Open Source Advocate Mentors Falmouth Students In New Technology Club

Members of the new Falmouth High School Tech Club (from left), seniors Dmitry Shribak and Daniel Morrison and sophomore Robert Taft, work in the basement of Falmouth Public Library. At right is the group's advisor, Alex Perry.
ELIZABETH W. SAITO/ENTERPRISE - Members of the new Falmouth High School Tech Club (from left), seniors Dmitry Shribak and Daniel Morrison and sophomore Robert Taft, work in the basement of Falmouth Public Library. At right is the group's advisor, Alex Perry.

Until recently, the only option for Falmouth High School students who wanted to learn how to code was to take an online course through Virtual High School. But a newly established technology club now provides a community and forum for students to learn programming and basic hardware engineering. The club is run by Falmouth resident Alexander Perry, 28, a proponent of open source software and digital liberty.

On Tuesday evening, July 29, Mr. Perry and the three core members of the club—seniors Dmitry Shribak and Daniel G. Morrison and sophomore Robert D. Taft—sat around a table in the basement of Falmouth Public Library tinkering with their latest creation: a weather sensor that will measure and then graph various meteorological metrics online using software and a website built by the students. The students hope to install the homemade weather station in the Mullen-Hall Elementary School garden.

The weather station consists of a plastic breadboard with several sensors attached, including a blue plastic humidity gauge the size of a Starburst candy. The breadboard is connected by plastic coated wires to an Arduino microprocessor, an open-source electronics platform.

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“This is what comes out of the Arduino,” Dmitry said, pointing to a text file on his laptop. The data was listed in dollar signs, hexadecimals, and other obscure symbols. But Dmitry had written a program to convert the raw data into an intelligible list, which was displayed in a second text window and read, “The humidity is 62 percent.”

Dmitry then explained that he would pull code from open source “code libraries” to convert the data into visual graphs. “People have done this thousands of times, it won’t be original,” he said, referring to the graph code.

“But we’ll be modifying it in creative ways,” Mr. Perry pointed out.

The technology director at Falmouth Public Schools, Wendy Haskell, said getting Mr. Perry to run the tech club was a piece of extreme good luck. Last spring, a group of boys had expressed interested in a tech club focused on programming, but “with no programming courses at Falmouth High School, there was no teacher who could be the advisor,” Ms. Haskell wrote in an e-mail. She reached out to community members, but to no avail. “Then like manna from heaven,” Ms. Haskell wrote, “I got an e-mail from Alex asking about volunteering with a tech club and his contribution would be programming!” The tech club was formed.

On Thursday morning, over a cup of coffee, Mr. Perry explained that he is committed to open source software “as a moral philosophy.” He said, “I don’t preach to [the students] about free software, but it’s what’s motivating me, to have them exposed to it.”

Mr. Perry clarified the term “free software,” which is synonymous with “open source software,” He said that the open source movement talks about four freedoms: freedom of purpose, freedom to study, freedom to modify, and freedom to redistribute. A “free” software may cost money, but the user will be able to see the code, modify it, and use it in other ways. By contrast, a person who buys iTunes cannot see the original code for the program, they cannot make any changes to it, and cannot pass on improvements.

“If the tech club went to Microsoft, and said, ‘Hey, sponsor us,’ we’d all be wearing Microsoft T-shirts and using their devices, but you’d lose the freedom,” Mr. Perry said. “Whereas with Robert [a member of the tech club], we’re working on making a really compact computer from scratch and we’re going to mount it on wood.”

With open source technologies, Mr. Perry said, “There’s nothing we can’t delve into. We can go as deep as we want, and that’s something I think is really important.”

Mr. Perry grew up in Pennsylvania. In high school, he said, he had an excellent electronics teacher. “He was a mad scientist kind of guy, he’d just rip things apart—had us acid-etch our own circuit boards.” In contrast, his computer science education “wasn’t very good.” So Mr. Perry taught himself how to program. After a semester of college, Mr. Perry dropped out and moved to New York City, where he worked in graphic and database design for six years.

Next Mr. Perry moved to Honesdale, Pennsylvania, to live on a community farm. There, he connected with a group of residents who founded a homeschool cooperative in a “big brick building off Main Street.” He was the school’s (volunteer) technology teacher. One of the school’s board members was a university professor who studies technology ethics. Mr. Perry began to collaborate with the professor, helping to write papers on “the ethics of technology education in public schools” and speaking at open source conferences, he said.

Often, Mr. Perry said, open source programs that have greater educational value are neglected in favor of proprietary products pushed by corporations that “have a real foothold in education at the state and federal level.”

Mr. Perry moved to Falmouth in March of last year to be near his girlfriend, Lauren Valle. Ms. Valle is the project coordinator for John Todd Ecological Design, based in Woods Hole. Mr. Perry has a job working with Ms. Valle’s brother at the East Falmouth construction firm, The Valle Group.

The tech club is soliciting both members and additional advisors. Students stressed that members of any skill level or age are welcome.

During the summer the club meets Tuesdays in the Bay Room at Falmouth Public Library from 6 to 8 PM. Once school begins, the club will meet Mondays from 2:15 to 3:30 PM at Falmouth High School. Mr. Perry can be contacted at aperry@falmouth.k12.ma.us.

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