Teaching basic lab skills
for research computing

Optimised for Learning

In 2014 I fell in love with Software Carpentry. I wasn’t quite sure what it was that was that appealing about the workshops, but I knew we had to run more of these in South Africa.

I had been following the activities and blogs of Software Carpentry since 2012 when I started working at a next generation sequencing (NGS) facility as lead (only) bioinformatician. Working with our clients I found that most of them had no idea how to deal with NGS data and very often didn’t know how/where to access computing infrastructure that would allow them to analyse their data.

But in 2014 we finally ran our first Software Carpentry workshop in Cape Town. It was a big one. Over 100 participants including instructors and helpers. Two rooms. Teaching Python, version control (git), and the shell at “beginners” and “intermediate” levels. The buzz over coffee time gave me the feeling that we had done something good. There were people from several provinces all over South Africa, from a plethora of research disciplines, institutions, and career stages - all talking, buzzing, exclaiming about their research and how they didn’t realise there were others at their own institutions, in their own fields, but also in very diverse fields, grappling with similar challenges in terms of research computing and data analysis and capacity development.

Since then I have been thinking about the Carpentry workshops and community a lot. I was trying to identify the core elements that made me love it so much. That made me join a mentoring session at 01:00 in the morning or stay away from my kid for a week or longer to run workshops in strange parts of the country without being paid for it. What was it about this community and initiative that made it almost addictive to be a part of?

By chance I started reading Thank You For Being Late – An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration by Thomas L. Friedman last week and something I came across in his book made me think…

Friedman refers to a conversation he had with Eric Teller, CEO of Google’s X research and development laboratory. Teller was explaining to him that the rate of change of technology is outstripping the rate at which we, as human beings, can adapt. No surprises there - we’re all trying to catch up with life. But Teller also said in his interview with Friedman, according to the book, that the only way in which human beings can “come to equilibrium” again and find peace in this fast changing world, is by enhancing our adaptibility (the rate at which we can adapt). And that, Teller said, is “90% about optimizing for learning”.

By chance again I was in a meeting today where we were discussing the establishment of a newly funded Research Centre. Amongst other things, we were talking about the type of training that should be delivered by this Centre. I explained the value of building on what has been done in Software/Data/Library Carpentry and how that could be tied in with community building (see e.g. Mozilla Science Lab Study Groups) to facilitate post workshop (continuous) learning which would not be dependent on the single “expert” instructor who graciously visits from afar to impart his/her expert knowledge upon which he/she returns to their institution never to be heard of again because life (or the next workshop) swallows them up. That made me realise…

The Carpentry model has been around since 1998. It has been adapted and adapted again to stay in touch with what is needed by the learners, not with what can be taught by the teachers. It is optimised for learning and it is optimising our learners for learning as well. Carpentries are staying relevant because it builds on the shoulders of giants, it learns from everyone in the community, be it learner, host, instructor, helper, or the leadership. And then, even more importantly, it acts on what it learns - Issue Bonanzas, Bug BBQs, Lesson Sprints… No-one has to invent their own Powerpoint slides with stolen images and arbitrary examples the night before the workshop. We can start from where the last iteration of teaching stopped. We can join conversations about workshops that took place yesterday, last week, last month, in several countries and on various continents. We learn from people in STEM fields as much as we learn from Social Sciences and Humanities and we apply what we learn across domains and across the traditional “researcher”/”support staff” barrier.

You would be crazy not to want to use what is available and build on that in a world where disruptive technology make the world look significantly and uncomfortably different within 5 - 7 years (according to Teller in Friedman’s book).

Thank you to everyone in the Carpentry community for allowing us to stand on your shoulders. We’re not only teaching our learners some recipe for data analysis, but we’re teaching them to learn, and at the same time, we’re learning to keep on learning ourselves.

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