Tuesday, 28 October 2014

An Introduction to Python Programming Language

On the sidelines of the PyCon, an annual event conducted by the Python Developer Community, Sridhar K Sr Vice President at TalentSprint, chats with two masterminds from the Academic Community behind the ongoing Python revolution in India, Professor Prabhu Ramachandran from IIT Mumbai and Asokan Pichai, the Head of Learning and Development at TalentSprint. PyCon innovatively named by combining Python and Conference aims at using and developing the Python programming language. Pycon India, 2014 was held in Bangalore.

Kenneth Gonsalves is the man behind PyCon India. Kenneth was instrumental in forming the Indian Python Software Society and served as director of the society for the first year. His work and efforts have considerably shaped the community and in his memory, the ‘Kenneth Gonsalves Award’ is instituted to honor and celebrate the efforts of people in popularizing and evangelizing Python language. This trophy for the year 2014 is awarded to Prabhu Ramachandran. He is the alumnus of the IIT Madras, Department of Aerospace engineering  and is presently a professor of the same field at IIT Mumbai. When asked about his feeling on achieving this award, Prabhu says, “It is an honour to be recognized, especially from an academic perspective as it increases the awareness among the students thereby helping the goal of Python community take a step ahead by popularizing it.” Prabhu was associated with Pycon from the very first conference and was also the Keynote Speaker at the conferences held in Argentina and Singapore.

In academics, the most commonly used softwares are MATLAB, Mathematica etc. They seem all perfect for the purpose they were designed for; but there on the flipside there are some limitations too like high costs etc. This is where Python comes into picture. A broad language and open source like Python is very useful to fill those gaps. Speaking about the Scientific Python community, Prabhu says, “Python is a broad language and its usage is not just limited to computers. It can be used in scientific community. A vibrant community of scientists are on the way to create a “Scientific Python Ecosystem”. The most popular projects in the history of Python like iPython Interpreter, Notebook are from Scientific Python community, he quotes.

Free & Open Source Software for Science and Engineering Education (FOSSEE) project  is the initiative of  Ministry of Human Resources and Development in India under umbrella of the National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology. It aims at minimizing the use of commercial tools in academics and improve the educational quality in the country. The goals are set in the view of expensive academic tools like MATLAB etc which be accessed only through purchasing their licenses. To make the students aware of the open source tools like SciLab, Python which are useful in college and even beyond.

Asokan Pichai with his experience as a methodological teacher, mentor and instructor was as a part of this project for 3 years. He mentored the teams, helped in instructional design of the workshop material and also played an advisory role. The unique feature of these materials is that they are Recipient-driven, which means the material enables the trainees to use the concepts immediately after grasping them. They have conducted 30 workshops to colleges across in the country including professors and students.

A whole new software project the team is working on is called OSCAT which is the replacement of OrCAD for Electronic Design Automation (EDA). Different groups are dedicated to different branches like the OpenFORM, Simpy, Coin-OR optimization toolbox and many others. This huge government funded project aims to increase the use of this open source software not just in science but in ‘education’.

Speaking on the impact made by this project on Indian educational system Prabhu says the team has started off with workshops, but the approach seemed restricted. And obvious solution to increase the spread of this project is to launch it online. The FOSSEE project after initiating online has taken up two initiatives:
  • 1000 teacher course which aims at honing the skills of the faculty across. Prabhu along with Asokan Pichai and Professor Madhu Belur have successfully trained 1000 teachers in the course ‘Software Engineering for Engineers and Scientists’ across India at one-go. This was semi-online course which included live video classes to teachers located at various parts of the country and was supported by the trained coordinators at all trainee locations. After the session, there would be an online chat session for the clarification of doubts. An online assessment tool was developed to test the effectiveness of the course. 
  • Development of learning material which enables self-learning. The main aim is to make the material amiable to the learners. Also, the Spoken Tutorials have reached many students across the country. Lakhs of people are getting trained through the online courses of FOSSEE project.
A series of international conferences called, SciPy are held all across the world. The US gathering is called SciPy and the Europe variant is EuroScipy. Scipy India was initiated in 2009 and was managed by Prabhu ever since its initiation in 2009. The Scipy India is held from Dec 5-7 this year.

There is a significant increase in the number of people who are aware of Python and online courses are behind this. SciPy India sees good number of interested individuals who are from non-IT background. They explore the opportunities, learn their features and fit them into their fields giving a form to their ideas.

On a commercial side, even companies like Enthought have started using it. Enthought is a company which develops Python related toolkits and provides high-end training programs in this field. So, FOSSEE provides these classroom trainings which have been very successful because of the availability of highly knowledgeable faculty. But again due to its less approach, an online version was launched. Called as the “Training on Demand” it can be purchased online. However, the courses are available for free of cost for academic purposes. Prabhu said the course content is not a simple slide show but a congregation of illustrations, graphs. The USP of these courses is that they are provided by scientists and engineers with profound details. The courses that are targeted for specific categories of scientists are in pipeline.

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