Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, Making Waves and Popping Bubbles

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I would like to tell you about my colleague Philip.  He is a graduate of MIT and Stanford, he's worked at Google with some pretty amazing computer scientists, and now he is an assistant professor at the University of Rochester NY. He also has created an open source project called the Online Python Tutor. Philip and I have been working on developing tools for teaching Python for almost three years. I wrote him a letter of recommendation for his job search, and a letter of support for a recent NSF grant. We communicate frequently, and openly exchange ideas about our work together.  We met face to face for the first time a few months ago.

Although we talk about the "Luther Bubble" and its influence on  our experience here at Luther, I think that the bubble is increasingly becoming a figment of our imagination. Our students know this, as they instinctively keep in touch with friends and family through social media -- almost constantly. 

Beyond social media, technology has the power to pop the bubble in ways that open up many possibilities for Luther College. I love summer for many reasons, but one of the main things I like is that I summer is my "hacking time." Time when I can spend long spells programming. During the school year, long lists of new features for my projects accumulate, but during the summer I can chip away at those lists and see the fruits of my labor appear online.

But, as you may suspect, this doesn't happen alone. In my work on Runestone Interactive, I collaborate with many people around the world on a weekly basis, and that is a real energizing experience. On any given day I may Skype (or google Hangout) with a colleague at Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, North Carolina or the University of Michigan. These colleagues are either professors at large research institutions here in the United States or entrepreneurs at small start up companies. As we talk, I can see their face as well as what they can see on their computer screen. Even though we are hundreds or thousands of miles away this is a very efficient way to brainstorm, share ideas, or help each other solve problems.

Further away, where timezones make face to face conversation scheduling a little more challenging, I exchange messages and work on code with a software engineer in the Netherlands, and professors in Germany, Finland and New Zealand. Recently some new faces have joined the mix from both inside and outside the United States, including Rice University, Calvin College, Harvey Mudd and others.

Brad Miller


Meanwhile, I can work here in Decorah, or at the lake in Wisconsin. My summer office is anywhere there is a good internet connection. I liked my colleague Todd Pedlar's title for his recent blog post, and in fact his own post reinforces my point about Luther professors and Luther students working together beyond the bubble.

Brad Miller

Isaac Newton is often quoted as saying "If I have seen further it is because I am standing on the shoulders of giants." This illustrates the world of open source software quite well. Here is a diagram that illustrates just a few of the components that go into my own open source project. The diagram is incomplete, and don't worry if you are not familiar with all of the acronyms. The point is to illustrate that none of us are working alone, everything at the top of the diagram builds on the software below it. The work represented here comprises many many years worth of work, by people who may have no idea that my project even exists. Some of the projects may have hundreds of contributors. It also raises interesting questions about ownership, and monetization, but that will have to wait for a different post.

What is most exciting about this for me is when I find out that our work has become the basis for something new that someone else has done. For example, a new book by my colleague at Georgia Tech was produced using our tools. And another book by colleagues at Harvey Mudd -- I didn't know about this until they sent me a thank you note. A set of teaching tools from a startup company called based on our work. These are some projects I know about.   

I like to think of these projects like ripples in a pond, the influence of one thing expanding outward and influencing people and events far beyond us, maybe even unknown to us, but more often coming back to us in the form of new relationships and new ideas. To mix my metaphors, it is this expansion that bursts the bubble.

Bradley Miller

Bradley Miller

Brad Miller is a professor of computer science and data science at Luther College where he also serves as chair of the department. Miller’s primary teaching interests include Machine Learning, Data Visualization, and Web Programming. Miller’s research focuses on interactive textbooks and has developed into the organization known as Runestone Interactive. Runestone interactive serves free, high quality textbooks in the browser to over 20,000 students a day around the world. Miller loves to cook and travel, you can read about his adventures on his blog A Reputable Journal.

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  • September 9 2014 at 1:07 am
    Ravindran Gopal

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