Coding Center in A Box


This transcript was created by Hendrik Geßner with the help of the speech-to-text platform


Vanessa Sochat: This is U.S. Research Software Engineer Stories coming straight at you from U.S. RSE. The U.S. Research Software Engineer Association. Welcome to RSE Stories. I’m Vanessa Sochat. And joining me today, I have Adam Erck, who is director of the Center for Computing in the Liberal Arts from Doane University. Adam offers a unique perspective to a possibly different kind of need for training and research software engineering, as Doane is a small liberal arts school with about a thousand undergraduates and on a beautiful 300-acre campus in Nebraska. So without further ado: Adam, can you tell us a little about the Center for Computing in the Liberal Arts and what you guys are trying to do?


Adam Erck: Sure. And thank you again for having me here today. The Center for Computing in the Liberal Arts is something that we started with to help us and faculty here at Doane, and they really wanted to start something that is kind of best described as a writing center for computing in much the same way that you would go into a writing center. That’s the sort of feeling that we wanted to bring to the computer science side of things. We try to produce better programmers, and in much the same way as a writing center, we’d love to produce better writers. We had a lot of people come in that were just completely afraid of computers in general, and we teach them how to use Excel, Word, and PowerPoint. We kind of just want them to feel more comfortable with computers, and then if they’re curious enough we try to coax them into using programming and see like “oh, there are other ways to interact with computers.” So we start with Excel, and we move forward through programming and games; if they’re really interested, then we’ll push them into actual research and using our supercomputer. And if they want to do really big projects, we have access to a lot of the resources to succeed and other local larger institutions like the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This is a little bit about what we’re trying to do here at Doane and the things I’m writing.


Vanessa Sochat: I really like the metaphor that you’ve described about having a computing center that’s akin to a writing center, at least at larger institutions. I think it’s common to have support staff that is responding to tickets. It’s common to have weekly office hours, but when you think about it that’s really fundamentally different from having a place where you can literally go and just hang out and get some help. There’s this level of personalization that we’re sort of losing when we use the ticket systems and the scheduled office hours in place of that. You mentioned that students were afraid of computers. Could you elaborate a little more on that?


Adam Erck: Yeah. It’s really surprising to me, myself being in the millennial age group and dealing with a lot of other Millennials and Gen-Zs, I’ve honestly been super surprised to see a lot of the younger students coming in. I constantly hear it all the time like “oh, I’m not very good with computers, I’m not a tech person.” The stigma that we’re fighting is even in our name. Just being called the “Center for Computing” was kind of being a larger damper on our traffic than we had anticipated just because of that stigma of “oh, I’m not a tech person, oh, I’m not computer science.” So that’s been our biggest challenge: getting them in the door.


Vanessa Sochat: Yeah. So let’s talk about who does come through the door. Let’s say that a person comes to you. Could you walk me through the typical use case of why someone, whether it’s a student or faculty or staff or other, would come to your center?


Adam Erck: A majority of our students coming through, they all are going through these liberal arts general education programs, and our biggest initial group of students were computer science majors coming and needing help. Another big use case we’re seeing is faculty are coming to us and “hey, I’m teaching my class how to use Excel.” It’s been the bell curve of students’ abilities. You know I teach to the average, and so I’ve got the head of the class that’s very bored, and then I’m trying to minimize the number of people going left behind that’s tail end. What we have to do is we just send them our way if they’re bored. We can teach them more advanced stuff. We have the time to be one on one with them. We have a great group of students. The employees here, we call them peer consultants. It’s not a tutor. With a tutor, there’s kind of this stigma of you obviously know more than I do. But if it’s a peer consultant, I’m on the same level as you, I’m just helping you in something that maybe you missed.


Vanessa Sochat: That’s a really good insight because it’s definitely less intimidating to get help from one of your peers as opposed to an “adult expert.” Thinking about it we definitely don’t do a lot of student to student help at larger schools. We definitely have office hours for classes, but for the most part support for f.e. our research computing or for software engineering usually comes from these adult experts. And I do think that students get help from one another in labs, but that’s akin to sort of asking your neighbor to borrow some sugar when you really need a full-fledged supermarket. Another important detail to point out is just basic scheduling. With an adult, you’re limited to this 9 to 5 schedule and if you need help after 5 p.m., well, you know, “got to wait till tomorrow.” But with the student, well, we know that students are pretty much always working.


Adam Erck: Right, right. Exactly. And that’s a very good point. With my position, I work 9 to 5, you know, Monday through Friday, and that’s obviously not very conducive to helping a lot of students. With our peer consultants, we try to hire as many as we can. Right now we’re being funded with a new grant, the CyberTraining grant. We’re able to have students at table in the library, that’s what I call our “satellite desk,” and it’s not like you have to come into these office hours that, you know, it’s limited to me being in the building. We’re trying to invite students come in, hang out, then enjoy some coffee and tea in between classes, and if they need help I’m here.


Vanessa Sochat: But it sounds like the requirements for that are fairly simple. You need a space where students can set up or are just allowed to hang out, even just a library with a spare table. You need students that have some basic skills and maybe scientific programming and are able and willing to help others, and then importantly you need some kind of work-study arrangement where the student would be incentivized to hang out in said library space or other to be able to provide the help.


Adam Erck: You’re exactly right. This is something that can be easily introduced at other institutions. And what I’m really hoping to see is a similar trend to the uptake of writing centers. A lot of times, there is room in the budget at the university for these students, some work-study or you can have a computer science professor with a little bit of extra time setting up a center like this. And with this CyberTraining grant the next step of what we’re trying to do is write our own standard operating procedures, our mission statements and the training materials for our consultants. And we’re actually going to try to box this up and have something that’s downloadable to other universities. We’re gonna include wire templates, T-shirt templates, things that you can rebrand for your university, and just kind of a guide to how to get this off the ground with minimal support. We’re hoping to see that snowball out to other universities, and we can get this “coding center in a box,” as we’re calling it, out.


Vanessa Sochat: That’s great. You know I keep hearing this common thread, the more people that I talk to. There’s some initiative to provide support for research software engineering, and it starts as a homegrown effort. It starts with a person who’s like “Gosh there’s this resource that I’d really like to have, and I don’t know if I can do this, but I’m going to apply for a grant and then do whatever it takes to set up a help desk in the library.” And then it grows into something much larger than they had anticipated. Could you tell us about some of the students that are working for your center?


Adam Erck: We’ve had a wide variety of students working in the center already. I’ve got a couple of people that want to be doctors and have been doing computation on biology for their research. And it’s really all over the place. We do have a couple of people that want to be software engineers. We need more people doing software engineering and research software engineering. I think getting undergraduates doing computational research, it really helps out a lot. Something that would always bug me going through my college was, I didn’t know that you could be a software engineer or specifically a research software engineer for that matter. It was usually like “oh, you can be a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher,” you know that’s why you go to college.


Vanessa Sochat: Let’s pause here for a second. I would really love to hear your story starting from high school and then up to where you are now.


Adam Erck: For sure. I came in with the idea of wanting to be an anesthesiologist and kind of fell into doing chemistry research. I got to take AP chemistry and organic chemistry in high school, and it was really amazing, and it really sparked my interest in science. I really fell in love with doing chemistry research. I mean, research in general is just super cool. You could be the first person on the planet to know about this new information. And that was just something that was awe-inspiring, like “nobody else has ever seen this information before, this is brand new stuff.” The computer side of things really got tied in after I started volunteering to do research and I used to play a lot of videogames. I still play probably way too many video games, and I messed around with computers a lot. I didn’t really think anything of it, and I didn’t consider myself really good with computers. And again that stigma “I’m not really a tech person. How am I supposed to use a computer to do chemistry research.” It just didn’t make any sense. I started using the Gaussian research software. It was a pretty steep learning curve for me. I started working with Doug Jennewein at the University of South Dakota. I very quickly became the go-to ask for help in the research group. I was in the program for chemistry, and I decided to cut it short at the masters and take that move to Dakota State University for their Ph.D. program in information systems cause I thought that would be a great way to formalize my computer skills. I didn’t think anyone would take me seriously with only a chemistry degree. Out of the blue, I saw there was an application open for an HPC specialist position at Doane, and I kind of got out of that program and put that on the backburner. Right now I’m perfectly content with only my masters in chemistry and seeing that there’s really no stigma around that.


Vanessa Sochat: So you probably spend a lot of time really showing undergraduates that although they might be on some “well-defined path” they, in fact, are in total control of their destiny and they’re free to make choices to go off of the path and heck try something new.


Adam Erck: Definitely. I spent a lot of time educating other students on campus how to get into this software design. A lot of them are coming from the STEM fields and are seeing the value of doing software engineering. And so we’re seeing a lot of students that are altering their courses to more computer tech side of things and applying these kinds of things in different disciplines and it’s been really amazing to see just how inspiring these undergraduates can be with their curiosity and willingness not to be influenced by the stereotypical “how the disciplines are set in stone” or “we don’t do that kind of thing in the medical field.” They don’t have those influences and limitations there. And I think undergraduates doing really impressive research is definitely an underutilized resource at most institutions.


Vanessa Sochat: And that really mirrors your life experience too because you started wanting to be an anesthesiologist and then you fell in love with chemistry you realized the programming could make your life a heck of a lot easier. And you followed your interests down that path. I’m curious: I’m guessing that you didn’t have a center for computing or a similar place to get help when you were learning. So was most of your learning really your responsibility, or did you have someone to ask for help?


Adam Erck: Yeah. So I did get a lot of help from my research advisor at the time. It did become very difficult, very quickly. I would have loved to have a CCLA to go to at my university. NSF has seen the importance of computer science education and is really pushing on that kind of stuff.


Vanessa Sochat: So NSF is definitely an important player to help support computer science education efforts. But let’s step back to what I keep hearing you mentioned about this “stereotypical tech person.” Do you think that these efforts can help to nullify this bias? Like, where did it come from in the first place? When we were, for example, growing up did we see too many TV shows with super bad guys and an underground lair typing on screens with flashing text then and you have no idea what’s going on, but you say “ha, that must be a tech person that’s definitely not me.” How do we combat that?


Adam Erck: The biggest thing I always said with the CCLA is to combat that is like, “oh it’s not like Hollywood.” We’re not sitting in the dark behind the black screen with some green text, and you hit a couple of keys, and you hacked into the Pentagon. For me it was that way too. It definitely made me feel very inadequate, and they’re like “oh I’m just an amateur over here. I don’t know what I’m doing.” And it’s like, you know, I just need to calm down, take a deep breath and go look at some documentation and really take a look at diagnostics. It’s really important to try to convey that. And it’s been really helpful for me to try to convince our students of that too. It’s just a matter if you haven’t spent a whole lot of time in this area.


Vanessa Sochat: I think the unspoken secret is that nobody is an expert. There are always things that we run into every single day and whether you’re a student or you’re “greater than student,” there’s always those hard problems that we don’t know how to solve and I think when it comes down to what distinguishes those that are “successful” from those that aren’t is just pure stubbornness, saying, you know, “I don’t know how to do this, but by golly I have this Internet, and I can think about it and try a lot of things and heck I am going to fix that issue.”


Adam Erck: And then document it!


Vanessa Sochat: And then document it, so the next person doesn’t need to go down this terrible rabbit hole that I just fell into.


Adam Erck: Very, very true.


Vanessa Sochat: Speaking of rabbit holes, or maybe that’s a terrible transition, you got me thinking back to computer games. I also love computer games and in life, have gone through various stages of addiction. Can you tell us about some of your favorite computer games?


Adam Erck: Oh, man. Well, it definitely started out with just out of nostalgia. The very first game I played was Kirby’s dreamland on NES. My mom’s parents babysat me a lot, and they hadn’t had that game system. I still have that game. I happened to find it again thanks to Amazon. As of late, definitely been playing a lot of Minecraft, not going to lie. It’s just there’s a lot of cool things you can do. There are even mods where you can build supercomputers in Minecraft and that’s just a lot of fun, too. I use my skills to host Minecraft servers at home. It’s useful skills to have. That’s definitely the majority of what I’ve been up to.


Vanessa Sochat: What advice would you give to a liberal arts student that would identify as a “not a tech person.”


Adam Erck: Find the nearest “tech person” and sit down with them over a cup of coffee and ask them you know “what computer language should I learn” or “why should I learn a computer language.” I tell students all the time you tell me what discipline you’re going into, I can tell you how you’re going to use computers in the near future and how having these skills are gonna be totally useful. Even if you don’t use it immediately when you start your career it could be the difference between you getting promoted later on when your boss is like “oh, we’ve got a new position” you could be like “oh, well, you know I’ve got these computer skills, I could administrate, I can be a manager.” And that could be the tipping point, that can make the difference for getting that promotion later on in your career.


Vanessa Sochat: That’s a really good perspective. I don’t normally think about how something that I’m learning is going to potentially help me for some future career but maybe I should, and I really like what you said earlier: give me a major, give me a topic, and I’ll tell you how computers are going to be in your future. OK, one more question. I know very little about Nebraska, maybe that you grow corn there. laughs Could you tell us something interesting or your favorite things about Nebraska?


Adam Erck: Certainly. So you know I grew up, I was actually born in Springfield Oregon and migrated out this way to South Dakota with my parents, and I’ve kind of been in the area since and South Dakota is in some ways a lot like Nebraska. Yes there is a lot of corn out through this region and then a lot of soybeans as well, but Nebraska is really cool. I love the Midwestern mentality. It really grows on you. In March we had some really bad flooding out here. I’m sure people remember all the flooding in the Midwest if they read about it in the news. It was pretty crazy we had little towns all over the place that turned into islands for a couple of weeks because they’re completely surrounded by water and completely cut off. And it’s just amazing to see we have all these people joining the National Guard and they come out in droves. You got National Guard people all over the place. We had these Chinook helicopters flying hay bales out to stranded farm animals and airlifting people back out of the stranded towns and all sorts of boats and rescue boats floating around bringing water and food to people. And back to my original point of the Midwest close-knit family mentality of “we worked together, together we are better for it”: In Omaha, where I live we had all this flooding going on, and we’d go to these donation centers, and there would be cars lined up for miles. People coming out of the woodwork with truckloads of water and food and shovels and clothing and pet food, and you name it. It was just amazing to see everybody coming together like that. Well I definitely miss the West Coast and being close to the ocean. I definitely have a great appreciation for the Midwest. We’re a family mentality, and we’ll band together when things get rough. That’s been really awesome to see out here. I think that’s something that people need to understand about the Midwest.


Vanessa Sochat: Adam, it has been a pleasure talking to you. And I’m really glad that you could offer a different perspective about research software engineering and education at a small liberal arts school. I will definitely keep a lookout for your computer center in a box. I think that’s going to be really neat.


Adam Erck: Well, awesome. Stay tuned, and we’ll try to get the word out and get everybody their own computing center in a box. Have a good one.