Seneca College gets $50,000 grant to work on Eclipse WTP

After previous successes with its students contributing to open source community projects, Toronto-based Seneca College is hoping to replicate that experience with IBM Corp.’s Eclipse Web Tools Platform (WTP) with a $50,000 grant from the Armonk, New York-based software company.

Past collaborations with Mozilla Corp. and Red Hat Inc. have proved fruitful for the communities and students, and “now, what we’re interested to do, is grow this and clone it to other large open source projects,” said Evan Weaver, chair of the school of computer studies.

The grant will go towards jointly funding a liaison position in which a faculty member will manage a collaborative relationship between Seneca’s Centre for Development of Open Technology, IBM, and the Eclipse WTP community. Eclipse, originally started by IBM, continues to be supported by the company even though it is now an independent entity.

As part of the course curriculum, computer science students will work on potential contributions to the open source community project, said Weaver, noting that with any student project, “some work dies on the table and others will get embedded in the core product.” Weaver noted that while individual contributions may not necessarily appear profound, as a collection, the students efforts may well end up advancing open source products.

Nonetheless, it will be a valuable experience for the approximately 15 students this semester working on the project, which Weaver described as the “top-tier” kind that allows young minds to get exposed to real-life software development rather than “just little software assignments that the professor created.”

And the fact that the WTP component of Eclipse is developed out of IBM’s Markham, Ont., software lab is a bonus for Seneca given its close geographic proximity, said Weaver.

The code that students build will get reviewed by Eclipse developers before being accepted into the Eclipse source tree.

Dan McPhee, client manager with IBM Canada’s higher education and research division, said the company believes that educational programs like Seneca’s Centre for Development of Open Technology is “extremely important for the continued development of Canada’s skilled workforce.”

In the software development world today, Weaver said that “everyone working with open source realizes that software is getting so complex, that people can’t afford to start from scratch so that they own everything anymore.”

And, from an academic point of view, the open source approach, said Weaver, recalls academia’s original function as a shared repository of information from which everyone benefits and everyone contributes to. But, with cut budgets in the last 20 years, he said ideas have been mostly retained by academic institutions for profit.

The liaison position has been in part created to help manage contributions from the school to the community because, as Weaver explained, parsing good from bad code is an often expensive and time-intensive process.

But in the meantime, students will probably work on a small scale by tackling the usual endless list of bug reports that exists with any project, before assuming more innovative ideas.

Another open source collaborative relationship in the pipeline for Seneca is Open Office, the open source productivity software.

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