Feedback from Bath

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

This week saw Software Carpentry head to Bath in England's South-West. The bootcamp was organised by Alex Chartier, as part of his role as a fellow of The Software Sustainability Institute. Chris Woods from the University of Bristol, joined me as co-instructor, making his bootcamp instructing debut.

We had a range of helpers from across the UK: Elliot Marsden and Fergus Cullen from The University of Edinburgh who'd attended the bootcamp we ran in Edinburgh last December; David Martin from The University of Dundee; Jeremy Metz from The University of Exeter and Michael Croucher (another Institute fellow) from The University of Manchester.

The attendees were primarily from the UK Meterological Office, the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and from the universities of Bath, Bristol and Liverpool. They included researchers into oceanography, meterology, climate science, geosciences, environmental sciences, earth sciences, with a few from biology/bioinformatics, electrical engineering and computer science. About half of the attendees were PhD students, the rest more senior researchers. Of the 25 we expected on the day, we had just one no-show and we lost one after the first day. This attendee found the level of technical knowledge assumed to be too high.

The round-the-room feedback was as follows...

Good Bad
Material very relevant, good that Git is now being used instead of Mercurial. Python very good choice for introducing language topics but more Pythonic aspects are sometimes missed out.
Online material on GitHub, can go back and repeat exercises. (2). Hard to cover Python for a range of abilities. Strongly recommend work through Python tutorial before coming.
Testing cases and version control useful (2). Morse example was good but there was a wide jump to programs and architecture.
Online crib sheet useful during Python sessions for keeping track and catching up if falling behind. But instructors could remind people it's there. Fast pace is good but if you miss a command you get lost (when thinking). Keep things more visible on screen.
Helpers were most appreciated, a good number, they sit down with you (2). Stickies kept falling off but principle is excellent. Just use the red one if there's a problem? Make sure scripts remind instructors manage sticky use.
Infrastructure good and useful. VMs useful as for some organisations taking a laptop out can be very problematic.
Refresh of shell commands was good if you don't use shell often. A bit more on matplotlib would have been good, it was a bit tricky.
Make it clearer that some experience of coding is needed before coming. Possibly have a pre-bootcamp discussion or test. Promote content earlier and which days/sessions are most suitable for which expertise levels. Pace sometimes a bit quick.
Really friendly, hard-working attendees, good atmosphere. Sessions overran and there weren't enough breaks when needed ("break management").
Classroom based course is useful. Share space and discuss with other people outwith the actual course content. Advantage over online teaching. Offer it at different at different levels and abilities (2).
Well-structured content, could be rolled out to A level students (with a bit of restructuring) to get them early. Future courses could be focused on one specific area e.g. Python.
Great! Feedback session a bit long!

In respect of the pace, we did a quick poll and about half the attendees couldn't justify being away for more than 2 days.

As an instructor, things I learned this time round included:

  • To try and remember to use the stickies, in particular to get attendees to put up red stickies by default at the start of any exercise.
  • That CTRL-R allows me to search the shell history :-)
  • That yellow stickies were useful for helping to demonstrate conflicts in Git, "attendees with a yellow sticky now do this..."
  • A pictorial representation of how exceptions work would have been useful.
  • An air-conditioned room is a must-have when doing bootcamps at the height of summer (though some attendees felt it was a bit chilly!)

In September, Chris will be instructing on our bootcamp in Bristol, and in November Chris, Jeremy and David will reunite to help deliver our bootcamp in Exeter.

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