Sunday, 9 February 2014

My students and my first PyCon

A couple of months ago an email somehow found it's way in to my inbox mentioning a new user group that was setting up in Cardiff. This was from some guy called Daniele Procida. As a Python coder really enthusiastic to be part of the Open Source Software (OSS) community I thought this would be awesome so I've been along to the monthly meetings where all things Python and Django are discussed.

However many months later I got to attend my first PyCon (in fact a DjangoCon): https://djangoweekend.org/

Here's the programme that I carried around in my back pocket:



Professor Tim Phillips, the head of the School of Mathematics kindly agreed to sponsor 3 tickets for students on my Computing for Mathematics course. I gave 3 tickets to students as a reward for their individual coursework (James wrote about Markov chains and Snakes and Ladders, Alex about Fractals and Matt about prime numbers).

+Jason Young who has been my research undergraduate student for a couple of years now (and is a very able coder) attended and +Izabela Komenda (a post-doc) also presented some of her PhD work.

Here's a picture of my Cardiff students, Daniele and I:



It was great that so many sponsors contributed to the conference (full list here) and also that +Cardiff University supported the event wholeheartedly, Roger Whitaker (the dean of research for the physical sciences) even opened the scientific talks on Friday.

Frankly:

It was the best conference I've ever been to.


The atmosphere cultivated by the OSS community is really amazing. Everyone is really encouraging, understanding and just plain ol' nice.

From the scientific talks on the Friday where usages for Python in Science were discussed to witnessing what a 'code sprint' was on the Sunday: everyone was just exceptionally nice.

I learnt Django over christmas and the help people were willing to give (not once making my mistakes more than they were) was really cool.

For example this morning I sat down with Baptiste, one of the core Django developers and he really kindly answered all the (noobish) questions I had (before leaving today he actually gave me his card and told me to get in touch if I had any further problems with a particular thing).

That is just one example of the awesome atmosphere that was cultivated during the conference. The event brilliantly mixed advanced programming for one of the most popular web frameworks with accessible topics for every attendee. I think that this is something that is kind of inherent to the OSS community, you are encouraged to put yourself out there and potentially make mistakes.

For this reason alone I'm extremely glad that the 3 undergraduates got to attend the event. 

Fear of failure and mistakes is something that sometimes really holds students back. As educators it's very important for us to make sure students learn to embrace mistakes.

During one of the talks on Saturday a particular particularity of Django was being discussed and I thought to myself:

I wonder if my students will be put off by "how much they don't understand" and perhaps this will end up being a negative experience for them...

I could not have been more wrong, their attitudes were perfect. They realised that they were very much at the beginning of the road (some of them had not coded before October) and just took advantage of everything around them.

James gave a talk on the Friday which was great and Matt gave a lightning talk (less than 5mins):






They all spoke to the experts around them constantly and by Sunday were themselves writing Django apps. It was great to have +Robert Dragan of learnium help some of them debug their code on the Sunday.

In fact towards the end of Sunday James even had Daniele (a core Django developer) and Charlie (a super-duper really helpful and nice Django developer/person) helping him work on a site:


I won't write much more about the whole event but I'll just repeat something that Matt said during his lightning talk.

He started by saying that he was a bit dismayed when at the beginning of his degree he was told that he was going to have to learn how to code (my course is brand new), he then talked about how he thought +Sage Mathematical Software System helped him gain a better understanding of the prime number theorem but it was what he said last that was really awesome (a lot of other attendees commented on it):

"Why did I have to wait until coming to University to learn to code?"

(All the talks on Saturday were recorded so I really look forward to sharing his talk, it was very well delivered.)

This whole event was a really great experience for me but more importantly my students.

The conference will be running again next here which is awesome for my future students. Next time Daniele, (who is one of the most impressive human beings I've ever met) will have (at least) me to help organise the it.

I've already signed up for my next PyCon (http://pyconuk.org/) and more importantly I've asked myself:

"Why did I have to wait till now to attend an OSS conference?"