From Teaching Open Source
This was my statement of purpose submission for the PhD program in Engineering Education at Purdue. I was admitted (I started my studies in Fall 2011) and granted a Purdue Doctoral Fellowship, so something must have gone right.
I caught the ENE bug as an undergraduate (electrical and computer engineering) at Olin College. Sometimes things seemed to "magically" work, as when my tutorial students performed an interpretative dance on PID control; other times they fell flat. What was the magic behind the good moments, and how could it be scaled and reproduced? I considered graduate school in engineering so I could become a professor and chase down these questions. Instead, dissatisfied with the way my worldview was being constrained by family pressures, I used my savings from working multiple jobs all four years of college to take a gap year post-graduation, thinking it was the only time in my life I'd be able to experience working on something out of love rather than duty.
My gap year was spent volunteering for the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, where I discovered the open source world was swarming with self-directed makers in a culture of abundance experiencing the "magic" I had sought to reproduce as an undergraduate - and producing the best software I'd ever seen almost as a side-effect. I also discovered a knack for building and nurturing the growth of those communities; when Red Hat hired me to continue building groups "the open source way," my one-year "work for the love of it" gap term turned into a gloriously indefinite stretch of waking up every day to pursue my passions. My love of undergraduate engineering education was recognized, and I was tasked me with the company's education outreach strategy, where I've since worked with the professors in the Teaching Open Source community on creating "more magic" for students through bridging the academic and open source worlds.
I'm starting to hit my limitations in how effective a bridge I can be. If I want to study and change (and teach!) the academic system of undergraduate engineering education, a PhD is a prerequisite to being able to "commit to this repository," in open source parlance. More important is my refusal to continue calling it "magic" - there is a method to the madness, and it has an effect, but I have no mental frameworks or tools with which to evaluate and reflect upon the results we're beginning to get, and feel uncomfortable leaving it unexamined.
Prof. Robin Adams and I have spoken about these topics in person on several occasions, and I'd love to spend my graduate school years at Purdue under her guidance. Her work on communities of practice intersects with my understanding of "the open source way" as being composed of such communities, and her investigation of design thinking has transferable parallels with my investigation of "the open source way" as it begins to surface within more classrooms. My team at work supports both my scholarly pursuits and my desire to integrate them into the communities that Red Hat participates in; while I'm not sure which side of the academic/open-source bridge I will stand on after earning my doctorate, I intend to keep studying and strengthening that connection post-graduation.