Learning to Speak Python

A workshop participant points to something on another participant's laptop.

Python Camp attendees work collaboratively to put their programming skills into practice.

(photo: Harrison Jones, B.F.A. ‘19/the George Washington University)

An undergraduate studying carbon emissions in European cities. A graduate student working with federal data. Faculty members seeking to equip their students with the best methods for financial analysis or epidemiology. A late-career researcher re-tooling his approach to a real-world problem. These are just some of the people GW Libraries and Academic Innovation (GWLAI) has helped get a leg up with one of today’s most versatile tools for computation, data analysis and software development: Python.

A programming language, Python has become the lingua franca for working with data across the academy, from genomics to economics, from fluid mechanics to media studies. Researchers turn to it because it is free, relatively easy to learn, and supported by a robust and devoted community. Students flock to Python because it provides a strong foundation for skills like data visualization and machine learning, which are in high demand in today’s job market.

“I am excited to finally become a maker in the digital world.”

Overview of a Python workshop session, with dozens of students on laptops facing an instructor utilizing three displays.

A crowd of more than 50 students listen as Data Services Librarian Megan Potterbusch introduces the foundations of programming at a Python Camp in Gelman Library.

(photo: Harrison Jones, B.F.A. ‘19/the George Washington University)

On a Friday afternoon in September, more than 50 people sat at tables in Gelman Library, working together on a basic coding exercise. They were part of Python Camp, a three-day workshop offered by GWLAI and developed in partnership with Professors Lorena Barba and Ryan Watkins. Dr. Barba’s curriculum, devised for first-year engineering students, introduces Python through an immersive, hands-on approach. Students write and run code live in a web browser (using a platform called JupyterHub), following along as instructors step through examples and exercises. There’s even homework, graded by a script written in Python. The goal of the curriculum is simple yet powerful: to prepare students for thinking computationally. Adapting Dr. Barba’s curriculum for a wider audience, Python Camp addresses a real need on campus.

Now in its third iteration, Python Camp is part of a growing list of popular workshops on Python and other languages offered by GWLAI. For the latest Software Carpentry offering, which follows a similar curriculum but is specifically geared toward the needs of researchers, registration had to be halted after just 48 hours when 55 people had already signed up. GWLAI offers multiple workshops in varying lengths each semester, and yet demand keeps growing.

In addition, students and faculty make heavy use of one-on-one consultations with librarians and graduate-student consultants. Just as researchers are re-tooling their methods in order to work computationally, GWLAI has re-tooled its approach to research services, recognizing the critical role that languages like Python play in the research process. Working alongside GW’s faculty and students to solve problems — helping them, as one of our Python Camp instructors put it, “to get unstuck” — we’re truly promoting academic innovation. We’re also empowering our community with a literacy that can open doors: to new careers, to new ways of working, to new intellectual and creative pursuits. As one Python Camper wrote about their reasons for attendance, “I am excited to finally become a maker in the digital world.”