Open source

Believe it or not, you can get something for nothing.  Normally, that’s true, but in the case of free and open-source software, it is.  The “free” in this sense refers to the fact that they don’t cost anything.  More importantly, the “open” refers to the fact that you can generally use, change, and distribute Linux stuff however you’d like.  This leads to two very nice outcomes:

  • Open-source software is intended to be easy-to-use.  Why?  The people who wrote it did so because they wanted to use it themselves – and wanted it to be the best.
  • You can always find technical help.  Your friend Google will help you find message boards and sites that will solve your problem for free (let’s see the Geek Squad do that!)

I will admit that Linux is still a little nerdy, mainly because nerds are the only ones who have ever wanted to mess with their computers.  However, if you look past the nerdiness, there’s something amazing waiting!

The equipment you’ll need to get going

Before we start using open source software, we need to first get a computer upon which to run this software.  Let’s look at our options:

OK… there’s only one great option:  Use the ones you already have at school.  You won’t have to buy anything, you know they work, they’re already set up.  And don’t worry:  You won’t have to erase the hard drive or anything to make them work.


Time to clean out the teacher workroom!

Making it run

Linux, which we’ll be talking about, is a computer operating system.  Both Windows and iOS are operating systems, too, and they serve the same function.  Before we get to that, however, let’s learn how your computer works.  When you turn on the power switch…

  1. Lights turn on and fans hum.
  2. A simple application called the BIOS figures out where information is stored on your computer and uses preset preferences to choose one.
  3. The device it chose (usually a hard drive) runs a program called a bootloader, which has the purpose of loading up the…
  4. Operating system.  Normally, your computer speaks in the 0s and 1s of binary.  Because you don’t speak binary and your computer doesn’t speak English, you’ve got to have a translator who can serve as a go-between to make sure everybody’s happy. That translator is the operating system.

Except, for some reason, open the pod bay doors.

There are three main operating systems currently in use, and all have pros and cons:

  • Apple’s iOS tends to be very easy to use, is extremely stylish, and the software all has the same feel to it.  The downside of this is that you end up paying far more for Apple products than for anything else, and Apple has a reputation for being incompatible with nearly everything else.  This leads to a “closed ecosystem” in which once you get involved with Apple, it’s very hard to switch back.  As of April 2015, iOS has about a 7% market share among computer users.
  • Microsoft’s Windows has a bad rep among Apple users because it used to be clunky, but that was 20 years ago.  Nowadays, Windows is easy-to-use , has widespread support, and runs just about any application you’d ever want – for half the price of Apple.  The downside of this is that you’ve got to navigate the world of viruses/malware/bloatware, and large organizations end up paying quite a bit in licensing fees.  And we won’t even talk about Windows 8.  As of April 2015, Windows has a whopping 91% market share.
  • Linux has the reputation for being impossible to use – mainly because it used to be impossible to use.  Nowadays, there are about a million Linux distros out there that duplicate either the Windows or iOS experience, so this isn’t such a concern.  Better yet, Linux is free, and 99.9% of the software that runs on it is free.  Unfortunately, the downside to using Linux is that many administrators aren’t familiar with Linux so large-scale support is limited.  Though people hardly ever think of Linux, its market share (2%) is about 30% that of iOS.

I know it may sound as if I hate iOS and Windows, but that’s not at all true.  These systems both serve very important purposes:  Windows is good for large organizations and iOS is for people who don’t like to spend any time tinkering with their computers.  Though Linux is my choice of OS, it would be ridiculous for me to say that any of these are better than the other – after all, they can all be taught to do the same things!

Meet Tux

Here’s Tux, the Linux mascot.  If you see this little guy around your IT guy’s cubicle, you can be sure he’s got a Linux background.


So, how can you get Tux working for you?  Let’s see how to get Linux:¹

Step 1:  Get a USB flash drive (8 GB or larger):  Use a new one, as any existing information will be wiped during this process.

Step 2:  Download a program called UNetbootin to your computer:  (Windows / Mac)

Step 3:  Make your bootable USB drive.¹

  • Put the USB drive you want to use into your computer.  Make a note of what the drive letter is for this USB drive – it’s vital you double-check this!
  • Double-click on the UNetbootin.exe file that you downloaded.  It should open up a little box that looks like this:


  • At the top of the page there are two menus with “Distribution” to the left of them.  Click the button next to “Distribution.”
  • On the “Select Distribution” menu, scroll down to Lubuntu.
  • On the “Select Version” menu, find a good “Live” version for your computer.  Currently, “14.04_Live” is what you would choose for an older computer and “14.04_Live_x64” would be used for a computer made after 2008.  (The number in front may differ depending on when you read this tutorial).
  • Move to where it says “Space used to preserve files across reboots (Ubuntu only):”  Place a number that’s half the size of your flash drive (in MB) here – for example, for an 8 GB hard drive, you’d type “4000” to represent 4 GB.
  • In the bottom line, make sure that the “Type:” is “USB Drive” and that the letter after the word “Drive” is the same as the letter of your flash drive (in this case, the flash drive is shown in drive D:\).  It’s very important that you not put the letter of your hard drive here, so make sure you check again (and NEVER use C:\ if you’re using Windows)!
  • Click OK.  This will happen.


  • When the “4. Installation Complete, Reboot” turns black and it asks you with two buttons whether or not you want to reboot your computer, you’re done.

Step 5:  Reboot (after reading this, of course)¹

  • If you reboot your computer at this point, nothing unusual will happen.  Your computer will load as usual and you’ll wonder why nothing interesting happened.  That’s because you haven’t read the stuff below yet.
  • You’ll notice that when you boot your computer, you see a quick “flash screen” before the Windows menu comes up.  There are about a million different variations on this screen, but all of them look something like this:
  • dell1The name of the function button next to the words “Boot Menu” is the one we really care about. The specific wording may be different, but it’s usually a function key (on this one it’s “F12”), ESC, or DEL.
  • Once you do this, you’ll enter the magical land of Stuff You Are Worried Will Screw Up Your Computer.  It’ll look something like this:


  • Scroll to the entry that corresponds to your flash drive.  In this case, you’d scroll to “USB Storage Device”, and reference to a USB device is a dead giveaway that this is what you want (and why I told you to unplug the other USB stuff).  By the way, if you pick the wrong one and your computer doesn’t load, try again and pick something else.
  • If you’ve done that correctly, you should see this:


  • In this case, you can either do nothing (at which point it will do what you want) or scroll to “Try Lubuntu without installing”.  If it says “Ubuntu” as it does here, don’t panic.
  • Thus finished, you wait 30 seconds or so and you’ve got yourself an operating system!

What just happened?

The USB drive you booted from just now is called a Live USB.  The operating system will treat this USB drive as if it were your hard drive, so anything you install or save will end up on your USB unless you specifically tell the computer not to do this.  Any time you want to open Lubuntu, just follow the steps above.

Using Lubuntu:  What’s that on the screen?

Having opened Lubuntu, you probably see a big blue pattern and not much else.  Here’s how to do something useful with this.

  • The button on the bottom left is the Start button.  You can access any program that’s installed from here, and anything you install will show up here.
  • If you scroll up that menu to “System Tools”, you’ll see an entry for the “Lubuntu Software Manager.”  That’s your key to free stuff!

If you’ve opened this, you now have a wonderful world of cool stuff for the taking.  As you can see, there’s educational stuff, but if you just want to screw around there are lots of games and other things to play with.  Once you’ve found what you want, click the box next to it, add it to the App Basket, and then hit install from the App Basket to get it.

Things you might be interested in

I don’t know specifically what you need or want, but here are some of the programs that I find to be most awesome.  Keep in mind, however, that there are many more things available, and new stuff put out all the time, so make sure you take a look around!¹

Education software:

  • Avogadro:  It’s good for drawing, simulating, and visualizing molecules.  Ballview is also good at this.
  • Bkchem:  Good for drawing molecules (very handy for those of you teaching organic). Chemtool also does this nicely.
  • Classrooom control:  A tool for handling your computer lab (and making sure the kids are doing what they should).  And yes, classrooom does have 3 “o”s.
  • Dossaqueux:  Allows you to simulate chemical reactions by placing reagents into a virtual beaker and seeing what happens.  If you don’t have a lab, or don’t have time to set up a big lab, this is a great tool to use.
  • Expeyes:  Simulates science and engineering processes.  I’ve never used it myself, but it sounds interesting.
  • Gamgi:  Looks at the atomic structure of various molecules, and is handy for teaching about atoms and quantum stuff.  Also check out Ghemical for quantum modeling stuff.
  • Gvb:  Physics teachers can use this to teach about waves and vibrations, as well as anybody wanting to give students help visualizing orbitals.
  • Kalzium:  A good, interactive periodic table.  Periodic table of the elements is another, and extends the range of things that can be done.
  • Pyacidobasic:  Interested in teaching titrations?  Of course you are!  And now you can!
  • Step:  Though I’m assuming you’re a chemistry teacher, the Step program is a great physics simulator you can use to test out springs and levers and such.
  • Xmakemol:  Chemical reaction simulator, a bit more advanced than the ones above.

Miscellaneous handy apps:

  • Graphics applications:  KolourPaint is what I use, and it’s good for general drawing.  If you need Photoshop, consider GIMP and if you’re more artistic, take a look at Inkscape.  Open ClipArt might be worth a look, too.
  • Internet applications:  Chromium is my browser of choice (it’s basically the same as Chrome), while Firefox is the also-excellent default.  If you’re a Dropbox fan, you’re also in luck.  Skype isn’t available on this menu, but can be downloaded from their site.
  • Utilities:  7zip is a good archiving and compressing tool, similar to WinZip for Windows. Catfish file search will help you find that file you misplaced.  GParted is good for disk partitioning, but don’t use it unless you know what that is. Ubuntu Software Center is the same as Lubuntu Software Center, but with more pictures and descriptions.
  • Office stuff:  LibreOffice is hands-down the best office suite, superior to anything Microsoft or Apple have to offer.

If you want games, there’s a million up there, but I’ll let you find your own. And to give you an idea of how esoteric these can get, if you want an app that will calculate Italian ZIP codes for you, you’re in luck.  (I didn’t even know they had ZIP codes!)

Some final words:

Play with Linux.  Get used to it.  And incorporate it with your classes.  Unlike the stuff you have to convince your department chair to purchase, it’s all free for the taking and using.  And in the worst-case scenario, you lose nothing.


There’s only one footnote in this thing, and I included it frequently so you’d come down and read this disclaimer:

The steps I have told you to take should not, under normal circumstances, have any negative effect on your computer or existing software.  However, I cannot predict what sort of mistakes you might make, nor can I control the content of the programs downloaded, nor can I be aware of your particular classroom setting.  For this reason, by doing the above you assume all responsibility for whatever bad things happen to your computer hardware, software, or anything else.  That’s not to say that anything bad will happen – just that I don’t want to get in trouble if it does.

Photo credits:

Updated 5-4-15 

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