Community Building Catchup

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

The last Carpentries’ Champions call led by Jonah Duckles was well attended, with representatives from Australia, South Africa, Ethiopia, the US, the UK, New Zealand and Norway.

After the introductions and a review of the last call, attendees were divided up into four breakout rooms to discuss (while keeping the following three questions in mind) an event that promoted a sense of excitement about new research tools.

  • What made the event engaging and exciting?
  • What could have made it even better?
  • What didn’t you like?

Room 1 pluses were the variety of tools taught, the great diversity both in cultures and careers of the people attending, and ample opportunities for networking. One caveat was the mixed positive and not so positive effects of following an ‘unconference’ structure.

Room 2 looked at workshops and what makes them run well or not so well, and also talked about study groups, with this useful post from Sarah Stevens providing useful advice on issues around setting one up.

Room 3 listed some ‘must haves’ for an event to work well - a feeling of ‘OK’ culture, covering everything from coffee to atmosphere, and the attitude of host and participants plus having a visible result right away and/or some kind of immediate collective action. The question of whether domain-specific or more generalist groups worked better was brought back for discussion in the wider group.

Room 4 reported that some people don’t like to engage with smaller groups and therefore we need ways to encourage them to open up. This might involve asking them a specific question to encourage their feedback or giving them ‘permission’ to explicitly contribute, since not everyone will just ‘jump in’.

Reasons people do not / will not participate

  • Group too large - people feel intimidated
  • Group has no common background or interest so group feels unwelcoming
  • People’s worries about seeming ‘stupid’


  • Attendees put questions in a hat - they get the questions they want answered
  • Mix experienced and new instructors as a way of mentoring
  • Do something concrete and get an immediate outcome
  • Put people in pairs to work together
  • Make sure you have advanced tasks for people in mixed level workshops
  • Recruit from people who teach at events like ResBaz to invite them to be Carpentries instructors
  • Plan activities that allow some attendees to apply more advanced / more interesting skills

Cautionary tales

  • Always have a backup plan in case wifi is not working or available.
  • Be mindful of different people’s learning styles - this can be overlooked in a group setting.
  • Have a clear statement of workshop goals and objectives - very important when levels of knowledge are mixed.

Feeback on using smaller groups in breakout rooms for these calls:

  • Loved it! It was really nice to talk in a small group.
  • It can be overwhelming to be on a big call, nice idea
  • Less intimidating to share stories in a small group - +1 from me
  • Worked very well! Nice way to be able to discuss and having a conversation without worrying about a large group getting a chance to talk
  • +1 to all the above!

Further resources

Amanda Miotto’s HackyHour is an informal drop-in session at Griffith University in Brisbane. Held usually in a coffee shop or bar, HackyHours are gatherings where people can ask research and research-IT-related questions in a safe environment. Other similar outreach events are PhTea, Programming & Pizza, or study groups. Use whatever name works best in your setting and consider inviting 5-minute talks to get the meetup started if people don’t bring any problems that week. Amanda has now compiled a HackyHour Handbook.

Bianca Peterson reported on Study Groups at North West University in South Africa. These took off in 2016. People enrolled in modules on Coursera as a group, and met for two hours every week to work on things together. The groups functioned well as post-workshop support after Software and Data Carpentry workshops since they reinforced workshop learning. The Mozilla Study Group Handbook is a helpful tool for people who want to start a study group and this guide helps you decide what is the best type of event for you to build your local community.

Next steps

If you’re interested in participating in the Carpentries champion community and our quarterly meetings, you can join our announcement mailing list. We’ll be holding our next meeting in February and will be focusing on a draft Carpentry Community Building playbook. This will be a document that serves as a guide to help community champions to develop their own local communities, and will share tips, tricks and ideas about how to build local community. To get involved, get on the list!

Favorite events

At the beginning of the call, as an icebreaker activity, we asked them to describe the most amazing event/conference/workshop/meetup they had ever attended. The following were singled out:

  • Kiwi foo, an ‘unconference’ bringing together creatives, government, policy wonks and technologists to think about making a better world.
  • Bayesian Models in Ecology Workshop at SESYNC, a great combination of lecture/theory and working in small groups, with an emphasis on peer learning.
  • Fosdem, the Free and Open Source Developers European Meeting, run by volunteers, with a wide range of topics. While it had a very Self-Organised vibe, everything pretty much worked.
  • useR 2017, a first time of connecting with the R community in person. Open, welcoming, attendees of diverse backgrounds, amazing food - I learned so much!
  • Midwest Data Librarian Symposium, a form of un-conference, but in a active learning and participating environment.
  • CODATA-RDA Research Data Science Summer School, Trieste, Italy - Most of the instructors are from the Carpentries and the quality of lessons is great - a variety of tools/skills taught over 2 weeks (from Unix to Machine Learning in R).

Dialogue & Discussion

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