Teaching basic lab skills
for research computing

Workshop at the University at Albany, SUNY

We recently ran a workshop hosted by the University at Albany, SUNY's Department of Informatics. The workshop ran on the weekend of January 31 and February 1, 2015 with the following schedule:

Day 1 AM:Automating tasks with the Unix shell (instructor: Thomas Guignard)
Day 1 PM:Building programs with Python (instructor: Jeramia Ory)
Day 2 AM:Version Control with Git (Jeramia)
Day 2 PM:Managing data with SQL (Thomas)

Thomas:The welcome we received from the University at Albany Department of Informatics staff was fantastic. They looked into every single detail and did a great job taking care of the instructors during the entire weekend. As a new instructor (it was my third time teaching and first time teaching bash) with very little teaching experience outside of Software Carpentry, this created the perfect atmosphere for me to relax a little and focus on delivering the lesson. Being paired with a more seasoned instructor (Jeramia) was also very useful, and we used the breaks to give each other feedback and report on how the class was following and which were the topics with with some attendees seemed to have issues and warranted being mentioned again.

Another thing that I learned the hard way was that if I don't know the answer to a question straight away, I'm better off admitting that I would need some time researching it, doing so during the next break, and then coming up with an answer, rather than try to look up the information online live and trying multiple options until I found a solution. While it does demystifies the process and highlights the approach of looking up answers to specific questions on the Web (which I believe is an important part of learning to code), it makes me too nervous and ends up being unproductive. Maybe with more experience I'll get better at adlibbing.

On Saturday, the organisers had invited Michael Corey, a social science researcher currently working for Facebook, to give a prep talk to attendees (some of which were recent Social Sciences graduates) about the importance of basic programming skills and knowledge of tools like R in their profession. I found it to be an interesting addition to the workshop, clearly a good way to link the syllabus with real-life examples. On the flip side, it also meant that most attendees didn't take a proper break over lunch, which had effects on their attention in the afternoon. Maybe something to keep in mind when discussing future workshops with organisers.

Jeramia: The planning of the workshop cannot be praised enough. It was easily the most trouble-free experience I have had to date. The WiFi worked, almost everyone had the software installed ahead of time, and attendees provided good feedback. Chris Kotfila, a graduate student in the Informatics program, provided local office hours on the two Fridays preceeding the workshop and was a helper along with Alex Jurkat. Having friendly, enthusiastic helpers meant that Thomas and I could check in about "higher level" issues at the breaks, and was just fantastic.

At the end of the workshop I gave a short demonstration of how I use Python and R in my workflow. I hoped to address the question that we frequently get during and after a workshop: why should I use Python? Should I be using R? Short answer: it depends. I personally think Python, as a general purpose language, is a bit closer to the philosophy under which Software Carpentry was created. That said, one can't deny the power of R's libraries. Interestingly, a number of students were already quite familiar with R with their work in the Informatics program, and wanted to learn python and automation. I also fell victim to trying to answer questions in real time in a similar way as Thomas. Ultimately I think these experiences can be useful for students to see, but it can lead to the question "Why did we ask you here to Google something?" My only answer to that, as with my undergraduates, is that we hope to teach you the vocabulary you need to succesfully search for things on your own after we leave.

Software Carpentry Workshop attendees at UAlbany Jan 31-Feb 1, 2015

Thanks to all attendees, helpers and organisers at the Software Carpentry workshop, University at Albany, Jan 31-Feb 1, 2015. (Photo: George Berg)

WORKSHOPS · SUNY ALBANY

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