Thoughts on an Advanced Boot Camp at Boulder

Posted 2013-06-07 by Ted Hart in National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Alex Viana and myself recently wrapped up a bootcamp at the National Center for Atmosphere Research (NCAR) in Boulder, CO. It was a lesson in the advantages of being light on your feet when it comes to teaching for Software Carpentry. Our normal audience tends to be scientists with varying degrees of familiarity with the tools that we teach. This time we taught about 20 people all of whom were experience software engineers, some of whom had probably been programming longer than Alex or I had been alive. We had planned on starting the morning with some shell and then moving into Git. A quick survey of the room found that everyone was well versed in the shell so we abandoned that lesson all together and went straight to teaching Git.

Here was where things got interesting. I thought we'd fly through our material because everyone was so experienced. Instead though it almost seemed that we moved more slowly because not only were we teaching Git, but also how git was different than SVN and CVS (other version control systems for the uninitiated). Later in the day we also got into a deep conversation about what types of workflow Git could be used for compared to SVN and CVS.

We had a similar experience the next day teaching Python. Instead of just churning through it we spent a lot of our time talking about how Python was different than other languages the participants programmed in like Java. It turned out that teaching such an advanced crowd meant that we had a group that knew what questions to ask. Topics that we normally gloss over (what is an iterator anyway?) we had to really pick apart because of the knowledge in the room.

As instructors there were two really important lessons for us. The first is never assume that you're the most knowledgeable person in the room. The corollary to that is that just because you aren't doesn't mean you don't have something to teach. We even had a couple of really skilled Python programmers who were happy to be there just to see how they could become better teachers. At first we were a bit intimidated by the depth of knowledge, but really it just forced us to up our game as instructors and I think we're better for it.

The second lesson was that you can never forget that a bootcamp needs to be adaptable. Alex and I were challenged to create curriculum on the spot when we skipped over our 2 hours of the shell. We had to keep in mind that we were there to teach not just stand and deliver a canned lesson even if participants already knew it all. And that's the really great thing about Software Carpentry all around. All the instructors are creative and smart people who are dedicated to being good teachers and don't shy away from these kinds of unexpected challenges. The NCAR bootcamp was definitely my most challenging, but it also offered one of the best opportunities for growth as an instructor.

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