Creating in the classroom

The day before the Atlantic Geoscience Colloquium, I hosted a one-day workshop on geoscience computing to 26 maritime geoscientists. This was my third time running this course. Each time it has needed tailoring and new exercises to suit the crowd; a room full of signal-processing seismologists has a different set of familiarities than one packed with hydrologists, petrologists, and cartographers. 

Easier to consume than create

At the start of the day, I asked people to write down the top five things they spend time doing with computers. I wanted a record of the tools people use, but also to take collective stock of our creative, as opposed to consumptive, work patterns. Here's the result (right).

My assertion was that even technical people spend most of their time in relatively passive acts of consumption — browsing, emailing, and so on. Creative acts like writing, drawing, or using software were in the minority, and only a small sliver of time is spent programming. Instead of filing into a darkened room and listening to PowerPoint slides, or copying lectures notes from a chalkboard, this course was going to be different. Participation mandatory.

My goal is not to turn every geoscientist into a software developer, but to better our capacity to communicate with computers. Giving people resources and training to master this medium that warrants a new kind of creative expression. Through coaching, tutorials, and exercises, we can support and encourage each other in more powerful ways of thinking. Moreover, we can accelerate learning, and demystify computer programming by deliberately designing exercises that are familiar and relevant to geoscientists. 

Scientific computing

In the first few hours students learned about syntax, built-in functions, how and why to define and call functions, as well as how to tap into external code libraries and documentation. Scientific computing is not necessarily about algorithm theory, passing unit tests, or designing better user experiences. Scientists are above all interested in data, and data processes, helped along by rich graphical displays for story telling.

Elevation model (left), and slope magnitude (right), Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Click to enlarge.

In the final exercise of the afternoon, students produced a topography map of Nova Scotia (above left) from a georeferenced tiff. Sure, it's the kind of thing that can be done with a GIS, and that is precisely the point. We also computed some statistical properties to answer questions like, "what is the average elevation of the province?", or "what is the steepest part of the province?". Students learned about doing calculus on surfaces as well as plotting their results. 

Programming is a learnable skill through deliberate practice. What's more, if there is one thing you can teach yourself on the internet, it is computer programming. Perhaps what is scarce though, is finding the time to commit to a training regimen. It's rare that any busy student or working professional can set aside a chunk of 8 hours to engage in some deliberate coaching and practice. A huge bonus is to do it alongside a cohort of like-minded individuals willing and motivated to endure the same graft. This is why we're so excited to offer this experience — the time, help, and support to get on with it.

How can I take the course?

We've scheduled two more episodes for the spring, conveniently aligned with the 2014 AAPG convention in Houston, and the 2014 CSPG / CSEG convention in Calgary. It would be great to see you there!

Eventbrite - Agile Geocomputing  Eventbrite - Agile Geocomputing

Or maybe a customized in-house course would suit your needs better? We'd love to help. Get in touch.