MozFest 2014 was worth every minute of suffering from jet lag and trying to recover a lost suitcase containing the only change of clothes I had.
I met Billy Meinke for a beer the night I arrived. We had interacted over email as we planned the session for MozFest – I really did not know what to expect and was hoping we would get along well in real life. We were to run a sprint on ‘Skills and Curriculum Mapping for Open Science’. Our aim was not to think about a set of workshops but rather how to embed the skills that are delivered through initiatives like Software Carpentry into a University curriculum. To do that, one has to think about how learning objectives map onto graduate profiles, and how activities map onto different levels of learning (think Bloom’s or SOLO taxonomy). Billy was ideal to have this conversation with – his superpower is understanding how we learn. (I came to find out he has heaps more superpowers!). Billy turned out to also be an awesome person. We were off to a good start.
The next day we planned our sprint. While most around us were working on their laptops, Billy pulled out a set of cards, paper and pens. He went off to explain to me the mind-map he had drawn on the airplane, and then suggested that the entire science enterprise could be reduced to to three objects (data, papers and code) and three actions (create, reuse, share). I secretly hoped nobody would slip on the bits of brain on the floor from my head exploding. Billy looked young and us scientists tend to have certain arrogance about ourselves. So I really tried hard to hide my initial reaction. Billy, however, looked quite convinced about what he was saying – so I said ‘let’s give it a go’. Best. Decision. Ever.
We ran the sprint. We asked participants to write on bits of papers how they interacted with science in the form of ‘I [action] [object]’. For example, ‘I analyse data’, ‘I review manuscripts’, ‘I sequence genes’. We then worked on trying to fit those descriptions into the 3 objects and the 3 actions that Billy had suggested. What came to me as a surprise was how easy it was. As I watched Billy pin things on the board I kept thinking: have we been over-complicating the description of what we scientists do? It seemed that the answer was yes.
For the rest of MozFest we left that board up there, next to a table with bits of papers and pens for people to feel free to add their bit. More clarity emerged.
If we can really reduce the description of the objects and the actions to these simple sets, then solving the training problem becomes easier. It is no longer entangled into discipline-specific details and nuances – there is a common ground that we can leverage on. And, if so, then mapping to a curriculum is easier – there is a generalisation to be made that we can exploit to make it happen.
There was a number of researchers at MozFest, but the contributions to the board were not limited to them. MozFest also captures a rather unique crowd, most of which are quite happy to being pushed outside the box (or people who never saw the box in the first place).
Would this vision work on the mainstream university academic?
I am grateful to Mozilla Science Lab for the opportunity to go to London and to Kaitlin Thaney for pairing me with such a great partner in crime. I also cannot thank Billy enough for challenging my thinking the way he did. It was an eye opening experience. I flew around the world back to Auckland with a new mission: to find out what that board would look like if you packed the room with seasoned, mainstream academics.
And so I did.