How to Help at a Bootcamp

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

When we lead a bootcamp of more than, say, a dozen people, extra helpers are essential to making everything go smoothly. As our guide to running a bootcamp says:

It's ideal to have one helper for every five attendees. Recruit helpers locally, from your own and neighbouring institutions.

Helpers should have some knowledge of the material covered in the bootcamp. Ideally, a helper will already have attended a bootcamp and would like to become an instructor themselves.

So, the question arises, what does a helper do?

  • First of all, the helper shows up. Thanks!
  • Second, the helper hangs out in the instruction room during the lecture waiting for hands to go up.
  • Finally, the helper enjoys the workshop, sees what it takes to lead one, and perhaps decides to become an instructor for a future workshop.

The bulk of the helper's job is the second bit and is the reasoning for the requirement that they be comfortable with the workshop material (e.g., the shell and version control). The typical in-workshop need for helpers is in this situation:

We're all working along swimmingly and a student gets stuck. Maybe they didn't type a command properly or can't find the folder we're working in. Maybe they forgot to import some module before running a python command and now don't understand the error they're getting. Who knows. In a minute or two, they'll be way behind unless they can raise their hand and get someone to reel them back in.

Thus, helpers will need to see the hand go up and be able to at least help begin to debug the drama quietly at the computer of the stuck student. A helper with limited comfort with the shell or version control would be unhelpful in this situation. We could ask for helpers will full comfort with our whole software stack, but that's not reasonable. We'd never get any helpers that way. It's usually sufficient for a helper to be someone who can problem-solve on-the-fly in a terminal. They also should be able to follow along conceptually with the lecture so that they can redirect a student who has fallen a few minutes behind.

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