Why Institutional Partnerships Make So Much Sense

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

When I first got involved in Software Carpentry, I liked nothing more than to lament the fact that universities don't teach their undergraduates (or early post-graduates) fundamental programming skills. It was one of the main reasons I felt so compelled to help out. By running our two-day workshops, I felt that we were basically picking up the slack until such time that universities woke up to themselves and started teaching this stuff. At this point, I felt that (like many non-profit organisations striving to make the world a better place) Software Carpentry would have achieved its mission by essentially making itself redundant.

Fast forward a couple of years and I'm now part of a new University of Melbourne department tasked with the job of teaching programming fundamentals to post-graduates. To my surprise, I've found that in this progressive new world we actually need Software Carpentry more than ever. The interim board of the Software Carpentry Foundation is seeking to form partnerships with organisations like my own, so I thought this was an opportune time to share our experiences.

The ITS Research Services department (soon to be renamed Research Platforms) at the University of Melbourne was formed in late 2013. As distinct from the regular IT department, which is responsible for installing Microsoft Office and making sure there's a strong wifi signal around campus, the remit of ITS Research Services was to take the next step and actually help researchers with the digital research tools they use. For people in engineering and architecture that's typically computer aided design tools like AutoCAD and SolidWorks, for the humanities and social sciences that's mapping tools like TileMill and CartoDB, and for people in the physical sciences and life sciences that's programming languages like Python, R and MATLAB (I'm generalising here, but for the sake of brevity go with me). It would be impossible for us to hire experts in all these different tools (not to mention the multitude of packages, toolboxes and libraries that go along with those tools), so a typical IT help desk arrangement just wasn't going to cut it.

Instead, what we needed to do was facilitate the formation of communities around each of these tools, so that researchers could help each other. To achieve this, we launched a program called the Research Bazaar (because that sounds more exciting than ITS Research Services) and hired a bunch of Research Community Coordinators. These people are typically PhD students who give us a day a week of their time. Since they're actually at the coal-face doing research, these Research Community Coordinators (a) know what training and assistance researchers actually want/need, and (b) are perfectly placed to help create the required communities, because they're already a part of them.

As the Research Community Coordinator for the physical sciences, it was therefore my job (and more recently also the job of Scott Ritchie and Isabell Kiral-Kornek who share the life sciences) to get researchers at the University of Melbourne (and the wider Melbourne research community) helping each other with programming. Without Software Carpentry, you can imagine that this would be an impossible task. Researchers have a finite amount of time to devote to extra-curricular activities like this, so the (relatively) tiny Melbourne community just wouldn't have the collective time or expertise to develop and maintain a decent set of teaching materials. In a nutshell, quality training for researchers now exists at the University of Melbourne because of Software Carpentry, and could not exist without it. Instead of having to write and maintain an entire curriculum, all we've had to do is assemble a community of people who are willing to give some of their time to help out at Software Carpentry workshops. We call these our Software Carpentry teaching teams, and it turns out that lots of researchers are very happy to help out. Some go on to become qualified instructors and contribute to the lesson materials, while others are just happy being regular helpers. The great thing is that because these workshops have institutional support (i.e. paid coordinators like myself), they happen on a regular and ongoing basis.

We still aren't keeping up with demand, but as our teaching teams grow we will hopefully get to the point where most researchers at the University of Melbourne have been to a Software Carpentry workshop. If you could effectively measure such things, that would surely contribute to a marked increase in the computational competency (and hence efficiency and research impact) of University of Melbourne researchers, which is the name of the game.

Our first year of existence as a formal university department culminates in a doctoral training conference (also called the Research Bazaar) in February 2015. Prior to that event we'll be running a live instructor training course, and then at the conference itself we'll be running three Software Carpentry workshops simultaneously (in Python, R and MATLAB respectively) amongst many other novel and exciting classes. The registration form for the conference doubles as a giant survey of the digital research tools the community is using, so we'll be sure to share the results!

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