Playing with Open Source Software - by Sebastian Dziallas '14



Sebastian.jpgMy story starts when I was 16. I was doing an internship at c't, one of Germany's largest computer magazines. I had heard and read about Linux and Open Source before and thought the idea was cool, but didn't really think anything about getting involved -- mostly because I didn't expect anybody to care. But Thorsten Leemhuis, an editor at c't who was also one of the engineering steering committee members for the Fedora Linux distribution, nudged me to get involved and offered mentorship to get me started.


Since I was still in high school and volunteering on my school's computer administration team, I decided I cared about the education sector. My first open source project was the Fedora Education Spin, a modified version of Fedora that specifically included applications for educational purposes. Of course, (I realize now) the project was flawed: I didn't have a clear user group in mind and hadn't consulted with them about their needs. A good dose of Olin's UOCD (User-Oriented Collaborative Design) class would have probably been useful. But it was still a tremendous learning experience for me, because I found strong mentors I could interact with often.  Getting involved in an open source project is hard, and good mentors are the people who make it possible.


One mentor who later became a close friend was Greg DeKoenigsberg, who was then working on the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC, project as part of his job at Red Hat. One day, Greg asked whether I'd be interested in getting involved in the OLPC project and receiving a developer's unit. I jumped at the chance. I had heard of OLPC and believed that their mission (to equip the children of the world with a specialized laptop) was amazing, but I hadn't thought they would care about the contributions of a high school student. As it turns out, this high school student ended up working with Jim Gettys, OLPC's VP of Software, on an operating system image for the Give One Get One program, which ended up bringing in millions of dollars of donations. (Actually, Greg later told me he'd assumed I was a teacher until he invited me to a conference in Brno only to discover that I had to ask my parents.)


I did eventually make it to a developers' conference in Brussels, where I joined a discussion about the problem facing many people interested in OLPC deployments: Sugar (, the specialized software that ran on the OLPC laptops, was difficult to install and run on any other system. If we could get the Sugar environment running from a USB key, rather than only on OLPC laptops, many more children could benefit from the software. After getting back from Brussels, I started the Sugar on a Stick project ( to do exactly that. Along the way, I got to know Mel Chua (Olin '07) who had been an engineer at OLPC. After one of the meetings we were running together, I mentioned I was looking at colleges in Germany, and she asked if I'd considered studying in the US.


I hadn't. But then I flew over for a conference in Toronto and took a bus down to Boston to visit Olin before flying back. I met Colin Zweibel (Olin '12), with whom I had emailed back and forth about open source before arriving. I was excited about the place and ended up applying, getting in, and starting at Olin in the fall of 2010. In the meantime, I had led three releases of Sugar on a Stick, which had been downloaded thousands of times, deployed in schools on at least three continents, and was being used by OLPC's engineers for official teacher training in several South American countries. Once college started, I passed Sugar on a Stick off to my good friend Peter Robinson in London so that I could focus on my studies.


That was not the end of my involvement with open source and education, though. I interned at Red Hat during my first 3 semesters at Olin, working with Mel on designing and teaching a faculty workshop called POSSE (Professor's Open Source Summer Experience) which helps professors get their students involved in open source communities. The job sent me all over the world, including Raleigh, Vancouver, Santa Cruz, and as far away as Carnegie Mellon's satellite campus in Qatar. We still keep in touch with the alumni from our workshops via the Teaching Open Source mailing list, and will be meeting up with a number of them at the Frontiers in Education conference in Seattle this October, where we'll be presenting a work-in-progress paper about some aspects of the POSSE experience.


One of the professors who attended POSSE was Matt Jadud, who had been a visiting faculty member at Olin before I arrived. When he heard I was looking for something to do this summer (the one after my sophomore year), he asked if I would like to come out to Berea College and help him design an electronics course that used a craft-centric approach and the principles of open hardware. So I went down to Kentucky for the summer and helped create Craft of Electronics (, which is running for the first time this fall semester. In addition, my friends Asa and Brett (also Olin '14) and I have become involved in I2E2, Olin's engineering education outreach arm, running tours and helping with workshops for visiting faculty who want to learn about teaching "the Olin way."


Now that I'm halfway through my degree in Engineering with Computing, I'm looking forward to seeing what new opportunities may come my way junior year.  I can't wait!!

Posted in: Because I Wanted To, Just Plain Fun