Saturday, October 17, 2009

Teaching at the Ruby on Rails Workshop for Women

Today I taught the beginner class at the Ruby on Rails Workshop for Women. First of all, I want to thank Mary Tolbert for getting me involved. Also, a big thanks to Sarah Allen and Liana Leahy putting things together and giving me a chance to say that "I taught a class at Harvard."

I was a bit intimidated in teaching the class at first. I was upgraded from TA status to teacher mid-week and was a bit worried that I wouldn't know what to say. Maybe I was right to be worried. Also, many of the TA's were rockstar rubyists and I have to admit that I felt a little silly speaking authoritatively in front of them.

Once I started getting into the material I started to feel pretty comfortable. Watching people have a-ha moments is really rewarding. Trying to explain programming with out falling back on computer science terms is kinda tricky on the fly. Maybe if I do something like this again, I can speak on things a little more smoothly.

It's pretty incredible how much the students were able to pick up in a day. I know that we had some people in the class that had never written code in their life and it was really cool to see them hacking in just a few hours.

If I were to do it over again, I would suggest just a plain ruby class for beginners. Or maybe a two day class where Rails is covered in the second day. When I thought that the students were getting comfortable with Ruby, we only had one session left. I think that everyone was with me when we were modifying the default index page in Rails, but I wanted to make sure that the students saw the ruby bits too. So I rushed through controllers and views in 15 minutes and I would be surprised if anyone got anything out of it. It probably would have been best to punt on the controllers and just explain a little about HTML and CSS.

I noticed that for a lot of beginners, application switching was killer. Switching between the terminal, browser and text editor is second nature for me, but not so much for those just getting started. I wish I had a ton of screen real estate to keep all three visible at once, but I don't know if that would actually help.

We didn't get to really cover git or Heroku in the class. I was able to tell the students enough to use them, but not understand them. The localhost vs. Heroku server was definitely a stumbling block for some. For beginners, I might punt on Heroku and just work from localhost without any source control just to get started.

I got a ton of positive feedback on Twitter and in person. This was super encouraging. I've always been considering teaching at some level later in my career, so it seems like I am on the right track there.

Overall, it was an awesome experience. One thing I was surprised to hear is how intimidating it is for women to participate in local open source meet ups. I suppose that being a 6' 2" person who has played contact sports leaves me in a position where I am generally not to scared of software developers. But getting up in front of the class today with all of the TA's looking at me, I think I'm starting to get it. Hopefully, events like these can start to even out the gender balance so that more women feel comfortable participating in the Ruby and FOSS community.