Open Code and Culture at Merced’s New Collaboratory

By engaging undergraduate computer science students in
community-based projects, UC Merced is becoming a major open source
advocate with its innovative collaborative laboratory.

by Gordy Slack


School of Engineering at UC Merced is taking a countercultural approach
both to its IT needs and to teaching. By focusing on open source, both
as a software infrastructure for the school and as a way to teach and
learn engineering, the school is bucking one national trend and trying
to create another.

“You would never buy a car without being able to look under the hood,” says Jeffrey Wright,
Dean of Engineering and Director of CITRIS at UC Merced. “And you would
never try to teach auto mechanics without being able to show your
students under there, either.”

Jeff Wright, Dean of Engineering and CITRIS Director at UC Merced

the UC Merced School of Engineering, open source software—software
developed in a free and accessible environment that is visible both to
other engineers and end users—is not just a programming standard. It is
a metaphor for the entire community, says Wright. “We are striving to
cultivate an open source university, an open source culture. We do not
want our students to be intimidated by software or hardware,” says

And perhaps the best expression of that is the
University’s new CITRIS-supported Collaboratory, a computer teaching
lab with an innovative and distinctly open source flavor. The
Collaboratory opened for undergraduate engineering classes in the fall
of 2006.

The affordability of an open source framework is no
small thing for a brand new university that is building its computer
labs and infrastructure from scratch. Because the software is free and
safely adaptable, and because the Collaboratory’s systems are so
efficient, says Wright, the new lab was built and runs on just a
fraction of the budget of a typical lab its size.

Collaboratory’s IT is designed to be both cost effective and
operationally efficient because it is completely reliant on free and
open source software (FOSS), commodity hardware, minimal administrative
intervention, effortless remote access and interaction, and
student-to-student and student-to-instructor interactivity.
Furthermore, it has been designed entirely by its users. “The users own
it,” says Wright.

The Collaboratory at UC Merced allows for an open, interactive environment

Operationally, the Collaboratory consists of centrally-bootable
mini-box servers at each of its sixty seats. The lab is free from
upgrade-hungry private-domain software, and it can run on longer-lived,
low-end technology that adds years onto the life of a system. Also,
because it is open source, it is safely modifiable. When faculty
members wants to add a function or do something new , they do not have
to go out and buy a whole new system. “It comes in at about fifteen
percent of the cost of running a typical teaching lab,” says Wright,
“and less than fifteen percent of the energy consumption of a typical

“But open source at Merced is not just about inexpensive software,”
Wright says. “There is also an educational pedagogy here that drives
our classes. We are trying to get our students to think differently
about information technology by placing an extremely strong emphasis on
information and its management rather than on the technology.”

The lab’s functionality is designed by the faculty, another key
advantage of open source, says Wright. “Whereas the traditional
approach to developing such a facility is to approach vendors, who will
happily say, ‘Here, this is what you need, because it’s what we’ve sold
to others,’ the open source approach asks: ‘What functionality do we
need to provide students the learning experience we wish them to have?
Now let’s build it,’” says Wright.

For instance, faculty have developed within Collaboratory a
component that allows individual student work sessions to be displayed
on a central screen or on screens at multiple locations. The instructor
or other students can interact with and control that session and work
on documents together. If a student is having trouble with a problem,
for example, the instructor can bring that student’s work on screen
before the entire class and work through it with everyone.

Not all students, or the instructor for that matter, need to be
physically present in the lab, says Wright. Because the lab is equipped
with microphones, cameras, and speakers, the students can engage in a
class sessions from outside the lab’s walls, and faculty can teach from

This adaptability also helps the School of Engineering accomplish
another of its CITRIS-supported objectives: forging collaborations with
local community colleges and high schools to better prepare students at
those institutions for programs like those at Merced.

are not just pushing courses out over the Internet, the way other
programs might.” says Wright. “Rather, we have a course presence here
at Merced and a course presence there on, say, the community college
campus; our students and theirs can actually be interactively taking
the same course at the same time.”

“We need to improve the eligibility of students coming into our
program, and typical high schools and community colleges need better
access to appropriate courses and subjects,” says Wright. Use of the
Collaboratory can facilitate those goals and efforts are currently
underway to install collaboratories in several regional high schools.

Though a part of the School of Engineering, the Collaboratory is not
limited in use just to teaching budding computer scientists. The lab is
open and available to all faculty at UC Merced for a wide variety of
courses, even those unaccustomed to such technology. Several biology
courses have used the Collaboratory, and faculty members are interested
in using it for courses in history and psychology.

The lab is open to all UC Merced faculty for their courses

Another reflection of the program’s open source culture is its
emphasis on getting students to develop real software solutions for
real organizations that need it. One class, for example, is developing
information management systems for a local battered women’s shelter in
Merced as a part of the Schools Engineering Service Learning program.
“The students work collaboratively with each other, their professors,
and with the end users—the clients and administrators of the shelter—to
make applications that address the shelter’s specific needs,” says
Wright. For instance, the shelter needs a document organization and
management system that supports low-income clients, and it would also
like to develop an Internet-based counseling system for giving off-site
support to shelter alumni.

UC Merced engineering students are also
developing a cell phone input system for emergency alerts to the
shelter and will refurbish and network inexpensive PCs and convert them
to open-source-compatible Linux nodes. Off-the-shelf proprietary
software, while it might accomplish some of these things, would be
unlikely to conform completely to the shelter’s needs.

Assistant professor Alberto Cerpa
escorts his undergraduate students at Merced into real-world projects,
too. In one course, after grounding them in basic open-source
programming languages, Cerpa assigned his students to develop
Merced-based Google-Maps-related projects that would contribute
something to the community. One student obtained crime data from the
Merced Police Department and made an application allowing people to
search for available housing in the safest neighborhoods. Another
student developed a map of all local gas stations that provided
up-to-the-minute price information.

“Doing important and
useful real-world work while learning computer science may draw a whole
new kind of student into the field,” Wright says. By focusing on the
content, and not just the programming itself, Merced aims to keep
students interested and engaged.

For more information:

UC Merced School of Engineering: