Teaching basic lab skills
for research computing

Halfway Home

We're half-way through our current round of work, so it's time to start thinking about what we've accomplished, what we've learned, and what we'd like to do next. Here's what I think we now know:

  1. Our training makes scientists more productive.
  2. We can prove it.
  3. Our methods scale.
  4. We can become self-sustaining in 2-3 years.

In more detail:

1. Our training makes scientists more productive.

Feedback from learners has been overwhelmingly positive: they believe that what we're teaching is relevant and useful, and they're going to incorporate into their work. Where that isn't the case, it's usually because of a mis-match between their level and the level of the material we're teaching. As we scale up, we'll be able to address this by running separate workshops for people with different backgrounds.

2. We can prove it.

By June, we will be able to show that:

  • pre- and post-workshop questionnaires,
  • in-depth interviews a few months after the end of training, and
  • students recording videos of themselves solving simple tasks

give us both qualitative and quantitative insight into the impact we're having, which in turn will allow us to back up our claim of improving productivity with more than just anecdotes.

3. Our methods scale.

By "our methods", I mean:

  1. short on-site bootcamps...
  2. ...followed by a few weeks of hour-long online tutorials...
  3. ...and the assessment methods discussed above.

By "scale", I mean:

  • Katy Huff, Tommy Guy, Matt Davis, Joshua Smith, Jason Pell, Rosangela Canon-Koning, Adina Chuang Howe, and Chris Cannam are all traveling from A to B to teach in this round of workshops;
  • Matt Davis and Steve Haddock have already run some of the online tutorials;
  • lots of other people (grad students, profs, Mozillians, and assorted volunteers) are co-teaching locally;
  • the Chicago, Newcastle, and Paris workshops have run or are going to run without me; and
  • the assessments that Jorge Aranda is developing can be conducted by other people.

In short, I am no longer the bottleneck I was two years ago.

The key seems to be "attend one, help someone teach one, lead one yourself". Moving people around from site to site builds horizontal (peer-to-peer) connections, increases the value of the workshop in the eyes of both learners and hosts (someone from far away must be smarter than someone you know from the neighborhood :-), and is a much better way to transfer knowledge than any number of "how to" guides.

4. We can become self-sustaining in 2-3 years.

The "attend/assist/lead" model is producing people who can and will organize local support groups similar to the Hacker Within. By 2014-15 we expect to have at least a dozen faculty partners who are able to contribute a few thousand dollars a year to instructors' travel costs, help update the web site, lobby to get students official recognition for taking part, and so on. Based on past experience with open source projects, that should be enough for Software Carpentry to take on a life of its own.

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