by Greg DeKoenigsberg
Today, Sunday, is the first day of Red Hat High, and I’m expecting 47 kids. It’s 4:00 in the afternoon, and orientation starts at 4:30. Of those 47 kids, how many have arrived so far? Three, that’s how many. Three anxious middle-schoolers and their families, all milling around the huge, empty meeting hall at Red Hat headquarters. The parents mostly make small talk about the weather outside, which is incredibly hot. Maybe it’s global warming, they say — as if the fact that it’s Raleigh in July isn’t enough to explain the 95 degree temperature outside. I check my watch again: now it’s 4:02 pm.
I feel like an anxious party host, worrying that maybe all the guests just didn’t want to be rude when they accepted their invitations, when they never really intended to come to the party at all. I grab my cell phone and call Keith Warren, the operations manager for N.C. State University’s Science House, our partners in this endeavor. He’s manning the check-in desk at the dorms where the kids are staying for the week. The kids are supposed to be checking in with him, and then coming over to me. I ask him how many kids he’s checked in so far.
“Forty-five,” he says. Which is, of course, a lot more than three.
Right then, our guests start to arrive in earnest: first in a trickle, then in a flood. In the space of ten minutes, the meeting hall goes from almost completely empty to almost completely packed.
“There must be two hundred people in there,” my friend and co-worker Robin says to me.
Then he says, “I hope they left the air conditioning running this weekend.”
Free software is good enough for schools.
As users of free software, we know it. We use free software every day, and we derive great value from it. We understand the value of free software, and the value of the communities that create and sustain free software.
As free software continues to improve in quality, the struggle to increase the adoption of free software becomes a struggle to educate users. There are plenty of incredible free software applications out there, waiting to be discovered — not only for Linux, but for Windows and OS X as well. But what good does this software do, for the world in general and for schools in particular, if people don’t know it exists? Or worse yet: what if people think they know about free software, but presume that, because it’s freely available, it must not be any good?
This is the particular problem that Red Hat High was created to address. In this, its first iteration, Red Hat High is a weeklong summer residential camp for rising 8th and 9th grade students in Raleigh, North Carolina and the surrounding areas.
The immediate goal is to expose these particular kids to great free software tools — tools like Blender and Inkscape and Gimp and Audacity — and to teach the kids how to use these tools, in a collaborative way, to create amazing stuff.
The greater goal is to learn how kids use free software, and to apply those lessons in the real world.
It’s only a start. We know that. We’d all love to see Red Hat High become much more than just an outreach project to kids within 50 miles of our corporate headquarters. What is vital, though, is that we make this start by reaching out to actual kids, by working with these kids to understand, firsthand, the possibilities that free software creates for them.
The room is crazy hot. Maybe the air conditioning is running, maybe it isn’t. Who knows? It really doesn’t matter, anyway; with 200 people packed into the meeting hall, the heat is stifling. Any thoughts I might have had of a grand introductory speech are gone. The goal now is to tell the parents what they need to know, to feed the kids some pizza, to get the parents on their merry way as soon as possible, and to clear the room before someone passes out from heatstroke.
I introduce myself and thank the parents and kids for joining us at Red Hat High. I introduce the teachers of the various tracks. I answer a few questions. (“Will the kids get to take the software home?” “Yes, it’s free.” “Is it available for Windows?” “Yes.” “Do parents get pizza?” “No, we didn’t order enough, but if you’re like me, you should probably be sticking to the salad anyway.” Some parents laugh at that last response; many don’t.) Seemingly satisfied that their kids are in safe hands, the parents say their goodbyes, and the Science House counselors take over, whisking the kids away to their dorms for the night. “See you in the classrooms at 9 am sharp tomorrow,” I say, and the counselors smile and wave. The kids talk excitedly, in a hurry to get to know one another as they file out towards the waiting vans.
A good day, heat notwithstanding.
By 7:00 pm, I’m sitting with the instructors at Sammy’s, the local bar and grill and a favorite Red Hat destination for cheap food and beers. For most of us, it’s our first opportunity to unwind after a very long few days. Some of us, like me and Robin and Adrian and Steve, have been tweaking and testing the labs to make sure that Fedora 7 runs well on all of the machines. Others, like Jeff and Groo and Jonathan and Bassam, have spent much of the last day or two traveling to get here. We’ve been very lucky to recruit some very smart people for this year’s Red Hat High. I’ll be talking a lot more about these smart people throughout the upcoming week.
So it’s official: after months of preparation, Red Hat High 2007 is finally underway. Tomorrow: day one of classes, and an amazing Inkscape presentation.