Osmosis is Just a Fancy Name for Failure

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

My last post linked to a PLoS paper by Dudley and Butte on developing effective bioinformatics programming skills. I asked, "How many hours do the authors think are needed to acquire these skills?" In response, Atul Butte said, "I think the ideal scenario is when one's research projects enable one to learn these skills, so that these skills get learned in a practical way outside the classroom too, while doing science," while Luis Pedro Coelho asked, "Does it matter over the long (or even medium) term? Isn't improving your skills even you if aren't being immediately productive what school is for?"

To which I can only respond, "Yeah, but that doesn't work." People have been doing computational science for almost seventy years, and have been calling it the third branch of science since (at least) the mid-1980s. If picking things up by osmosis was going to work as an educational strategy, we'd know by now. Instead, what we actually see hasn't changed in 25 years: a small minority working wonders, and the vast majority not even knowing where they ought to start. We don't expect grad students to pick up all the math and stats they need by osmosis, on their own, without any structured guidance—why should expect them to become proficient computationalists that way?

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