Google Code-in Wrap-up: Beyond the winners...

Thursday, June 18, 2015

To conclude our series of posts about Google Code-in (GCI) 2014, we have an inspiring story from FOSSASIA mentor Praveen Patil. Although we’ve been shining a well-deserved spotlight on the contest winners -- including the two from FOSSASIA -- GCI is also about helping students take their very first steps toward becoming contributors to open source projects. For some students this year, GCI was even more than that: it was a first step toward essential computer literacy and the new possibilities it opens up for them.

December 2014 and January 2015 marked FOSSASIA’s first time participating in Google Code-in (GCI). Attending the FOSSASIA conference in February 2014 was a life-changing experience for me, and I spent the summer contributing to a FOSSASIA-sponsored project during the 2014 Google Summer of Code. Mario Behling and Hong Phuc, the mentors who helped me complete my project, asked me to take part in GCI with them and help pre-university students take their first steps into the world of free and open source software.

Ahead of the contest’s start, I began spreading the word about GCI with presentations at local schools and through online social networks. But when the contest began on December 1st, I noticed that most of my tasks had been claimed by students outside of India and that there was hardly any response from students of my own institute or the neighboring pre-university colleges. The few local students we did see participating were finding it difficult to complete even the beginner tasks, and none claimed any tasks in the coding category. So we began trying to understand why and see what we could do about it.

Ours is a small city in south India and we found that the main reason students weren’t participating was a lack of IT infrastructure in schools. Less than 1% of high school students have access to computers and the internet. They get a chance to learn coding after high school in the 11th standard, but only if they’ve opted to study computer science. In rural India, the situation is even worse. I realized that students are willing to participate in programs like GCI, but most are unable to do so because they lack even basic computer skills.

With suggestions and guidance from Mario and Hong Phuc, we organized a series of workshops at my home for students on every Saturday, Sunday and holiday. The first workshop in the series was “An Introduction to Free and Open Source Software and Google Code-in”. More than 100 students turned out for the session. We also held a session on installing Gnu/Linux and software like Libre Office, Gimp, Inkscape, and more. I was happy to see students engaged with FOSS, learning ‘til late in the evening even though their final exams were approaching.

Our next few workshops focused on using FOSS for documentation, basic image processing, designing, blogging, and an introduction to Python. These interactive sessions helped develop confidence and motivation in our students. More than 70 students registered for GCI! Many said that it was the first time they’d been able to have hands-on experience with computers and that they enjoyed learning and creating.

Many of our friends helped us by providing laptops, internet dongles, a projector, and -- most importantly -- their valuable time. My best friend (and better half) Minal Patil provided snacks for students and helped us conduct the workshops. We even had a GCI session on Christmas Day and celebrated in a different and meaningful way.

It was amazing to see the happiness on the face of students when they completed their first GCI tasks. After starting with no previous hands-on experience with computers, many were able to complete beginner tasks related to documentation and outreach. Some could create blogs and write about themselves and their GCI experiences. And a few students were even able to contribute to our open source project ExpEYES (Experiments for Young Engineers and Scientists) which turns a $35 Raspberry Pi computer into a lab for conducting science experiments. Some students also worked on building a small website about our group intended to give the students an opportunity to experience open source development culture.

It was great fun to learn new things every day along with the students, and it was incredibly fulfilling when the GCI 2014 results were announced on Google’s Open Source Blog. FOSSASIA had more completed tasks than any other participating organization, with 587 tasks completed by 174 students. And our school, Govindram Seksaria Science P.U. College, Belgaum (GSS), ranked #2 among 397 schools worldwide for participation with 49 students completing tasks. The school’s management were happy to learn about our success with GCI, displaying a congratulatory banner on the campus, and they are exploring ways to work with FOSSASIA to continue helping students in our region learn to code and contribute to FOSS.

Participating in GCI with FOSSASIA was a great learning experience for myself also, and I’m very grateful to Hong Phuc, Mario Behling, and the Google Open Source Programs Office. You have inspired me to take up this task of helping kids from this region to learn to code as a lifelong mission. Thanks a billion to all the students who participated in the contest, and I wish them a great future ahead.

by Praveen Patil, GSoC alumnus and GCI mentor