Teaching and Learning Open Research Skills

This is the third post in our Year in Review series. Every day this week, one member of the Science Lab will be posting their reflections on lessons learned in 2014, and point to plans for 2015 in their area of expertise as discussed by the team in Portland earlier this month. Today, our training coordinator, Arliss Collins, writes about her experiences supporting our training wing of the program, Software Carpentry, and plans for teaching open science globally.

I’ve been working with the Science Lab for almost a year now and wanted to take a moment to reflect on where we’ve come, what I’ve learned and what we’re excited about in the year ahead.

When I said “yes” to a friend’s email back in December 2013 – an ever-hopeful request asking if I’d be interested in joining the Mozilla Science Lab and helping them out with their project “Software Carpentry” – who knew at that time that this would be the first step in an incredible year of growth and challenge working for the Science Lab.

A look back at 2014

The Science Lab was founded to help further science on the web, and since it’s very beginning education and skills training has been a key cornerstone of that. We firmly believe that in order to see open research practice become the norm, researchers need support and incentive to change practice.

Our main program in this space – one that we continue to work with (more on that later) – is one called Software Carpentry, an open educational program 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 2-day workshop 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 workshops but also instructors.

My role within the Science Lab is to help lead training coordination globally for that program, through helping universities organize workshops, serving as the point person for the lab to instructors, and making sure those looking to bring training to their research group are supported enough to take that first step. For some, this sort of training is new, slightly overwhelming, an experiment. We’re there (as well as a network of other partners supporting the program) to help make that first step even easier.

In the past year alone, we’ve run an incredible 137 Software Carpentry workshops in North and South America, Europe, the UK and Australia since the beginning of the year. These workshops have reached over 4900 researchers and librarians globally with the generous commitment from our volunteer instructors. On a daily basis I have had the pleasure of working closely with an amazing group of instructors (who are researchers themselves foremost) — true believers in the importance of the need for better training in the sciences. As the year progressed we continued to build our diverse team of instructors through both live (4 cohorts) and online (5 cohorts) instructor training – so much so that closing out 2014 we will have 251 instructors of which 200 of those became badged instructors in the past year alone.

Unpacking what we mean by “Open Research Skills”

We use the phrase “open research skills” frequently at the Science Lab, and we realized that means many things to many different people. This past August, taking design inspiration from the Web Literacy Map, we put together a version 0 of an “Open Research Skills and Values Map”, to unpack some of the broader principles and skills we want to strive for. The map is still being iterated on, and we’d love your input. Feel free to mail us or add your thoughts.

Lessons learned, transition and what’s in store

This past year brought some exciting changes and lessons, both personally and for the Science Lab. Personally, I formalized my role on the Science Lab team in late summer, moving from a contractor to an employee of the Mozilla Foundation. That might not seem like much – many people at Mozilla work as contractors – but to me it demonstrated a shift from a support role to a critical member of a team with a larger vision, and one I was excited to help shape.

For the Science Lab, we announced the launch of the Software Carpentry Foundation this October. Working with several institutional partners and lead instructors, the project now resides under an independent foundation. We continue to work closely with other institutional partners and community leads to help give the project’s global contributor base more direct involvement with its governance. Mozilla, as well as other partners such as the Software Sustainability Institute and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, sit on the board.

In my new role, I’ll still be serving as the lead coordinator for Software Carpentry workshops, as supporting that community is really important to us, and to furthering science on the web. Those that have worked with me this past year on workshops may not notice much of a difference. But with this new role, I’ll also be exploring how we can build out supports for broader training and engagement efforts, looking at community programs , better follow-up to keep participants learning, and mentorship models. We’ve learned in 2014 that sustaining involvement and learning is hard. Scaling volunteer-based and distributed initiatives is challenging. And we have some fine tuning to do, as well as some building of our own.

Here are just a few projects I’m looking forward to working on in 2015:

Better follow-up and support for the community: How can we support this community beyond the workshop and how do we keep them engaged in using the new skills they have acquired in the short and long term?

For learners: We’ll be exploring ways to help workshop participants take what they’ve learned and apply it in their own research and then support them as they can pass on their learning to others in their lab.

For instructors: For the 250+ instructors in our network, we still are hitting bottlenecks when it comes to getting newly minted instructors engaged longer term. This is part incentives, part time and bandwidth limitations (this tends to happen with volunteer communities), but also part can be helped with better resources and mentorship. From the instructor perspective finding a way to move instructors to their first and subsequent instructing opportunities and then getting them to a point where they are able to mentor others in their institution. We’ll be working to test ways to help ease that transition in 2015, and would love your help.

Study groups, “Hacky Hours”, and local events: Learning doesn’t just happen in workshops, and this past year we’ve talked with the community about how to catalyze discussions around “open science” at their university. Taking inspiration from some of our community members (University of Melbourne, we’re looking at you!), we’ll be testing out models to get researchers engaged and starting local conversations around “open” at their home institutions. Want to get involved? Drop us a line at sciencelab@mozillafoundation.org

Rethinking “assessment” and measuring impact: This one’s a tricky one, and an item we’ve grappled with at the Science Lab, as “impact” is a loaded term and concept. We’ll be looking into, with the help of other community members and evaluation experts, how we can best assess the impact of our training and mentorship work, with the hopes of being able to understand more readily where learners are getting stuck, where we can help, and how they’re applying (or not) this training to their everyday work.

And a big “Stay Tuned”

We have some big news to share regarding our educational program in early 2015 that well … we’ll just leave here as a cliffhanger. What we can say is expect more on building out mentorship models, incentives for instructors and data curriculum. We’ll be back in January with more on that. A special thanks to the instructors, hosts, participants and project leads who helped make this year possible. We couldn’t have done it without you. We look forward to working with you in 2015.

Cover photo: Software Carpentry workshop from PyCon 2014, CC-BY image courtesy of jaaaarel on flickr.