OU Libraries Help Researchers Build Coding Skills with Software Carpentry

Aiming to help faculty and graduate students learn essential coding skills to facilitate their research, the University of Oklahoma Libraries (OU) have been offering two-day, hands-on workshops developed by Software Carpentry.
Software Carpentry Full LogoAiming to help faculty and graduate students learn essential coding skills to facilitate their research, the University of Oklahoma Libraries (OU) have been offering two-day, hands-on workshops developed by Software Carpentry. “To do a lot of [research] work these days, you’ve really got to understand some basics about [computer] programming and data—how to manage data, how to clean it up, how to use it,” explained Carl Grant, associate dean of knowledge services and CTO of OU Libraries. “And a lot of researchers don’t have those skillsets, because they’re trained in their domain.” While major grant-funded research projects might have the budget to hire someone to help with those aspects of a project, or the clout to have university IT staff prioritize assistance, “the smaller researcher, which is the majority of them, don’t have that capability,” Grant said. “So, they need to learn how to do this.” A volunteer non-profit organization, Software Carpentry traces its origin back to one-week courses taught by founder Greg Wilson at the Advanced Computing Laboratory at Los Alamos National Laboratory almost 20 years ago. During the past two decades, Wilson released training materials under a Creative Commons license with the support of the Python Software Foundation, and produced a series of 120 short video lessons with the help of sponsors including the Mozilla Foundation and the Sloan Foundation. Beginning in 2012, Wilson refined and condensed the core curriculum—partly in consultation with groups such as The Hacker Within—into the current two-day workshop format featuring specific lessons on topics such as the Unix Shell, version control with Git or Mercurial, and structured programming in Python, R, or MATLAB. Generally, the workshops are structured with two instructors and two or three assistants working with up to 40 “learners” (many researchers prefer not to be described as “students”). Separately, the organization offers two-day in-person workshops to help prospective volunteer instructors learn to teach this content, as well as a free, multi-week online training course for instructors. The instructor training courses—along with the streamlined two-day format—helped the volunteer movement gain traction and rapidly grow, beginning about four years ago. The organization estimates that more than 500 volunteer instructors have since been trained, and more than 16,000 “learners” have attended workshops. And in October 2015, the Software Carpentry Foundation hired Jonah Duckles as its first executive director. Duckles had previously been OU’s director of informatics and innovation, and had taught his own workshops to help OU’s researchers learn programming skills prior to helping with the launch of OU’s Software Carpentry workshops and becoming an active volunteer within the organization. “I loved the pedagogical community where people were sharing tips and tricks on how to teach better and more impactfully,” Duckles said. “I had been teaching my own informal workshops…to help upscale researchers on particular topics and skills that I thought would be useful for them…. When I met the Software Carpentry community, it was like light bulbs going off in my head about things that I was doing wrong and right, and how I could do it better.” Duckles had long viewed this type of coding instruction as a necessity, because “for about four years, I was the IT help written into grants at [OU]. And my role in that situation was to help build the needed infrastructure that the grant required, but also to teach faculty and graduate students ‘how to fish’ a little bit. If I just solved all of their problems for them, I would have become the bottleneck for their progress.” But when Duckles left OU last year to assume his new role at Software Carpentry, it left a leadership gap on the project at the university—one that Grant wants the library to fill. "A lot of campuses, this would go into the IT department," he noted. "But it's the perfect opportunity [for academic libraries] to connect data management planning, all of the resources of the library, the librarians, and research. Not only do you get to teach the researchers, the librarians learn how to do this as well. So they become experts and can serve as this nucleus for research on their campuses by utilizing this capability and becoming a member of this organization, becoming able to certify instructors.... To me, it makes so much sense for academic libraries to be doing this." If libraries continue to default this type of training to IT staff, he added, "they're missing a huge opportunity...to pull researchers in, connect them with your subject liaisons and all of the other resources in the library. Many [academic libraries] are now licensing access to datasets, but once [researchers] get a hold of that data, are they prepared to do what they need to do with it? Can they write the programs and the scripts to manipulate it and analyze it? Not unless that type of skill set is being taught on your campus." Sarah Clayton, digital scholarship specialist for OU Libraries, was certified as a Software Carpentry instructor, and outlined the structure of the workshops that the library has recently offered. "It's two full days. We start out in the morning with using the [UNIX] command line, and all of the other lessons build on that," Clayton explained. "The afternoon of the first day we offer an intro to Python, that can really be applied to other programming languages as well—it's really the fundamentals of programming. The morning of the second day, we start out with Git and Github, discussing version control, and we finish up reviewing Python from the day before, expanding that out." Clayton was a history major as an undergrad, and had taken a class about Python while earning an Master of Science of Information degree at the University of Michigan. But shortly after joining the library staff at OU last year, "they offered a Software Carpentry workshop that I took, and I learned something valuable. A few weeks later, they were offering instructor training, and they asked me if I wanted to do it.... I was a little intimidated, because I had taken one Software Carpentry workshop, and I wasn't sure that I had the skills to do it. But they really welcome you in.” She added, “Honestly, it's great to be an instructor when you're new, because you've been in the learner's seat. And I think it's important, because graduate students and faculty really need these skills, and I can go through this with them in a one-on-one setting." The most recent workshop was held on November 21 and 22, and the library currently has three workshops scheduled for the spring semester, in January, March, and April. And there are signs that the workshops are helping the library make a deeper connection with researchers, as Grant suggested. Clayton said that OU Libraries offers open office hours with subject specialists once per week, and following the workshops “we notice a huge uptick in the use of these office hours.” Duckles also views academic libraries as a natural partner for Software Carpentry going forward, and noted that there are “quite a few libraries in the early stages” of considering Software Carpentry, its sister organization Data Carpentry, and the fledgling Library Carpentry project as part of an institutional approach approach to data-driven library services. “There’s Caltech [the California Institute of Technology], the University of California at San Diego, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Oklahoma State University…. During the past six to nine months, it has really picked up momentum.” Librarians, he added, “are very good at teaching people how to fish and not fishing for them…. IT departments are getting smarter about this, but for a long time IT departments were owning business processes and owning researchers’ data-driven processes. [They’re] really realizing there’s a lot of structural problems with that approach to things…. [When] building teams of people who are working collectively to solve data-driven research problems, libraries fit really well, given their historical approach to collaborating with researchers.”

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