Teaching basic lab skills
for research computing

2015 Election: John Blischak

I feel I would be a good addition to the Steering Committee of the Software Carpentry Foundation because 1) I am a scientist that had to learn programming on the job, just like our target audience, 2) my experience performing many roles within SWC, most importantly as the maintainer of the R lesson materials, and 3) my goal to increase the collaborative aspect of our lesson development process.

I am currently a graduate student in genetics at the University of Chicago. I study the transcriptional response of immune cells to infection. This requires daily use of computational skills that are simply not taught to biologists (though this has certainly improved over the years). Using books and online resources, I was able to self-teach myself enough to be functional with the Unix Shell, Python, and R. The problem with this approach is that you can only self-teach yourself concepts that you know exists. This is why SWC is so important; scientists do not realize what they don't know. When I attended an SWC workshop back in April 2012, I had no expectation that they would be able to solve the growing problem I had: directories full of files like "analysis-1.R", "analysis-2.R", etc. Now that all the code I write is under version control, I can say that my experience with SWC truly changed how I worked as a scientist.

After my positive experience as an attendee, I started getting more involved. First as an instructor, then lead instructor, and eventually I took on the role of unofficial R maintainer in February 2014 (we didn't start having official subject maintainers until September). My biggest accomplishment as the R maintainer was organizing the translation of the novice Python lesson to R.

Unsurprisingly, I learned firsthand how difficult it is to manage a group of collaborators to develop lesson material (and we weren't even starting from scratch!). I think we have lots of room for improvement for achieving our goal of producing open source teaching material similar to how open source software is produced, especially now that we have overcome the bottleneck of having enough instructors familiar with version control. The materials we currently have were each largely written by a single author, and then other contributors are only able to make small edits that do not affect the overall design of the lesson. Furthermore, many instructors still write custom lessons that specifically appeal to their audience, but then these do not get incorporated back into the main repository of lessons. To improve this process, I'd like to organize small groups of instructors from the same scientific field to develop lessons optimized for their field. This would increase the level of collaboration because multiple instructors would participate in the actual design of the lesson. And while the lessons would still teach the language-agnostic principles that SWC promotes, each of the separate lessons could use data and vocabulary that will be familiar (and motivating!) to a target audience.

If you like this vision of SWC lesson development, please vote for me in the upcoming election. And either way, I look forward to continuing working with the SWC community. See you on the mailing lists!


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