Introducing teens to open source software development with the Google Code-in contest

Back in 2010 Google realized that with the success of its Google Summer of Code program for university students there was a huge opportunity to reach even younger students and get them excited about software development in their early teens. Thus the Google Code-in contest was born. The 2014 contest will begin December 1st.

Google Code-in is a global, online contest designed for 13-17 year old pre-university students who are interested in learning about open source software development. Over the past four years, 1575 students from 78 countries have completed tasks in the contest. The contest allows teens to work with real open source projects such as Sahana Software Foundation (disaster relief software), Sugar Labs (software for children), Wikimedia, KDE and many others during the seven week contest. The opportunity to work on real software projects helps build the student’s skills as well as their confidence.

For their hard work students can earn a certificate of completion by completing one task, a t-shirt for completing three and a hooded sweatshirt if they are named as one the project’s five finalists. Finally, two grand prize winners are chosen by each of the open source projects and flown to Google’s Mountain View headquarters with a parent or legal guardian for a five day trip.

We hope students will continue to contribute to open source projects throughout their lives and help introduce others to the open source community thus putting more code out in the world for everyone to use.

Because software development requires many different skills, the open source projects create tasks for the students to work on in five categories: coding, documentation/training, quality assurance, outreach/research and user interface. While many of the tasks will involve using C++, C, HTML, Java, PHP, or Python, there are plenty of tasks for students new to software development—maybe they want to try their hand at documentation or perhaps they are artistically inclined and could help design a logo or redesign a web page. There are even tasks where students can create a screencast or a video describing how to use the software or introducing a new feature.

Realizing students can feel a bit intimidated jumping right into a software project they don’t know much about, participating projects assign mentors to each of the tasks so students can ask questions and receive guidance if they get stuck while trying to complete a task. This mentor interaction has proven to be a key part of the success of the program. Mentors are all active community members with the open source projects and are excited to help and to get new, young open source enthusiasts involved in their communities. Every year the #1 feedback we receive from mentors is that the seven weeks they spend working with these students is one of the most rewarding things they do all year. Mentors are not paid for their participation in the contest—instead they receive a t-shirt and a hearty thanks from Google. But time and again we hear that their main motivation for participating is helping students learn and bringing them into their communities.

Community involvement is one of the hallmarks of both Google Code-in and Google Summer of Code. Students have the opportunity to not only see the work they are doing become integrated into the software that thousands and sometimes millions of people will use but they also become part of that project’s open source community. When a student is welcomed into the open source community and becomes an active contributor they feel their work is appreciated. They can make new friends and are able to see the impact their work is having on the project. Ideally, students will continue to contribute to open source projects throughout their lives and help introduce others to the open source community thus putting more code out in the world for everyone to use.

Every year the grand prize winners come to Google as part of their grand prize trip and our team has had the opportunity to meet dozens of amazing students who have shared their stories with us. Since the contest is still relatively young (celebrating it’s 5th anniversary this year) most of the students are still in high school or university but the effect the contest has had on their lives is substantial.

Sushain Cherivirala, one of the Apertium project’s Google Code-in 2013 grand prize winners, recently wrote a blog post for the Google Open Source blog and had the following to say about his experience with the contest.

If I had to pick the single most educational experience of my life, it would be Google Code-in (GCI). I’ve completed MOOCs on topics from Philosophy to Functional Programming, finished my high school’s computer science curriculum, taken a computer science internship and participated in countless programming contests. But I can claim with confidence that Google’s initiative to put high school students into real-world open source development environments is unparalleled in its influence on me.

Google Code-in has helped me not only advance my technological expertise but also, more importantly, exposed me to an environment that few students my age have the opportunity to benefit from.

Out of all the programming contests I’ve participated in, Google Code-in has offered the most authentic experience; there are no synthetic problems designed to test your coding ability, every line of code goes towards improving an open source organization’s software. Working with Apertium during GCI has afforded me a new perspective on software development, made me a strong proponent of open source software, helped me gain valuable experience that will undoubtedly help me in the future and convinced me to remain a lifetime contributor to open source.

Sushain’s experience is something that we have seen time and time again with our contest participants. We have had a number of students go on to become mentors for other students the year or two after they participated in Google Code-in (once they are 18) and many have continued to be active contributors to the open source projects they worked with during Google Code-in. And now that more of the students are turning 18 and eligible for the Google Summer of Code program this year alone we had 16 former Google Code-in students accepted for Google Summer of Code. We expect that number to rise as more of these teens enroll in universities.

Google Code-in 2014 begins December 1, 2014 at 9am PST. We hope to have even more students participate this year than ever before. For 2014, there will be 10-12 open source projects creating tasks for students to work on. For more information on the contest, including rules, FAQs, timeline, sample tasks and slide decks to share with students, please visit the contest site google-melange.com.

By Stephanie Taylor, Google Code-in Program Manager

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