Teaching basic lab skills
for research computing

A Tale of Two Workshops

Brisbane and Toowoomba are 125 km apart in Queensland. Software Carpentry workshops were held in both cities a week apart (11-12 July and 18-19 July). I taught at both.

The Brisbane R workshop was held at The University of Queensland. This was a tie-in workshop for the annual UQ Winter School in Mathematical and Computational Biology. Attendees are generally very keen to learn as they want to emulate the amazing computational work they have seen demonstrated during the week by the stellar speaker line-up at the Winter School. We had no trouble filling a workshop with 40 places, and no-one left the workshop. It was one of the best workshops I have organised - the buzz in the room was palpable and the feedback was overwhemingly positive.

It was also our first workshop where women attendees outnumbered men. There were four female instructors as well.

We were very lucky with our helpers - we had some R experts there, and Othmar Korn from Stemformatics even wrote a script in response to a problem one of the attendees posted in the etherpad.

We will probably do that again - call for specific problems to be posted as attendees always want ‘real life’ solutions to consolidate what they have learned.

The University of Southern Queensland hosted the Toowoomba Python workshop - their first ever Software Carpentry workshop. They have already requested a subsequent workshop on R. Again, the feedback was very positive.

Newly minted instructor Francis Gacenga taught part of Git for the first time, while Leah Roberts taught Python for the first time, having taught her first session of Git at the Brisbane workshop a week before.

Apart from Leah, the instructors for the Brisbane workshop were a mixture of experienced trainers - Areej Al-Sheikh, Paula Martinez, and me, with one newbie, Joshua Thia, who certified as an instructor this week, having trained in the same January cohort as Leah and Francis under the expert eye of Aleksandra Pawlik.

At both workshops, we used a mixture of cloud - the DIT4C setup - and local laptops which caused a bit of confusion, especially in downloading the data to the right place for the shell and Python exercises in Toowoomba.

The DIT4C cloud option does simplify matters for people who have struggled to get the software installed, or who find they can’t cut and paste easily from their Windows command line. But it is always difficult to cater for the different systems, so next time, we will print out the different data set up instructions for Mac, Windows and cloud and have those on tap. (Linux is never a problem.)

Our other gotcha was the eduroam wireless we use for workshops. We had quite a few connection issues in Toowoomba, and my own wireless connection dropped out just as I tried to do a git push at the Brisbane workshop. The only way I could reconnect was to reboot the machine, which delayed things at a crucial point.

I was wiser in Toowoomba, rebooting my laptop just before I had to teach the second part of Git. Git push still took three goes as the repository I was pushing to had not yet granted the necessary permissions.

But it all worked out in the end, and people said they enjoyed the session.

To help people keep up, we had the lesson open on one of the projector screens in the room, while the instructor live-coded on another. This really helped people stay on track and not get lost. We could not do this in Brisbane as we had only one screen to work with, but where there are multiple screens available, this can work really well.

Toowoomba was the fifth city in Queensland where Software Carpentry has been taught since we ran our first-ever workshop here in 2014. We hope to clock up a sixth town with a workshop at the University of the Sunshine Coast later this year.

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