Open Source: You Know, For Kids!

Seven practical reasons to teach children about open source

A few years ago, when I was working as a print magazine editor, a young girl approached my booth at LinuxFest Northwest in Bellingham, Washington. She was probably 12- or 13-years old, and she gave me some of the best feedback I'd ever had on our products.

Reason 1: You Will Learn

My new young friend told me what she liked about our articles, the art, and even our ads. She pointed out that one of our ads looked too much like an ad a hosting provider was running, and she was right. She told me that I needed to give out stickers for her and other attendees to put on their laptops, which I immediately ordered after the event. I thanked her for stopping and taking the time to make me look at our magazines from a fresh perspective.

The year after I attended LinuxFest Northwest, I worked at our booth at the Southern California Linux Expo (SCALE) event. I paid attention to the kids who walked around the expo floor with their parents or who ran around in little packs, snagging the occasional piece of candy or a sticker from our booth. I recognized many of them, knew their parents, and enjoyed the fresh energy they brought to the event. Another SCALE exhibitor stopped by and grumbled about all the kids and said they shouldn't be there. I politely told him why I disagreed.

Reason 2: Kids Are "Influencers"

Many of the attendees might not have attended the expo that Saturday if they couldn't bring their kids along. And the marketing person in me sees every one of those bright little faces as a future (probably current) tech consumer, purchaser, or influencer. As soon as our children are able to talk, they are telling us how to spend our money.

Reason 3: If We Don't Teach Them, Who Will?

In June of this year, Edge Marketing's CHO (Chief Hacking Officer), Andrew Baerg, led a session at Open Source Bridge called Showing Kids the Source. "I have three boys of my own who are either in or entering the public school system, and I am seeing a real void in the education they are receiving with computers," he says. Baerg acknowledges that kids are taught how to use programs at school, but he says they aren't shown how to create them.

"As with most things, if you want to see change, you have to do something," Baerg says. "I started hosting a programming club for my son and his friends, which turned out to be really easy to pull off. I wanted to share with others about my experiences and motivate them to run their own clubs."

Reason 4: Open Source Is a Culture of Sharing

Let's face it: Emily Post would not approve of the bad manners we often see in open source. Baerg sees an opportunity to help "bring up" and mentor the next generation of open source citizens. He points to the Scratch community as a great way for kids to see how open source works and how powerful it can be. Because you can't share your Scratch program without sharing your source code, Baerg sees it as a good way to show kids how to share code, proper etiquette for commenting on other programs, and more complicated concepts, such as forking or remixing someone's code. "I wanted to show people the importance and value of instilling the culture of open source in our kids at a young age," he says.

Reason 5: Enthusiasm Spreads

Have you ever seen a baby discover its hands for the first time and look at them in wonder? We forget to appreciate amazing things we see every day.

When he gave his talk, Baerg wanted attendees to feel the excitement kids experience when they are exposed to the source code of a program, both by creating code and seeing what other people have created. "I remember as a kid playing Castle Wolfenstein with my brother on our Commodore 64 and how it felt when we discovered we could open the source code up and give ourselves extra lives!" Baerg says. "It's great to see first hand someone's mind expanding when they discover what's behind that game or app that they love, or that there really are no limits to what you can make your program do, including making it 'crash or 'glitch'!"

Baerg thinks his talk connected with a lot of the attendees because most programmers can think back to times when they've had these sorts of mind-altering moments. "I think it's easy for us programmers to forget that most people don't see computers the same way that we do," he says. "People who haven't been shown or taught about programming naturally think there's a lot of magic or voodoo behind the scenes when they click a button."

Reason 6: Our Software Will Improve

Recently SCALE announced that the 2012 event, January 20-22 in Los Angeles, will include a SCALE Kids Conference. Gareth Greenaway, who is helping organize the new track, says that SCALE has always been a family-friendly environment. Greenaway says one of his favorite memories from a past SCALE was watching a small girl talk to a vendor who was exhibiting OLPC laptops. When the exhibitor started to tell her about it, she interrupted him and told him she already had the laptop at home and knew all about it.

Greenaway says that in the past, some children have presented at the SCALE mini-conferences, which are held the Friday of the event weekend, and these talks tend to be some of the most popular. "A few years ago, one of the mini-conferences that we hosted was dedicated to showcasing the contributions that women have and continue to make in the free and open source community," Greenaway says. "One of my favorite sessions from this particular mini-conference was done by Mirano Cafiero, Malakai Wade, and Saskia Wade. They gave a presentation on their favorite FOSS software and what they wished it could do that it didn't currently."

I actually attended that talk and agree with Greenaway when he says that the session was inspiring to watch because the girls were telling a room full of adults the directions that FOSS software should take. "The most amazing part was that the adults were listening," he says.

Reason 7: Children Are Our Open Source Future

The SCALE Kids Conference organizers want to provide kids who are excited about technology, particularly free and open source software, a place to express and share their enthusiasm, while also allowing them to help set the content and direction for event. "A FOSS conference should be treated like any other FOSS project," Greenaway says. "There should always be opportunities for new members to get involved, especially the younger generations."

Greenaway says that the plan is to remain as hands off as possible. "My hope is that the event will be as kid-driven as possible — a free and open source event for kids, by kids," he says. His vision is for a single speaker track with only children presenting, and a mini-exhibit area where kids can showcase their favorite open source software and hardware.

Greenaway thinks that the young attendees are going to be the future users, developers, and leaders of current and new FOSS projects. "I'd like to see this event help point them in the right direction," he says. Greenaway would also like to help inspire the next generation of event organizers. "In order for FOSS conferences to be successful and relevant," he says, "new ideas and talent need to take the reigns." Greenaway adds, "While I do love and enjoy being an organizer, I'm certainly not going to do it forever."

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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