By Mario Antonioletti, Research Software Engineer
Last week, thanks to the Software Sustainability Institute, I was lucky enough to go teach the R and SQL lessons from Software Carpentry at the The CODATA-RDA Research Data Science Summer School held near Trieste in Italy. The Summer School focuses on providing participants from all over the world, with six out of the seven continents represented, growing competence in accessing, analysing, visualising and publishing data. The School is open to participants from all disciplines and/or background from the sciences to humanities. The first week, which provides a basic framework, is followed by three applied workshops that focus on Extreme sources of data, bioinformatics, and IoT/Big Data analytics. So participants cover a lot of material over the two weeks of their attendance.
I was provided 1.5 days to do R and half a day to do SQL. This was done over three days. The typical modus operandi for the Carpentries is that you type and they follow, typing the same thing you do, as an instructor, to their own terminals. For R though, I previously found that it is hard to keep up and easy for the participants to lose contact with the commands used by the instructor because of the voluminous output that can be produced by the commands, not helped by the fact that having to increase the font size of the application (in this case R studio), so that people at the back can see what you are doing, reduces the usable area (and can also be somewhat disorientating for the instructor). To that end, I abstracted the lessons to a set of commands with embedded comments so the participants would just have to use the Control-Enter mechanism available in R studio to execute the commands. Thus, they could keep track of the commands being used (as an alternative to typing commands in the R console, which would rapidly scroll commands off the screen). On the whole, I think this worked well. The modified course content is available on GitHub. Even with this accelerated entry mechanism, I was unable to cover all the material in 1.5 days. I dread to think what the outcome might have been had I had to type things out as we went along.
For the SQL, I resorted to the more traditional mechanism of typing and the participants parroting the commands in their own terminals. I eschewed the Mozilla SQLite manager add-on typically used for this and resorted to typing things directly into the shell. I was unable to finish all the lessons but I think the participants got the salient points.
People often ask why you might want to become a Carpentry instructor. For me, reviewing SQL and R commands was really useful and even as an instructor I think I learnt a lot. I got to travel a bit but, even better, I got to meet an interesting bunch of people from literally all over the world. It is hard work and exhausting but the chance to review stuff and the opportunity to meet such people is more than worth it.