SIGCSE Day 2, “Software Engineering: Courses”, Thursday, 1:45-3:00pm, (#SIGCSE2014)

Regrettably, despite best efforts, I was a bit late getting back from the lunch and I missed the opening session, so my apologies to Andres Neyem, Jose Benedetto and Andres Chacon, the authors of the first paper. From the discussion I heard, their course sounds interesting so I have to read their paper!

The next paper was “Selecting Open Source Software Projects to Teach Software Engineering” presented by Robert McCartney from University of Connecticut. The overview is why would we do this, the characteristics of the students, the projects and the course, finding good protects, what we found, how well it worked and what the conclusions were.

In terms of motivation, most of their SE course is in project work. The current project approach emphasises generative aspects. However, in most of SE, the effort involves maintenance and evolution. (Industry SE’s regularly tweak and tune, rather than build from the bottom.) The authors wanted to change focus to software maintenance and evolution, have the students working on an existing system, understanding it, adding enhancements, implementing, testing and documenting their changes. But if you’re going to do this, where do you get code from?

There are a lot of open source projects, available on0line, in a variety of domains and languages and at different stages of development. There should* be a project that fits every group. (*should not necessarily valid in this Universe.) The students are not actually being embedded in the open source community, the team is forking  the code and not planning to reintegrate it. The students themselves are in 2nd and 3rd year, with courses in OO and DS in Java, some experience with UML diagrams and Eclipse.

For each team of students, they get to pick a project from a set, try to understand the code, propose enhancements, describe and document  all o their plans, build their enhancements and present the results back. This happens over about 14 weeks. The language is Java and the code size has to be challenging but not impossible (so about 10K lines). The build time had to fit into a day or two of reasonable effort (which seems a little low to me – NF). Ideally, it should be a team-based project, where multiple developed could work in parallel. An initial look at the open source repositories on these criteria revealed a lot of issues: not many Java programs around 10K but Sourceforge showed promise. Interestingly, there were very few multi-developer projects around 10K lines. Choosing candidate projects located about 1000 candidates, where 200 actually met the initial size criterion. Having selected some, they added more criteria: had to be cool, recent, well documented, modular and have capacity to be built (no missing jar files, which turned out to be a big problem). Final number of projects: 19, size range 5.2-11 k lines.

That’s not a great figure. The takeaway? If you’re going to try and find projects for students, it’s going to take a while and the final yield is about 2%. Woo. The class ended up picking 16 projects and were able to comprehend the code (with staff help). Most of the enhancements, interestingly, involved GUIs. (Thats not so great, in my opinion, I’d always prefer to see functional additions first and shiny second.)

In concluding, Robert said that it’s possible to find OSS projects but it’s a lot of work. A search capability for OSS repositories would be really nice. Oh – now he’s talking about something else. Here it comes!

Small projects are not built and set up to the same standard as larger projects. They are harder to build, less-structured and lower quality documentation, most likely because it’s one person building it and they don’t notice the omissions. Thes second observation is that running more projects is harder for the staff. The lab supervisor ends up getting hammered. The response in later offerings was to offer fewer but larger projects (better design and well documented) and the lab supervisor can get away with learning fewer projects. On the next offering, they increased the project size (40-100K lines), gave the students the build information that was required (it’s frustrating without being amazingly educational). Overall, even with the same projects, teams produced different enhancements but with a lot less stress on the lab instructor.

Rather unfortunately, I had to duck out so I didn’t see Claudia’s final talk! I’ll write it up as a separate post later. (Claudia, you should probably re-present it at home. 🙂 )

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