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Written by Shalini Kurapati and Marta Teperek


Training needs: research computing skills for open science

In addition to good data management, software sustainability is important for open science.

In accordance with the survey conducted by the Software Sustainability Institute in 2014, 7 out of 10 researchers rely on code for their research. Sharing research data without the supporting code often makes research impossible to reproduce. Good documentation and version control have been highlighted as major contributors to sustainable software. In addition, earlier workshops and survey results indicated that researchers need training on good code writing and code management practices and version control.

Similarly, TU Delft-wide survey on data management needs revealed that 32% of researchers were interested in training on version control and 18% specifically in software carpentry workshops.

Thus, 4TU.Centre for Research Data made a strategic decision to partner with The Carpentries and became a Silver Member of the organisation.

What are The Carpentries?

The Carpentries “teach foundational coding, and data science skills to researchers worldwide.” That’s a community-based organisation, which maintains and develops curricula for three different types of workshops: software carpentry, data carpentry, and library carpentry. Detailed and structured lesson plans are available on GitHub and they are delivered by a network of carpentry instructors.

An important element of The Carpentries is that in order to deliver a workshop, instructors need to be certified. The certification process puts a particular emphasis on the pedagogical skills of the instructors.

First software carpentry at TU Delft

TU Delft hosted the first software carpentry workshop on 29 November 2018 as a pilot before officially joining The Carpentries. We had around 30 researchers participating (and another 45 on the waiting list!). The participants were from four faculties at TU Delft: Civil Engineering and Geosciences, Applied Sciences, Technology Policy & Management, and Architecture and Built Environment. We had three instructors and four helpers in the room.

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The GitHub pages with the lesson materials are publicly available and can be found here: https://mariekedirk.github.io/2018-11-29-Delft/ All participants were asked to bring their laptops along and to install some specific software. No prior programming knowledge was required. Collaborative notes were taken with Etherpad.

During the workshop, participants downloaded a prepared dataset and they worked with that dataset through the two days. They learnt task automation using Unix shell, version control using git, and python programming using jupyter notebooks.

Feedback

The Carpentries have a special way of organising feedback. Participants receive red and green post-it notes and use them to indicate problems / completion of tasks during the whole course. Similarly, after the end of each day, the participants are asked to indicate all the plus sides and negatives of the workshop on green and red post-it notes, respectively.

The feedback from the participants after the workshop helped us evaluate the training. The participants were overwhelmingly appreciative of the instructors and helpers and seem to have enjoyed the training. Some of the participants felt that the pace of the workshop was fast and they did not have time to experiment with the data set. Some others wished to get a more personal approach and to actually get an opportunity to work with their own disciplinary datasets.

Plans for the future

The waiting list for the workshop was very long and we had to disappoint more than 45 researchers who didn’t manage to get their spot on the day. In addition, faculty graduate schools have been willing to give course credits for PhD students who attend this workshop, which made the course even more attractive to attend for PhD students. Therefore, to meet the demand, we are planning to organise four more workshops in 2019: two workshops at TU Delft, one in Eindhoven and one in Twente. We will continue to monitor the number of interested researchers and if the need arises, we might consider scheduling some additional courses.

In addition, to increase our capacity in delivering carpentry training, some of the TU Delft’s data stewards and data champions will attend the training to become instructors. We hope to have this instructor training organised in April.

To address the feedback about the pace of the course, we will be more selective and include fewer exercises in our future workshops to ensure that the participants get the chance to experiment and play with their datasets and scripts.

In order to provide some more tailored support to researchers who have started to code but need some additional support to make it work, or who might have attended a carpentry workshop but are not sure how to apply the learning into practice, we will host dedicated coding walk-in hours consultations starting in January 2019.

So… watch out for the next carpentry workshop – scheduled for Spring 2019!