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[FYI] Tux on the Upper West Side

Was soll ich sagen, was soll ich erklären? So muß das aussehen:
Computer als Werkzeuge in allen Fächern, als Selbstverständlichkeit
und sich als Besonderheit einzelner UEs. Außerdem geht es darum,
eine technikbejahende Atmospähre zu schaffen: "Zu schwierig" gibt 
es nicht, nur "Ich kann das noch nicht, erklär mal". Oder
anders gesagt:

	"Being a techie isn't a stigma, it's cool. And that rocks." 



Tux on the Upper West Side

[ Education ] Posted by emmett on 15:04 3rd March, 2000
from the linux-in-education dept.

The Beacon School is a selective secondary public school on West 61st Street in New
York City. It is a place where students are encouraged to work with computers and
technology, not just to run educational software, but to write code, administer networks
and troubleshoot hardware. Long on knowledge but short on cash, Beacon is a
textbook example of how Linux and Open Source make the impossible possible in

The Beacon "tech staff" is a loose gathering of faculty and students, but don't think for
a minute that the faculty is there to ladle jargon and useless information onto the kids.
These students are maintaining Webservers, learning Perl and rebuilding machines.
Beacon is a place unlike any other, and the differences are wonderful. 

For instance, there's Tiffany Atiles. Tiffany is the captain of Beacon's girls basketball
team. She's also learning Perl and she teaches the teachers HTML. Carmelo Pabon is
a tall guy, and he's the captain of the school's Ultimate Frisbee team. He's also
incredibly good at taking machines apart to find out what's worth keeping, and what
should go; a valuable skill in computer systems triage, especially at a cash-poor high
school. The students take an active role in building and maintaining the school's
network; Adam Matos, the senior student sysadmin, has root and administrative
privileges on every machine in the school. Instead of the standard "spoonfeeding" that
takes place in computer labs around the country, Beacon works because there's an
overwhelming sense of cooperation, among the students, their parents, and the faculty. 

Beacon prides itself on maintaining a dynamic curriculum focused on aestetics,
technology and the arts, as well as the high school staples. Due to financial constraints
placed on public schools, Beacon has to get the most out of every piece of technology
they have. It seems as though Linux is a perfect fit. I recently got to ask Chris
Lehmann, the school's technical coordinator, about how Linux has helped Beacon. 

"Using Open Source, I was able to scale projects to include the entire school. If
we were using proprietary software for all of the services we provide, we'd have
to raise tens of thousands of dollars just to pay for e-mail and Web service for
everyone. We wanted to start teaching programming... we didn't have to go out
and buy compilers, we use the open source compilers on our server. IRC servers
for bringing in experts to talk to our classes, mailing lists to support
collaboration, we wanted conferencing software, we found great open source
projects for Web-based conferencing, and now we're starting to alter the source
to make it fit our needs better! Just by offering everyone in the building a stable,
robust e-mail, Web and file-server, without ever worrying that we'd go over a
user license, we create an atmosphere that encourages the use of the technology.
Without Linux and Open Source, that doesn't happen." 

Everyone at Beacon is learning a valuable lesson; when technology is implemented in a
way that benefits everyone, cool things happen. All of a sudden, they're building Web
sites in English class. Not only that, but they're often sharing their work with a
"Cyber-Mentor," a program now in its second year, where students work with adults
from the outside world on their writing. They're using technology every step of the
way, and learning multiple skills as time goes by. Remember Tiffany, the girl's
basketball captain? You can hear play-by-play of the games on the school's RealAudio
server, as well as poetry readings. Keith Miller's photography class is getting into digital photography. 

Thermodynamics tells us that there's no such thing as a completely efficient system.
What happens when things go wrong? I asked Chris if any of the students have ever
caused a serious problem on the network. 

"Define serious... every time Word crashes when a kid hasn't saved their work in
the last two hours, we've got a crisis of epic proportion." 

"Seriously, not often. We've had a scanner walk out of the building, and we lose
our fair share of mouse balls, but we've had very few problems. And I think there
is a reason for that. The best hackers in the school work for the tech staff. We
encourage kids to learn as much as they can, and we want them to feel like
they've got access to anything they'd need to accomplish that. Every student has
shell access... and we want them learning as much about Linux as they can." 

"I'd say that once or twice a year, we find a kid trying to install a keycoder, or
trying to hack into a hole in the server. More often, kids have been fiddling
around and thought they'd accidentally wrecked something. I remember the poor
student who was trying to learn about TCP settings and hit return right when our
T1 line went down. They thought they'd brought down the network." 

It raises an interesting point, one that's been recently discussed at length on Slashdot;
what isn't allowed on the network at Beacon? It's great to trust kids and work with
them, but there's got to be some kind of control there. Chris? 

"Installing AOL is verboten, mostly because the kids try to set it to 'Home' setting
and it always messes up network connections. Also, I really don't want my kids
playing around in the AOL chat rooms... The last thing Beacon needs is a
cyber-scandal. Keeping AOL off is a good defense. We also are pretty strict
about installing games... again, not just for the obvious reason of 'Games are
bad' but rather because most of the games I've seen kids installing off of a
download have been buggy or virus-riddled. Also, we do want to control the use
of games at school. Even with three open labs, there are always kids wanting to
use the computers for their projects... not having games all over the computers
make using the computers for educational purposes easier. That being said, when
the kids and I have worked in the summer to get the school ready, we've had
some pretty amazing Quake games." 

"Clearly, porn is not allowed at Beacon, but we don't try to filter out every site.
Rather than trying to filter everything, we really work to teach the kids what is
and isn't appropriate for school. We also have supervision in the open labs, by
both teachers and students, so that there is an expectation of appropriate use." 

"Again, I think more important than 'What isn't allowed' is 'How do we teach the
students to use the computers well.'" 

Using Linux and Open Source software as the infrastructure, Beacon is blazing a new
trail in American education. By using free tools and expanding on their functions,
Beacon does a lot for a little, and the real winners are the students. When Tiffany,
Adam and Carmelo leave high school, they'll have marketable skills in the tech
marketplace. While all the other students may not be quite as technically inclined, they'll
be familiar with more than just the basics. Beacon teaches students not to be afraid of
computers, and if they're good with computers, not to be afraid of their skills. In the
words of Chris Lehmann... 

"Being a techie isn't a stigma, it's cool. And that rocks." 

We're inclined to agree. The case for using Linux and Open Source software in
education is getting better and better as each day goes by, and the Beacon School is a
shining example.

Kristian Köhntopp, NetUSE Kommunikationstechnologie GmbH
Siemenswall, D-24107 Kiel, Germany, +49 431 386 436 00
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