Teaching basic lab skills
for research computing

Software Carpentry workshop at the University of Otago, New Zealand

A three day Software Carpentry workshop was held at the University of Otago from June 29 - July 1. The instructors for the course were Mik Black, Nick Burns, Murray Cadzow, David Eyers, Tanya Flynn and Tom Kelly, with Anthony Shaw and Riku Takei providing additional assistance as helpers. This was Tanya’s and Nick’s first time teaching at a SWC workshop, so it was great to add them to our Otago carpentry team.

For the three day format, we reduced the number of contact hours per day so that we ran from 9am to 2:30pm - this gave our attendees with family commitments the ability to experience the whole workshop, and also meant that attendees with other work demands were still able to clock up some “productive hours” after the workshop finished each day. To better fit the three day format we also adjusted the order of our material a little - rather than teaching Unix shell, R and Git as discrete modules, we split the Shell and Git lessons into two, and gave an intro to these topics on day 1, then spent all of day 2 on R, then returned to Shell and Git on day 3, finishing with R functions at the very end. The goal was to show how all of the topics could link together as part of a single workflow - we didn’t quite get it right (next time we’ll use a single example that runs through all the modules), but it has definitely given us “food for thought” for our next Software Carpentry offering. The feedback overall was very positive, and there was certainly an improvement over our previous workshops, in particular with regards to pace, delivery and dealing with technical issues.

We had a surplus of helpers so Tom became more involved in the “sharing” part working on the training materials, including a git lesson on branches and several pull requests to the Software Carpentry lessons repositories. It would be interesting so see whether others have had issues with the material where we did. It was valuable to have extra helpers avaiable at times (with technical issues springing up across the room).

Favourite moments of Software Carpentry:

  • Sitting with a learner helping her to find the errors in her code, and hearing her exclaim (something like): “Yes, it works! Now I mustn’t delete that. Wait, I’ll back it up with Git!” We’ll call that a victory for SWC. :)
  • Scanning the Eventbrite bar codes with my iPhone. So fun!
  • Having one of our learners adhere so closely to the “bring your own computer” requirement that she arrived with her 27 inch iMac desktop each day (admittedly she only had to carry it downstairs to the venue, but it demonstrated wonderful enthusiasm!)
  • Having great gender ratios: 13 of our 19 learners were female, which is exciting given the traditional male-skew that we see in many computational fields.

At the end of our final session we promoted ResBaz 2017 (it’s never too early to start spreading the word!), and our Otago Mozilla Study Group - many of our learners expressed interest in joining our regular informal training sessions, so hopefully our local community will continue to grow.

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