When you hear the word carpentry, most think of woodwork, but in the realm of research, it’s about coding and data science. Nathaniel Porter, social science data consultant and data education coordinator for University Libraries, is taking on a new role as the maintainer community lead for The Carpentries, an international community of data and computing educators. 

About The Carpentries 

According to its website, The Carpentries is a “worldwide community of instructors, trainers, maintainers, helpers, and supporters who share admission to teach foundational computational and data science skills to researchers.” There are currently three carpentries: software, data, and library covering tools including programming languages such as R and Python, tools for working with data such as SQL databases and spreadsheets, and tools for streamlining and automating computing and project management such as Unix, Git.

Software Carpentry is focused on computing skills. Data Carpentry concentrates on workflows and data management and analysis skills in specific disciplines such as social sciences, ecology, genomics, geospatial data, and astronomy. Library Carpentry centers on skills for people working in library and information science.

A potential fourth carpentry, High-Performance Computing Carpentry, is in the early stages of joining the organization and will cover similar tools to other carpentries but with a focus on parallel and cloud computing for computationally intensive tasks such as image processing and training artificial intelligence models.

What is a lead maintainer? 

The maintainer community lead’s primary role is to recruit, connect, and coordinate The Carpentries' lesson maintainers from all over the world. This includes hosting monthly meetings, recruiting and onboarding new maintainers, coordinating with curriculum leads, and encouraging and equipping non-maintainers to contribute effectively. 

“Most of all, what I hope to do is build a stronger sense of community,” said Porter. “Carpentries-wide, that likely will mean bringing back real-time co-working events and encouraging active engagement through asynchronous platforms like Slack. But I also plan to work with maintainers for specific programs, lessons, and tools to coordinate sub-communities of interest to meet occasionally to support and encourage others with similar challenges rather than replicating each other’s work unnecessarily.”

There are currently 105 maintainers from around the world across the four carpentries including the instructor training and lessons in three languages — English, Spanish, and Japanese. 

An expert in the industry

Over the years, Porter has been involved in The Carpentries in a variety of ways as an instructor, trainer and local community lead, maintainer in instructor training, Curriculum Advisory Committee member, and trainer leadership. Porter is also a part of a cohort supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the University of California, Los Angeles, that is designing new library carpentry lessons related to open science. Porter is a globally recognized data expert in this internationally respected community.

“I found working as a maintainer to be rewarding and wanted to help build both the size and connectedness of the maintainer community, so it was a natural fit for me,” said Porter.

The Carpentries' executive board and curriculum lead made the final decision to select Porter for the role.

Nathaniel Porter teaches a workshop from The Carpentries in Newman Library. Photo by Chase Parker for Virginia Tech.

Premier workshops

The Carpentries' two-day workshops are distinctive in that they are all openly licensed and designed to be accessible to novice learners who are new to programming and data. “We have a ‘never teach alone’ philosophy,” said Porter. “So every workshop has at least two instructors and one or more helpers. Those instructors and helpers that aren’t leading the demo help individual learners who encounter challenges or have questions about the material.” 

Another key philosophy is no learner left behind. “We strive to model errors as opportunities for learning rather than problems, and helpers and instructors make sure everyone understands the material before moving on,” said Porter. 

Workshops are most often taught in universities like Virginia Tech, but can also be found at nonprofits and businesses, professional organizations, and government agencies. “Ultimately, this service also comes back to Virginia Tech,” said Porter. “We have among the largest and most active instructor communities of any university and teach at least eight two-day workshops a year, which totals around 200 faculty and graduate students annually. The best way to ensure this community and resource can continue to thrive is to build connections among its volunteers, at Virginia Tech and globally.”

This role is unique in its potential to support instructional best practices for dozens of workshops taught hundreds of times a year, including many outside traditionally well-resourced areas of the world. 

“My service also means Virginia Tech will have an enhanced membership and can train more instructors to add to our local community, including faculty and graduate students, who can use those skills and certifications to secure and further their careers and build the program’s capacity from within,” said Porter.  

The Carpentries' workshops have been a central part of University Libraries’ Data Education Program since before Porter began working at Virginia Tech in 2017. Just this year, Porter’s team began a community of practice for carpentries instructors that meets monthly to discuss a topic related to teaching data and computing skills, both in a carpentries setting and beyond. The instructors serve as trainers, maintainers, and members of committees that guide lesson development, inclusion, and accessibility efforts. 

Transferable skills for better teaching and professional success

“Because instructor training is not just about teaching these exact workshops, faculty instructors find their teaching in traditional courses improves, and because the certification is widely recognized, graduate student instructors also enhance their teaching skills making them more attractive job candidates from the start,” said Porter. For the last two years, Porter has also offered a popular workshop for graduate teaching assistants on teaching with data built around The Carpentries' philosophy.

Porter said he is passionate about teaching with data and building inclusive, accessible communities of practice that support both data literacy and technical skill development.

“I talk to classes of new graduate students in a dozen departments every single year to share about University Libraries’ data services and almost without fail, there is at least one student who shares their worry about not being good enough at math, programming or computers to succeed, even though they know their research is important,” said Porter. “Carpentries curriculum is not only designed to help anyone learn, regardless of talent or background, but to teach instructors and learners alike to have a growth mindset that replaces an ‘I can’t’ with an ‘I can’t yet’ mindset.” 

University Libraries at Virginia Tech hosts online and in-person workshops from The Carpentries three times a year in January, May, and August. All faculty, staff, students, and community members can take part by registering through the library events calendar or Professional Development Network.

New this January is the Data Carpentry Ecology Workshop. Porter’s team also plans to launch a new series of qualitative data analysis workshops in the spring semester that he is developing using The Carpentries' philosophies, techniques, and infrastructure that will introduce key aspects of qualitative research with five programs: NVivo, Dedose, Atlas.ti, and two free open source tools. 

“I've tried a lot of things in The Carpentries' community and taught workshops online and in four states. Almost every volunteer I’ve interacted with has been positive and engaged,” said Porter. “The community has been a critical part of my growth into the new-to-me and relatively unique role of data education coordinator so helping build it up both at Virginia Tech and beyond is an obvious next step.”

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