Over 80% of sign ups who responded to the personal emails attended. It also made for a more engaging workshop period, with over half of our 32 attendees staying until the end of the workshop.
  • The only downside of having such a great showing was that lunch felt scattered and anonymous. Can we do more to help attendees socialize with each other and with us?
  • We’re working to improve the way we find, curate, and display contribution opportunities (you can see the code for the version we used at this event here). Huge thanks to Nathan Yergler and Susan Tan for their profound contributions to that codebase, giving it the features we needed for the event!
  • One of the day’s greatest success stories came when a staff member very familiar with a project helped a group of students work through a bug in it.  Over the summer we’ll be working on ways to create experiences like that for more of our students.  If you’re a maintainer of an open source project and would like to get involved, please let us know.

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