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Coding workshop opens new pathways to students

For Karime Estrada, her desire to become a veterinarian doesn’t obviously connect with needing to learn how to code.  

Yet Estrada joined a handful of her Yakima Valley College classmates last spring as the first participants in a computing workshop designed to introduce students to the subject. While she decided to participate mostly on a whim, she appreciated the opportunity to pick up a new skill in a setting designed for beginners.  

Coding isn’t intuitive, to me at least, and especially if you don’t know what you’re doing then you just have to ‘trial and error’ it,” Estrada said. “It was nice that the instructors put a big emphasis that it was OK to look up errors you might run into and references that explain what code is and how it works. 

“Honestly, it was very rewarding to figure out how to do something and complete the tasks made for us in the workshop.” 

Astronomy Instructor Zach Schierl worked with faculty at the University of Washington to offer last year’s inaugural scientific computing workshop, which will again be offered this spring quarter over the course of eight weeks. Learning the basics of coding is an increasingly important skill for students in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), he said, as more data becomes available to sift through and make sense of.  

“Any student who is in the STEM program and planning to major in biology or chemistry or physics or engineering or computer science, the basic skills that this workshop taught are applicable across the sciences,” said Schierl.

“We’re teaching this workshop from an astronomy standpoint, but these are skills that are transferable to all the other sciences as well.” Zach Schierl, astronomy instructor

While conversations with the UW about offering a coding workshop for YVC students started several years ago, they solidified after Schierl joined the college’s faculty in 2019 and began looking to expand opportunities for students in astronomy.  

“Here in the Yakima Valley, a lot of our students have never even thought about astronomy as a possible field of study or career,” Schierl said. “We really wanted to reach out to that population of student who have traditionally not been represented in astronomy and change that.” 

Coding is an essential skill for astronomers due to the need to analyze tremendous amounts of data gathered every day by telescopes scattered across the globe and in space. Giving students an introduction to the basics of coding is, Schierl hopes, the first step toward creating undergraduate research opportunities for YVC students in partnership with the UW.  

“This partnership has worked well in that it’s allowed me to connect my students who are interested in majoring in astronomy with people who have coding skills so they can start building those skills that they’ll need here at YVC,” he said.  

Beyond getting students used to interacting with computers using coding commands, by the end of the workshop students were practicing how to take astronomical data and plot it on a graph so that, in a real-world setting, a researcher would be able to interpret the data. 

“We’re teaching this workshop from an astronomy standpoint, but these are skills that are transferable to all the other sciences as well,” Schierl said.  

While Estrada’s field of focus doesn’t have a direct link to computer programming or astronomy, she also doesn’t rule out the possibility that some knowledge of coding could prove valuable in the future.  

“Being a part of the workshop made me appreciate learning new things even if they don’t particularly relate to me,” she said. “I encourage others to have an open-mind and learn new things. It might take you to a new path in your life.”

Spring 2024 Coding Workshop

YVC will offer the Principles of Scientific Computing Workshop starting April 11. The free, non-credit workshop will take place Thursdays from 2 – 3 p.m. in Glenn Anthon Hall and via Zoom. No prior programming experience is required to participate.  

The workshop, led by Rodolfo Garcia of the University of Washington’s Department of Astronomy, will focus on the essential tools and skills that will help students get started in scientific research. By the end, they will be comfortable navigating the terminal of a UNIX-like machine and producing code that can make graphs from a dataset. 

Sign up online. Questions? Email Instructor Zach Schierl.

Story by Dustin Wunderlich, director of community relations. Photo by Ross Courtney.