Software Carpentry, engagement and scaling our efforts

Posted on May 20, 2014 by  Kaitlin Thaney

We’re one month away from our one year anniversary for the Mozilla Science Lab, and we’ve been head down planning for the year ahead. I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the last year, as well as shed light on the direction the Science Lab is going moving forward. This is the first of a series of posts about where we’ve come and what we have in store moving forward.

Scaling our educational efforts

Many of you will have come across Software Carpentry, a program that teaches researchers around the world the technical skills needed to jumpstart their work. The program was founded back in 1998, and I for one was thrilled when I heard that it was to formally become part of the Science Lab, as our first educational program.

But what does that mean for the program itself, and how can we best support, scale and work together on a common mission going forward?

Software Carpentry was founded to help teach researchers the skills they need to get ahead in their work computationally. The program has iterated on its model quite significantly over the last 15 years (and especially in the last 3-4), taking on a bootcamp approach, building out curriculum to teach some of the basic skills needed for researchers to do more with the data and code they are working with, and built out a training program to grow not only the number of bootcamps but also instructors.

In the last 14 months, we’ve reached over 4,000 members of the research community from a wide variety of disciplines, geographic locations and positions. Our instructor base is now over 130 strong and growing by the day, with volunteers ranging from graduate students to full professors, looking to give back to the community and help the next generation succeed. You can learn more about some of the brilliant people helping to make this work possible here on the Software Carpentry team page.

Since the program came under the Science Lab’s umbrella, we’ve been working to support scaling the initiative and eliminating friction so that we can continue to grow the community of practitioners globally as efficiently as possible. We’ve run events for women in science and engineering, are building out a train-the-trainers program to provide easier ways to get involved, and continue to build out curriculum based on the needs of researchers we interact with. In the year to come, we’re exploring ways to better engage those 4,000+ participants after a bootcamp has ended, providing educational resource, tools and community to help them advance their work and do more science on the web.

We’re committed to the long term success of the program, as we strongly believe that to get open research practice to stick, we need to start with education, and help provide researchers the skills and awareness needed to succeed.

Turning learners into contributors

A big question we’ve been wrestling with:  what happens after a bootcamp ends?

The goal from the beginning has been to build off the bootcamp participation to keep researchers learning the skills needed to do more open, collaborative, reproducible science, as well as work on ways to keep them engaged and contributing longer term (be it to technical projects, becoming instructors, or learning about new tools and technologies in the open science space).

We strongly believe starting with addressing the skills gap is the agent to get this stuff to stick, and the fact that programs like Software Carpentry not only address a proven gap at getting open science to become the norm in skills training but also reaches the researchers who don’t self identify with the open research community is a tremendous opportunity we’re exploring how to best harness.

Bootcamps are one step in the right direction, but for all their success, two days of instruction isn’t typically enough for these practices and technologies to “stick”. It is enough to provide the “aha!” moment, and serve as a springboard for changing practice and introducing efficiency in how research is done. Now we need to find ways of turning those learners into practicing open researchers, instructors, community members.

Getting participants to see value in joining a global community where they can connect with others, learn about new tools and methods and continue along that journey is the challenging part – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Part of the reason behind bringing Software Carpentry under the Science Lab is to explore how we can best use the trainings and educational base as an agent of change, and we’ll be working over the next year to identify pathways and approaches to not only keep researchers engaged in learning and building on that skillbase, but also as a way of community building.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on ways we can better bridge communities and keep learners engaged.
We’re also hiring a community manager to help with this specifically. Up for the challenge? We’re still accepting applications.

(Also, for a quick look at what Software Carpentry and other Mozilla programs are up to on the skills training front, check out version 1.0 of an “Education Map” we worked on at our recent all-hands workweek.)

Thank yous (and a note about sustainability)

This work would not be possible without the help of many both within the Mozilla Foundation as well as outside of it, especially the team of instructors who generously volunteer their time and expertise to help us craft material, teach bootcamps around the world, and mentor researchers. From all of us, *thank you*. You make this all possible.
We’re also incredibly grateful to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for their support of the Science Lab and Software Carpentry, and are thrilled to announce additional funding that will carry us through 2015. This renewal will allow us to bring on two new team members (applications still open!), as well as continue to build on our first year’s work. Many thanks to our program officer Josh Greenberg and his colleagues at the Foundation for their support and guidance as we got this division off the ground.
We are in continued discussions about ways to further fund and support the program, from bootcamp-level institutional donations and sponsorship for events, to larger grant opportunities to diversify our support and augment our current funding. If you are interested in supporting the Science Lab and our mission, get in touch. We’d love to talk about ways we can work together to help make the web work for science.