MSDS Students Got Technical at Tech Bootcamp

July 15, 2020

Prior to starting their coursework, the School of Data Science offers a tech bootcamp to each new cohort of students. 

This year’s tech bootcamp took place on Zoom following Orientation from Tuesday, July 7 through Friday, July 10. 

Dr. Pete Alonzi, Project Manager and Data Scientist at the School of Data Science, runs the tech bootcamp for each new cohort. 

This was Alonzi’s ninth tech bootcamp.

“The method we use in bootcamp is to introduce ideas and give questions, plant seeds, if you will, for the students to reflect on as they go through the program,” Alonzi said. 

Students coming into the MSDS program typically have varying experiences with coding. 

“We have some students who come in, who haven't learned Python, and that's new for them. Some students coming in have been programming for a while, so there is definitely a spread there,” Alonzi explained. “Tech bootcamp was designed for the students who needed to fill in some gaps or catch up, because we have a broad background of people coming in.”

He explained that there are three main components to the bootcamp. Alonzi broke down how he teaches plans each course. 

“I try to frame up each module with a fundamental question to start thinking about, and then [the students can] continue thinking about throughout the entire program,” Alonzi said.

To frame the concept of big data, Alonzi explained that he intentionally asks students to run simulations that are too big for their laptops to handle. This helps students understand that sometimes they will need to go beyond their laptops to solve a problem. 

The first day is dedicated to knowing your computer, the primary tool these data science students will use throughout their time in the MSDS program. 

“In order to make Python and R work on a computer, you have to know a little bit about what's under the hood,” Alonzi said. 

The next two days break down the basic first steps of coding. Alonzi introduces the students to programming languages, including Python and R. He also introduces them to GitHub. As data science is constantly changing and a moving target, Alonzi noted that the bootcamp evolves each year. 

“The final piece is something called version control software. That's something we use predominantly through GitHub,” he explained. “When our students go on interviews, and they want to demonstrate their skills, a very common thing an interviewer will say is ‘show me your repository on GitHub.’ Students can open a repository and present their code. It gives them the ability to highlight projects of which they are proud.”

Alonzi noted students who have little to no experience coding have to learn to use their computers in an entirely new way. 

“The metaphor I use is most people have been driving an automatic car,” Alonzi said. “And in this case, you have to basically teach them how to drive stick.”

The final day of tech bootcamp is a hackathon. Alonzi noted that the first three days of tech bootcamp all build on each other and lead up to the hackathon.

“The hackathon is designed to go at the end of the bootcamp with the idea that at the beginning we start very structured, very prescriptive, telling them precisely what to do,” he said. “And then by the time we get to the end of the hackathon, we give them a ton of freedom, let them be creative, and let them explore.”

The prompt for the hackathon sounds simple. Alonzi shows the students a picture and tells them to make the picture in four hours. 

“I have not taught the students everything they need to know,” he said. 

However, Alonzi explained that the key is that the final goal is clear. With this picture, the students have a tangible, clear endpoint. 

“What I hope is that they get stuck,” Alonzi noted with a smirk. “It's a safe place to get stuck. Then they can hit the little button [button which brings the Zoom host into a breakout room], I can jump in the room and then we can talk about it. Then they are taking their first steps in learning how to get unstuck.”

None of bootcamp is graded or scored. Alonzi added that this is crucial. This allows students the freedom to make mistakes, ask questions, and get stuck, all of which are valuable learning experiences. 

An estimated 70 students attended the bootcamp, which included a few students outside of the School of Data Science who wanted to learn about coding and the basics behind it. 

Alonzi is passionate about welcoming the students and getting them started off strong through this bootcamp. Additionally, he has been making a Youtube series called “Hello World” throughout the past couple of months. 

He explained that as COVID-19 was on the rise and things seemed to be spinning out of control, he wanted to create something for the incoming class to welcome them and introduce them to computer hardware.

“I just sort of ran with it,” Alonzi said. “I had computer hardware around the house.”

Check out his series here