New Linux teaching lab plans open house

By Amanda Koeck

A new Linux-Open Source Software Teaching Lab has been established at the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences (CSBS). An open house for the lab will be held on Wednesday, Sept. 22 from 4:30-5:30 p.m. in W-13 Machmer Hall.

In addition to serving traditional teaching needs, the lab is intended to introduce students to the computer operating system Linux and open-source software that is freely available and modifiable under alternative licensing arrangements. The new lab is one of the first teaching labs of its kind in the nation to serve students in the social sciences as well as engineering and computer science.

More than $100,000 in equipment, software and co-op support from IBM and an anonymous donor from Amherst Computer Works, Inc. made the lab possible. CSBS is providing the lab space with primary lab management being done through Dee Weber of the Social and Demographic Research Institute. IBM has hired two UMass students – Oliver Aaltonen and John Jacobson – who have successfully installed the lab and are now administering the lab, working in conjunction with Weber. They plan to provide workshops in Linux and open-source software applications through next May.

The lab will provide a variety of open source software including the “Gnome” desktop environment; the “OpenOffice” productivity suite; Geographic Information System (GIS) software; and “R,” a language and environment for statistical computing and graphics; and STATA, a proprietary statistical software package that was donated by the Stata Corp. to support traditional teaching purposes. The lab will serve faculty from several schools and colleges and will reach out to students involved in the all-campus Information Technology minor. In addition, special speaking events are being planned with guest lecturers from companies like IBM, and student-run “Linux-fests” are being organized by the new UMass Amherst student Linux User Club.

According to lab principal investigator Charlie Schweik, who holds a joint faculty position in the Center for Public Policy and Administration and the Department of Natural Resources Conservation, “It is important for us to expose students in all disciplines to the emerging open source phenomenon. It is now emerging into disciplines beyond computer science and engineering. In some instances, it is now being mandated for use by government, such as in Germany and Brazil. Corporations like IBM are now embracing it. And people in developing world contexts are desperate for it because of its affordability. This lab will allow UMass faculty to become leaders in developing courses built around such software for analysis in social or natural science applications and has the potential for building a future distance learning program with a global reach.”

Mark Hanny, IBM vice president and partnership executive for UMass Amherst, adds, “We need a deeper partnership between academia and business to ensure that the students of today are qualified for the information technology jobs of tomorrow, whether be in government, non-profit or business and regardless of academic discipline. The lab is one of the first of its kind that we know of in the nation and is leading a new era of IT education in the social and natural sciences.”

IBM executives will be on hand for the lab open house. Interested UMass faculty, students and the general public are encouraged to stop by and see the facility.