Teaching basic lab skills
for research computing

Feedback from Imperial College London

On 16-17 September, EPCC's ARCHER headed down to Imperial College London to run a Software Carpentry bootcamp. My colleague Arno Proeme made his instructor debut, covering version control and Git and good programming practice, while I covered shell hints and tips, automation and Make, and testing.

We had 31 attendees stay the course, out of the 34 who were present at the outset. Most attendees were from Imperial College London and the Institute of Cancer Research (many of whose peers had attended the Greenwich bootcamp last October), with a few attendees from other London institutions (Queen Mary University of London, University of Greenwich, University College London, King's College London, Royal Holloway, University of London) and a couple coming in from Birmingham and Oxford.

The good points and bad points, written on sticky notes during the final session, were as follows:

Good points Bad points
Content was relevant to my work Should be more targeted to people with similar knowledge, background (a mix of backgrounds makes it too hard or too easy for some people to follow)
Interesting and very useful topics More hands on exercises to apply what was learned would have been helpful
The selection of topics was great as I have found myself trying to learn things like git or software testing for quite some time but always in the rush of some deadline No syntax highlighting on projector code
Lots of things covered More use of Etherpad for copying code please
Wide range of tools introduced I sometimes got behind due to missing/wrong syntax
Useful range of tools introduced SQL?
Examples used for teaching were interesting in that they expanded my views of what the taught tools had to offer Python bit slow
Git Too few days
Learned Git No pens :( [for the sign-in form and sticky notes]
Good pace of teaching
Nice and helpful instructors
Friendly teachers
Free of charge!!! :-)
I believe this is a greatly important initiative Thanks!

A number of attendees also commented via e-mail afterwards how they found the bootcamp both informative and enjoyable. One stated that they

took quite a bit away from it and will try implementing these practises and testing habits into my research (looking forward to getting over the learning hump :) )

There were a lot more set-up issues for this bootcamp than for the last bootcamp I was on at Cranfield in July. During the Git session, one attendee had never used "vi". Running the Software Carpentry installer to install "nano" revealed that the attendee had not installed Python. Other attendees also had problems with editors not being installed, or not being available on the PATH. Another complication arose from Anaconda Python and Canopy Python both being present on one attendee's machine which caused ipython to stop working, though, fortunately Python itself worked fine. One attendee had problems with Anaconda Python clashing with their native Python installation, which was resolved by manually setting the PATH. One attendee had the software installed on a remote machine which they could access, but their remote machine could not connect out to the web!

Some of these could have been averted had attendees installed, or at least tried to install, the required software, and run the Software Carpentry installation test scripts before they arrived. They did not do so despite at least 3 e-mails and a 30 minute pre-Welcome slot on the first day for egistration and software set-up. Next time we'll schedule the software set-up after the Welcome session.

The other issue was solely my responsibility - trying to cram too much in and sacrificing practicals for time, instead walking attendees through these via live coding. Next time I'll be more diligent in giving attendees time to try things by themselves, trying to reinforce a few concepts more deeply than covering many but with no opportunity for self-guided problem solving.

Arno, and our EPCC colleagues Mario Antonioletti and Alistair Grant will be attending the Software Carpentry: Instructor Training at TGAC this October. The four of us will then run a Software Carpentry workshop, sponsored ARCHER and PRACE, in Edinburgh in early December.

Dialogue & Discussion

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