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9 Cool, Free Summer Classes For Tech Pros

  • Remember when you were a kid, and the idea of summer school ranked with eating all the spinach on your plate, or watching Masterpiece Theater with your parents? As an adult, summer is a time when many of us have some vacation days or relaxation planned, and breaking out of the routine provides the opportunity to learn something new.

    Of course, for IT pros, downtime can be tough to come by, but the conveniences of modern technology make it easy to learn anywhere and any time. And the options for free online classes increase every day. Prestigious universities like Harvard, Michigan and Notre Dame offer deep dives with some of their most respected instructors and researchers.

    Here we provide some recommendations if you're setting aside some time to expand your skillset or delve into a new subject area, with courses on cybersecurity, wireless architecture and Python. And if you're looking for something lighter, you'll find geeky options on robotics, astronomy, culinary science and superheroes.

    Fire up that laptop and get ready for some summer schooling.

    Image: Giorgio Montersino via Flickr

  • Cyberwar, Surveillance and Security

    The University of Adelaide
    Professors Melissa de Zwart, Dale Stephens, and Rebecca LeForgia
    Begins May 21; 6 weeks

    Cybersecurity has become the biggest challenge of the information age. It seems everyone has an opinion about security breaches and what the NSA should or shouldn't be doing, but how much do you really know about the global security landscape? In this course, you'll get up to speed by learning about what's currently taking place in the worlds of cyber-activism and cyberwar, why and how governments are responding with networked surveillance technologies, and how our laws address or fail to address -- the competing tensions between national security and personal and commercial privacy.

  • Python Programming for Everybody

    University of Michigan
    Professor Charles Severance, a.k.a. Dr. Chuck
    Begins June 1; 10 weeks

    Programming skills are becoming a necessity in IT, and this course will give you a solid foundation on which to build those skills. Designed as a first programming course, this class teaches the fundamentals of programmatic thinking through the popular language Python. Students will use simple data analysis as the programming exercises throughout the course, and will learn about programming concepts like variables and expressions, loops and iteration, functions, strings and files. The course textbook is free for download, and participants can download software to complete exercises or perform them via browser.

    For those with a little more background, An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python (Part 1) from Rice University offers a slightly more advanced program, along with a continuation in Part 2.

  • The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact on Pop Culture

    Smithsonian Institution
    Professors Stan Lee, Michael Uslan, David Uslan, and Dr. Christopher Robichaud
    Begins June 5; 5 weeks

    What self-respecting nerd wouldn't love to take this class? Students who complete class even receive an original piece of digital artwork with the signatures of the comic book legend Stan Lee and movie producer Michael Uslan. The syllabus includes details on the history of the superhero and how it has evolved from folklore and myth into a modern phenomenon. Comic books, their history and role in popular culture and the many ways they reflect society are also covered in depth.

  • Beginning Robotics

    University of Reading
    Professors Richard Mitchell, Tharindu Liyanagunawardena, and William Harwin
    Begins June 15; 4 weeks

    Whether you want to build your own personal butler or are afraid of cyborgs taking over the universe, this entertaining course is for you. It includes an introduction to robotics that examines how robots process information to think and learn and a look back at the history of robots from science fiction to today's reality. Students also learn about robotic components and walk through designing and controlling their own.

  • Understanding Wireless: Technology, Economics, and Policy

    University of Notre Dame
    Professors Patricia L. Bellia, Barry Patrick Keating, J. Nicholas Laneman, and Aaron Striegel
    Begins May 18; 6 weeks

    You probably use wireless technology every day with your cellphone and laptop, but do you understand the details about how wireless communications work? If you always wanted to know more about mobile networks and devices, this course is the place to start. You'll learn about wireless transport, frequencies and different types of spectrum, as well as how devices and applications use them. The course also includes a discussion of public policy debates on wireless bandwidth and broadband, and covers the legal and economic aspects of pervasive wireless technology.

  • Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science

    Harvard University
    Professors Michael Brenner, David Weitz, Pia Sorensen, and Daniel Rosenberg
    Begins June 17; 14 weeks

    Most of us like to eat, but did you know you can learn the basic principles of physics, chemistry and engineering from the culinary arts? This class turns the kitchen into a research laboratory where you can eat your experiments. Each week, a guest chef will demonstrate a cooking technique, often in their own restaurant, and then Harvard scientists will explain the science behind the recipe.

  • Code-Based Cryptography

    France Universite Numerique
    Professors Irene Marquez-Corbella, Nicolas Sendrier, and Matthieu Finiasz
    Begins May 25; 4 weeks

    Cryptography was once a tool for spies and thieves, but the Internet has allowed and necessitated the spread of underlying techniques of cryptography, so that today we use advanced cryptosystems every day. If you have some security and computer science background and are interested in the technology behind cryptography, coding theory or code-based cryptography, you're sure to find this course fascinating. The instructors discuss the state of modern cryptography and how future advancement from public-key cryptosystems to code-based cryptography could change the security landscape dramatically.

  • AstroTech: The Science and Technology Behind Astronomical Discovery

    University of Edinburgh
    Professors Andy Lawrence and Catherine Heymans
    Begins May 18; 6 weeks

    Scientific discoveries about the universe have progressed to amazing levels and continue to advance, but how exactly do scientists know the things they know? In this class, you'll find out. Each week the instructors will cover a different aspect of astronomical technology, matching each piece of technology with a scientific discovery. They'll explain how the technology works, how it has allowed researchers to collect astronomical data, and how the data is interpreted to make new discoveries.

  • Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World

    University of Michigan
    Professor Eric Rabkin
    Begins June 1; 12 weeks

    Our final recommendation is not for the faint of heart, but if you want to spend the summer reading it's a great excuse. Required reading includes Frankenstein, Dracula, The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Martian Chronicles, as well as short stories by Poe and Hawthorne, and Grimm's fairy tales. Discussion will revolve around the common themes of science fiction and fantasy and what the literary works reveal about the times and places in which they were written. In addition, the course delves into the profound ways that science and technology shape the world around us, our thoughts and imagination.