Mozilla partnership makes Seneca ‘Canada

With the continued success of its partnership with the Mozilla Foundation, Toronto’s Seneca College could be the school of choice for budding open source developers and a strong model for other tech programs around the country to follow.

Over the past couple years, the Mozilla partnership has given Seneca students the ability to work on key aspects of the Firefox Web Browser as well as other Mozilla-led initiatives such as Thunderbird, Songbird and Bugzilla. The program allows students to beef up their resumes and has even landed a few graduates continued employment with Mozilla.

The partnership kicked off in 2007, after Mozilla issued a US$50,000 grant to the school used to develop several open source and Mozilla-focused courses. The open source project donated another $100,000 earlier this year to support the on-going collaboration between Mozilla and Seneca’s Centre for Development of Open Technology (CDOT).

David Humphrey, a professor at Seneca’s school of computer studies who runs open source development courses for the college, said that the Mozilla partnership now expands to four different courses, all of which put students inside the Mozilla community and working with talented open source developers.

“We have two courses on our bachelor program and two in our diploma program,” he said. “We spend the first course taking the students into the Mozilla project and teaching them how to collaborate with people around the world on code. We also get them all paired up with mentors within Mozilla.”

Students can work on anything from bug fixes to completely integrating new features or tools into the Mozilla project, Humphrey added.

In the second course, the student developers are able to take their code one step further and continue to refine it. “We’ve found that having that second course really allows the work to matter,” Humphrey said. “Having a full eight months to really get immersed in this stuff and follow through on the project means the different between a toy project and something that can actually be shipped.”

One of the school’s most significant contributions to Mozilla’s Firefox project was developed last year by a recent Seneca computer studies graduate Andrew Smith. He helped implement support for a new image format, the Animated PNG (APNG), which overcomes the technical limitations of animated GIFs.

“This was really critical and has changed the way Mozilla does its user interface with Firefox 3,” Humphrey said. “By adding these animations in, it’s now possible for them to do animations that have a full Alpha channel for transparencies and so on. This will allow the user interface to be able to render animated images crisper and cleaner.”

Another recent Seneca contribution is the Plugin-watcher project, which helps notify users when on of their Firefox plug-ins fail to work correctly.

“It was one of those things where the students really wanted to work on it,” Michael Shaver, chief technology evangelist and a founding member of the Mozilla project, said. “We told them it would be hard and not to get disappointed if they didn’t finish it all in one course term.

“Of course, they showed up with it working very well at the end of the course,” he added.

A private browsing feature set to launch in Mozilla’s upcoming Firefox 3.1 release was also partly developed by a Seneca student, according to Humphrey.

As a result of the partnership’s success, Humphrey said the school has branched out into other open source projects and developed partnerships with Red Hat Inc.’s Fedora Project, IBM Corp.’s, and Sun Microsystems Inc.’s initiatives.

To show their appreciation for Mozilla and the patience it has shown students taking the course, Seneca is honouring the open source project at this week’s Success in Partnerships award ceremony.

“The award is really icing on the cake,” Shaver said. “The partnership has been its own reward. It’s been a great source of new contributors and energy to our project and really helped us learn a lot about ourselves. We’re finding out what parts are easy to approach, what parts need more work and we’re seeing how valuable additional perspectives can bring to the process.”

Humphrey said the school is now looking at ways to implement similar open source initiatives at other schools.

“We’re talking to other academic partners and trying to see if this is a model they’d want to pick up and have their students work on,” he said.

Open source development, he added, is really a good way to get students working hands-on in the computer sciences field.

“It’s been difficult for other schools to get this type of thing into their curriculum,” Humphrey said. “You often see students doing this stuff in an extracurricular capacity in the summer, but what’s novel here is we’re taking a huge group of students and putting them into one community and one project. They’re all doing different things at Mozilla, but because they’re all together, they form a community unto themselves.”

Shaver agreed, saying he hopes that other open source projects and academic institutions follow this blueprint when developing future computer science courses.

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