tl;dr? The Software Carpentry train-the-trainers workshop in Toronto
this past M-W was just fantastic. I can't recommend it enough.
A bit of background: Software Carpentry is a project to teach
scientists to use computing more effectively. Started by Greg Wilson
about 16 years ago, the project has progressed through many different
moults, including attempts to provide online training materials and
lecture videos for reuse by others (Note: I've been involved for about
In its latest incarnation, Software Carpentry has been running two-day
workshops by invitation. Now under the umbrella of the Mozilla
Science Labs and funded by the Sloan Foundation, Software Carpentry
has recently exploded in popularity, with almost 100 workshops and
more than 3500 students trained in just the last calendar year. Part
of this is no doubt due to the stunning increase in interest in data
science and Big Data, but another part is that we have finally found a
format that works well. Two day workshops are enough to give people a
taste for what life could be like if they improved their computational
practices. One particularly effective catch phrase is, "In two days
of teaching, we can improve your effectiveness enough to save you a
day a week for the rest of your research life."
As part of Software Carpentry's success over the last two years, Greg
has put a lot more effort
into training new instructors. Our instructors are typically
self-taught grad students, postdocs, or (increasingly) faculty;
however, there simply wasn't a large enough supply to meet the demand
for workshop instructors. So Greg decided to train 'em. For the past
two years, he's done this with a ~quarter-long online training. The
training (by rumor -- I've never taken it, having been grandfathered
in because of Greg's desperate need for instructors Back When)
consisted of teleconferences going over the best known practices in
teaching and learning. However, as with many online courses, the
completion rates have been low, and friends and colleagues who have
taken it online tell me that it's difficult to maintain focus over a
This past Monday, Greg took the online training offline -- a typical
reversal for Greg, who hates the overhyped (and rather ineffective)
trend of moving education efforts online :). About 40 of us met up at
the Mozilla offices in Toronto to receive Greg's papal blessing as
teachers. In a three-day marathon, Greg and his co-instructor Warren
Code (@warcode) ran us through a
grueling-yet-fun series of lectures, active learning techniques, and
lesson development and evaluation skits.
Was it worth it?
Absolutely. On Tuesday I told Greg that I thought the workshop rated
a 7 or 8 out of 10; on more reflection, I now think I'd rate it at a
solid 9/10. Greg held our attention the entire time, kept us
energized and moving and thinking, and systematically turned us from
an audience into participants. During that period, he taught us a
wide range of proven good practices in classroom education.
On teacher training, more generally
I'm generally viewed as a decent teacher. I do a lot of teaching
between my workshops and courses at MSU, and I put a lot of energy
into it. I'm usually not that well prepared and I get flustered
easily when things don't work, but overall I've been evaluated well by
the students (which doesn't necessarily mean that much,
but I'll take it). I've won two teaching awards at MSU, one
student-awarded, and my students regularly come back and tell me that
my classes were pretty good.
But before the SWC training in Toronto, I've _never_ done anything
more than a half-day workshop on teaching, and even those were but a
pale image of Greg and Warren's workshop. My overall frustration has been in
translation: I can read books, and papers, and blog posts on teaching,
but translating that into effective practices in the class room is
This is what Greg and Warren did with the Toronto training: translated
the concepts of peer learning, active learning, etc. into an
interactive, hands on workshop. In fact, the best part of the
workshop was that most of the concepts they introduced as effective
teaching techniques were actually used during the workshop to
Simply put, it's better than any other training I've ever done on
teaching. Even if that's a low bar (given my lack of previous
training), it was also just an objectively good experience. Greg and
Warren should be happy.
What does the future hold?
(The Mozilla Science Lab has
assured me that they have continuing support for Software Carpentry,
and have asked me to remove this section while they work on a
detailed blog post. You can see the original text here.)
Three final thoughts.
First -- more than half of my students and postdocs are Software
Carpentry instructors. In fact, I think MSU now has more accredited
Software Carpentry instructors than any other single location (I think
we've got 8-10 after this workshop?) I expect this to have an real
impact on their ability to get jobs in and out of academia: not only
do they know more people in more places than is typical for grads and
postdocs, but they communicate better with others and know more about
computational research practices than most. I already have stories
about Software Carpentry-nucleated recruiting to research labs and
academia; more on those once they reach a critical mass.
Second -- the good practices that Software Carpentry teaches are
essential for reproducible research. Stop writing new platforms, stop
amending policy to "encourage" reproducible research, stop arguing
loudly that computational scientists should be doing reproducible
research; just send 'em to Software Carpentry bootcamps and they'll
figure out that doing things reproducibly is intrinsically more
efficient than otherwise. I agree with Arfon Smith's statement that _this_ is the
way to drive progress towards reproducible computational science.
Third -- you know how everyone is going nuts about data science, and
data management in science? Some Software Carpentry-affiliated folk
are spinning up a Data Carpentry course now. Someone should fund
p.s. My talk at the Toronto Bioinformatics Users Group (slides here) is a
good introduction to how my lab uses the Software Carpentry skills
when doing novel research. Might be worth a look. Since they
recorded it, I'll link to the video if and when they make it public.
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