A coding kitchen in Stavanger

Last week, I travelled to Norway and held a two day session of our Agile Geocomputing Training. We convened at the newly constructed Innovation Dock in Stavanger, and set up shop in an oversized, swanky kitchen. Despite the industry-wide squeeze on spending, the event still drew a modest turnout of seven geoscientists. That's way more traction then we've had in North America lately, so thumbs up to Norway! And, since our training is designed to be very active, a group of seven is plenty comfortable. 

A few of the participants had some prior experience writing code in languages such as Perl, Visual Basic, and C, but the majority showed up without any significant programming experience at all. 

Skills start with syntax and structures 

The first day we covered basic principles or programming, but because Python is awesome, we dive into live coding right from the start. As an instructor, I find that doing live coding has two hidden benefits: it stops me from racing ahead, and making mistakes in the open gives students permission to do the same. 

Using geoscience data right from the start, students learn about key data structures: lists, dicts, tuples, and sets, and for a given job, why they might chose between them. They wrote their own mini-module containing functions and classes for getting stratigraphic tops from a text file. 

Since syntax is rather dry and unsexy, I see the instructor's main role to inspire and motivate through examples that connect to things that learners already know well. The ideal containers for stratigraphic picks is a dictionary. Logs, surfaces, and seismic, are best cast into 1-, 2, and 3-dimensional NumPy arrays, respectively. And so on.

Notebooks inspire learning

We've seen it time and time again. People really like the format of Jupyter Notebooks (formerly IPython Notebooks). It's like there is something fittingly scientific about them: narrative, code, output, repeat. As a learning document, they aren't static — in fact they're meant to be edited. But they aren't so open-ended that learners fail to launch. Professional software developers may not 'get it', but scientists really subscribe do. Start at the start, end at the end, and you've got a complete record of your work. 

You don't get that with the black-box, GUI-heavy software applications we're used to. Maybe, all legitimate work should be reserved for notebooks: self-contained, fully-reproducible, and extensible. Maybe notebooks, in their modularity and granularity, will be the new go-to software for technical work.

Outcomes and feedback

By the end of day two, folks were parsing stratigraphic and petrophysical data from text files, then rendering and stylizing illustrations. A few were even building interactive animations on 3D seismic volumes.  One recommendation was to create a sort of FAQ or cookbook: "How do I read a log?", "How do I read SEGY?", "How do I calculate elastic properties from a well log?". A couple of people of remarked that they would have liked even more coached exercises, maybe even an extra day; a recognition of the virtue of sustained and structured practice.

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Photographs in this post are courtesy of Alessandro Amato del Monte via aadm on Flickr