Our second RailsBridge Boston workshop

November 9-10, 2012 @ MIT Stata Center

by Daniel Choi with photos by Rebecca Frankel and Braulio Carreno

On Friday and Saturday, November 9-10, RailsBridge Boston held its second free Ruby on Rails introductory workshop at MIT's Stata Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Sixty beginners, 47 of them women, attended the workshop. Twenty-five experienced Ruby programmers assisted them through software installation, lectures and exercises.

We also provided everyone three meals, free PragProg and O'Reilly e-books, and free drinks and appetizers at the afterparty at Cambridge Brewing Company in Kendall Square.

This was our second workshop in three months. So we don't have to repeat what we've written before, please read our recap of the first workshop this past August at Harvard Law School to find out about what inspired us to organize RailsBridge Boston workshops and about our basic workshop format.

The students who attended this workshop overwhelmingly appreciated the experience. Forty-two out of 60 students completed the exit survey. Over 90 percent of respondents gave the workshop a rating of 4 or 5 out of 5. Sixty-two percent rated it 5 out of 5.


We got a lot of positive general comments. A small sample:

You guys rock! I've tried learning RoR 3 times before, using different methods (husband-as-teacher, self-study, small class) without success. I left this course with a project in my head and passion in my heart. Keep up the good work!

The workshop in general was really well run and the presenters/presentations were engaging and clear...

I loved the empowerment and encouragement that flowed through all the coursework, marketing materials, and interactions throughout the day. Learning to code isn't easy, and it can be particularly intimidating as a female, but I felt extremely comfortable at the workshop and am excited to delve into the resources in the Boston Community...

Awesome job!

Great work: the timing for tutorials, presentations, and meals provided the perfect mix. I was never bored or felt abandoned. And just as my brain was beginning to check out, we were already consuming celebratory beers.

Thank you so much!

I like the mix of lectures, "assignments", socials, and food. Well done guys

Thank you very much for such a good workshop. I appreciated your energy and enthusiasm. After drinks were also very nice and a good opportunity to network with very interesting people.

Our secret sauce

In response to the question, "What did you like most about the workshop?" people pointed to one thing above all others: the friendly, knowledgeable, laid-back, nonjudgmental, encouraging teaching assistants, and the fact that we had enough of them on hand -- approximately one for every 2.4 students this time -- to answer questions and help people get past obstacles without delay.

Here is some of the feedback we got on this question:

The people there were amazing -- all of the organizers and TA's were great. So nice and friendly and helpful. The attendees were also very nice. Had a good overall vibe/feel to it.

[The TAs] were so encouraging, positive and patient. My group had a range of experience levels, with me somewhere in the middle, so I saw how well all of the TAs supported those having trouble while also challenging those who were breezing through the tutorials...

The TA:Student ratio (1:2) was amazing! There was always someone to help at any step during the workshop, and all of the TAs were incredibly nice, kind, and generous with their help and support. Also, the workshop was very well paced. The availability of extra credit ensured that students of all levels were engaged and constantly learning without putting pressure on the beginner-level students. I also appreciated the mix of lectures with workshop segments as they provided a great balance for learning. The time frame (1.5 days) of the workshop was also good for the purpose, though I am sure there is interest in a longer workshop. The snacks, meals, and social opportunities were also well timed. I am extremely impressed by the quality of the workshop and how welcoming all of the TAs were.

The ratio of TAs to students was excellent. I was never worried I would fall behind the class and get lost. And it was a great idea to have all the setup stuff done Friday night. The overall atmosphere was very inviting.

The large number of TA's were absolutely necessary since I had many questions along the way but was always able to find someone close by to provide support.

The TA's and laid back approach really made things fun. By the time we got into the work it was easier to raise my hand early, because it was established from very early on that everyone who assisted actually wanted to work with attendees.

The TA's were fabulous and there were enough of them that I never felt like I had to wait to get a question answered. I also liked the fact that the materials were super well organized and easy to follow at your own pace.

I liked the complete lack of judgement that the TA's exhibited when I asked a million and one questions. That was nice, it made it easier to ask questions I thought were stupid but needed to know the answer to anyway.

New things we tried

Besides doing all the things we did in the last workshop and recruiting even more superb TAs, we implemented three new workshop "features":

Logo and stickers

We didn't have a logo for our August workshop. But we got one for this one. Martha Rettig made us a fabulous logo and designed two stickers to match (see picture on right). We handed out 500 of these to everyone at the workshop. We're grateful to team member Anita Patel for coming up with the whole brilliantly cost-effective idea, which was very budget and schedule friendly.

We are basically following the logo and schwag trail blazed by our sister organization RailsGirls, who totally rock at style and branding.

Next time we may go for t-shirts or bags!

Curriculum progress tracker

During our Saturday session, Mauricio Linhares, Daniel Choi, Pascal Rettig, and Michael Breen paired in various combinations to finish implementing a rad new real-time RailsBridge curriculum progress tracker.

As students finished each Suggestotron lesson, they were asked to check off a "lesson completed" checkbox at the bottom of the lesson. As students ticked these off, little pie graphs would automatically update on our curriculum outline to reflect the percentage of the class that had completed each lesson. We kept this information up on the projector screen in between lectures. (See picture on right, courtesy of TA Peter Jaros.)

Use the Suggestotron to vote on afterparty beer

Toward the end of the Saturday session, we decided that we were going to order a bunch of beer towers at our afterparty at Cambridge Brewing Company. But which brews should we order for everyone?

Someone came up with the brilliant idea of using a student's Suggestotron app to conduct our beer tower brew selection poll. Workshop student Christine Liu not only offered up her Suggestotron; she also sassed it up with some cat humor (see picture on right). We ordered 4 beer towers of the Great Pumpkin Ale.

What to improve in the future

We also asked students if there was anything we could improve in the future. Here are the most common suggestions.

Reduce information overload

Some students suffered from brain-fry and information overload. They suggested more breaks, a longer and more leisurely workshop, better priming on foundational concepts and skills, or alternatively some pre-workshop homework that might reduce the amount of new information they would have to digest during the workshop.

More breaks. My brain was so full by the end of the day, I've had to go back and re-visit a few things.

While I was able to understand most of the terminology and concepts, I know there were others that didn't have much dev experience going in that struggled with understanding a lot of the concepts I'm wondering if it's possible to do a big picture overview in the beginning -- this is a terminal, this is an editor, this is what you're going to build today, and maybe spend a little bit more time on some of the important concepts like objects, models, etc.

May be worthwhile to prepare a "pre-read" document to introduce the absolute basics beforehand and set expectations around what they should know coming in. I would have been more inclined to do some research beforehand and likely would have gotten more out of the 1.5 days if I had this baseline level of understanding.

The curriculum is very well written, it explains very well and clear! I like the presentation in between very much. The only difficulty with that is that if you are behind schedule then they make less sense. I would also be happy to do a weekend course, divide the content over 2 days to feel less rushed to get everything done and have a better preparation to go further with Ruby on rails by yourself. I'd like to give MANY compliments about the whole organization. It was beyond my expectations, really great!

Assume less knowledge in the lectures

Some beginners were a bit overwhelmed because some of the lectures or exercises assumed a little too much knowledge on their part.

[S]everal of the lectures were in Japanese for those of us who have never programmed anything before.... I have no idea why the things they were saying are important because I have never used any other programming language and am not at the "super user" stage yet. That time would have been better spent introducing us to the basics of the tools you need to code, what typical workflows are for making a web app, etc.

The lectures after lunch on saturday started getting a little over my head. It's probably because of my lack of prior programming experience, but I just thought I'd mention it.

I'm ... not sure how effective all the lectures were--some of them, including the ones introducing databases, were pretty high-level for a course where most of the women in the room had zero programming experience. I have some previous programming experience, but never made it to databases, so hearing the way Ruby handles databases compared to other languages was not helpful, since I had no frame of reference.

Offer post-workshop support and guidance

Many students urged us to offer more structured post-workshop support as they continued their Ruby and Rails self-education.

I feel like I managed to get through everything but now I'm never going to touch Ruby again- it would be nice if there were exercises and tips walking us through them, to guide us beyond the class. Maybe an interactive component for us to follow up on using Ruby a week later.

I think you already have an excellent recipe for success. You had a great number of TAs who were all genuinely warm and patient and able to communicate effectively. I think that's key.

I'd also love to stay in contact with certain people from the workshop both TAs and other students. Perhaps a google groups?

In the future, it would be excellent to offer more workshops geared towards those that have completed this first workshop.

I think it would be great if there was a way to set up more formal continued learning after the workshop. TA's could offer some form of office hours or there could be a way for organizing a study group?

It was great. I just wish I had a better ability to pick up my own projects afterward. It'd be great if we got more of a framework for starting and setting up projects that we could take with us afterward - like on paper or in a short form online.

I'd love to see a Beginner's II Workshop, and eventually Intermediate level programming.

One of the things I struggle with is finding the structured time to sit down and continue with programming. Having another follow-up course, especially if it followed soon after the first one, would help people make the time to keep up with their skills.

Make sure students don't just copy and paste

One or two students noted that it may be too easy to just go through the exercises just copying and pasting material from the curriculum without developing a deeper understanding.

Overall, I think the workshop was a great introduction to Ruby on Rails that was well-paced and well-structured. At some points, I felt that I was copying and pasting without internalizing what I should be learning from the activities -- I wonder if there is a way to foster more interactive learning on the assignments between the lectures?

We've actually started working on this problem since our last workshop. Brendan Kemp started hiding steps in hint sections that students have to click to reveal. We plan to cover more of the curriculum with these.

Address late walk-ins, uncivil people, and overdomineering males

Some people did not attend the Friday installfest and showed up on Saturday expecting a TA to help them through the installation while the rest of the workshop proceeded. Several students and TAs we surveyed noted that this presented a serious imposition and drag on the workshop.

We also had one unfortunate incident where a student started saying disparaging things about transgender people at the same table where one happened to be sitting. We had no civility policy for workshop attendees to prevent this sort of thing. But next time we will have one.

One student also pointed out that the men at her table monopolized the TAs' attention a bit too much:

In addition, I noted that 2 of the 3 men at my table consumed more TA time and resources than all the rest of us put together, and their female hosts seemed vastly uninterested in the proceedings. That just seemed like flat-out theft of freely offered resources.

Serve some brie

One person could only suggest that we add brie to our food offerings:

We covered a lot of stuff, I wasn't bored, the cookies in the lunch bags were awesome. I kinda feel like there should have been brie.

Just kidding! All correct with me. Thanks for doing this guys!

But seriously, next time, brie.

Thank you

First and foremost, we thank our incredible teaching assistants, who are the #1 reason RailsBridge Boston works: Rebecca Nesson, Liana Leahy, Amy Newell, Joseph Rodriguez, Andrew Kuklewicz, Brendan Kemp, Braulio Carreno, Michael Durrant, Rebecca Frankel, Valentine Rogers, Patrick Robertson, Dan Pickett, Manu Raghavan, Jiyeon Woo, Tracy Moscato, Lauren Pespisa, Mary Johnson, Allen Madsen, Pascal Rettig, Martha Rettig, Brandon Casci, Chris Adams, Brian Del Vecchio, Clara Raubertas, Mike Breen, Peter Jaros, Mauricio Linhares, Chris Houhoulis, Dylan Cashman, Jason Draper, Matt Griffin, Daniel Choi, and Jon Cheng.

Thank you to the seven TAs who took the time and care to prepare and deliver lectures to the workshop: Michael Durrant, Rebecca Nesson, Clara Raubertas, Andrew Kuklewicz, Liana Leahy, Dan Pickett, and Joseph Rodriguez.

We also thank our incredible sponsors for supporting our mission and making this workshop possible by paying for our expenses and giving our students and volunteers great programming e-books:

We would like to thank Andrew Farrell and Lauren McLean for helping us get such a great venue at MIT and for arranging such excellent food service for the workshop.

We thank BostonRB for serving as the backbone and hub of the amazing Boston Ruby community.

Finally we are forever grateful to outreach organizers from both Boston Python and RailsBridge San Francisco for showing us the way and inspiring us to action. Special thanks goes out to Jessica McKellar and Asheesh Laroia, directors of OpenHatch and veterans of diversity outreach from the Boston Python. And to Mary Jenn of RailsBridge San Francisco who transmitted much RailsBridge wisdom.

The next workshop

We plan on holding our next RailsBridge Boston workshop in February 2013, possibly with an additional intermediate track. We don't have a final venue and date yet, but hopefully we'll sort that out soon.

If you're interested in attending the next workshop as a student or as a volunteer teaching assistant, please fill out this form! We'll be sure to let you know when we have more details.

Start a RailsBridge chapter in your area

If you would like to get your own Ruby community to start doing its own RailsBridge outreach, we are here to help. Please email railsbridgeboston@gmail.com and we will give you plenty of advice from our own experience and introduce you to our great outreach mentors from RailsBridge SF and OpenHatch.

Stay in touch!

Posted on December 3, 2012

The TAs get ready to rumble
Our new logo and stickers, thanks to Martha Rettig
Our curriculum progress tracker
We used Suggestotron as our afterparty beer tower poll app
The TAs introduce themselves
The welcome desk, on which we serve name tags
Our truly awesome sponsors