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This summer, I am a guest lecturer at an interesting summer program organized by HEIG-VD, the University of Engineering and Management of the Canton de Vaud in Switzerland, located in Yverdon. The university has three summer exchange programs, in enology, management, and computer science. This is the second year that my own institution, SJSU, has been a partner, and the students from last year's exchange had a great experience and continue to network with their Swiss counterparts. This year, participants come from HEIG-VD, SJSU, Cal State Long Beach, and Arizona State. Classes ranged from ubiquitous computing to artificial intelligence and bioinformatics.

I am teaching a crash course in open source development, an abbreviated version of a semester-long course that I had previously taught at SJSU. In a couple of weeks, students picked up Ant, Subversion, diff and patch, autotools, and wxWidgets. It was quite impressive how they rose to the challenge. Here are some random observations:

  • If you run a computer lab with desktops, air conditioning is a must. (Someone told me that Swiss law forbids air conditioning in public buildings.) I have found empirically that the ability to deal with CLASSPATH problems vanishes when the ambient temperature exceeds 30 degrees centigrade.

  • Ubuntu is a great platform for software development. We covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time, and the students who used Ubuntu instead of Mac OS X or (gasp) Windows were way more productive. We particularly loved the feature where you type in a command (such as aclocal) and Ubuntu tells you to runsudo apt-get install automake if the command isn't yet installed. What could be better? I suppose it could just install it :-)
  • The Swiss and European governments have sizeable funding for computer science research. Local companies get tax breaks for collaborating with universities. There are funding efforts with impressive names (such as “nano/tera”) that disburse significant amounts of money. It is reminiscent of what the U.S. did in the 50s and 60s.
  • Next year, SJSU and Arizona State will host the Swiss students. We need some kind of evidence that the program is beneficial for students. No problem, the Swiss organizers say, we'll get a letter of support from the government. Umm...could we have a letter from the local Google or eBay office instead? There is a cultural divide. In the U.S., successful companies have credibility, whereas in Switzerland, a governnment official would be considered more objective.
  • I am hoping we can extend the summer school to a longer effort where we practice software development across international boundaries. This is obviously a hugely important skill. Last year, there was some hesitation whether the students would be up to it, but judging from what they did in my class, I think they are way ahead of the administrators.
  • Just south of Yverdon, the home of HEIG-VD, is the beautiful city of Lausanne, home of EPFL, the birthplace of the Scala language. As it happens, J