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Robin Donatello Talks About Growing an R Community at a State University

By July 19, 2022Blog

Growing a user base for R at a university can be challenging at the best of times, especially when dealing with the silos that are present in the university system. Robin Donatello with the Chico R Users Group talks about how this issue became both easier and harder to deal with due to the pandemic.

Robin Donatello is an Associate Professor of Statistics and Data Science at California State University, Chico. Robin has also helped host the ASA Datafest, a data analysis competition in which undergraduate students from various majors get to work in teams on large, complex, and real-world data. đź’ˇ

What is the R community like at CSU Chico?

RD: It is struggling to have cohesion right now. For the most part, I have been a one-person show, but recent hires in Statistics have brought some new energy to the University and additional interests in building a data scientist community. We have about 20 faculty that use R in about 40 classes. We have about 100 or so students each semester being exposed to the language, but for the most part, everyone is doing their own thing.

I currently have a USDA HSI Education grant where I was able to fund 3 other faculty to become Certified Carpentry instructors. The goal is to increase the pool of faculty who want to teach these skills outside of the traditional class so that we can feel like we have a community.  A lot of faculty are still burnt out right now and aren’t interested in taking on any additional work. As a teaching institution, our primary responsibility is in-class teaching and support. I’m hoping that soon we’ll get something other than an ASA Datafest. We are actively working on a new Masters program in Data Science and Analytics expected to roll out in Fall 23. We envision teaching both in R and Python, and I look forward to exploring how the two languages complement each other.

How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members?

RD: One of the things that we had going pretty well before the pandemic was a thing called Community Coding. This was started based on the idea behind UC Davis “Meet and Analyze Data”. Faculty, Staff, and Students can come and do work, and people would be there to help. The hard part was scheduling a room. Trying to have a centralized room on campus and then trying to have a faculty or student be there at that time. We had 10-15 students, each student about two times a week come in for direct help, they knew someone would be there since it would be like drop-in tutoring. When we switched to online in 2020, they all were gone. No one showed up. From 2021-22 it has gotten a little better. It’s still sparse, but people are getting used to virtual now. Getting help on zoom is less of a barrier now than it used to be. I am seeing more non-traditional students and students not in my class drop in and ask questions. The virtual nature has allowed us to expand the help across campus because faculty are more open to doing zoom hours than to going across campus and sitting in a room. We were able to offer 14 hours/week of help in Spring 21, but the support was still very underutilized. Holding Community Coding virtually also allows us to meet people in the larger R community, not just at our institution.

We also had to cancel our ASA DataFest in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid, which is typically a good networking and community-building event. 

In the past year, did you have to change your techniques to connect and collaborate with members?  For example, did you use GitHub, video conferencing, online discussion groups more?  Can these techniques be used to make your group more inclusive to people that are unable to attend physical events in the future?  

RD: We will do this in the future. We have a lot of students that are working as well, so we will keep on these online. We have graduate students who can’t attend during the day, we have professional students and others who just can’t participate during the day for some reason or another. There will always be some online component, at least for the Community Coding events. The Carpentry workshops are often offered in a hybrid format, allowing for both online and in-person audiences.

Can you tell us about one recent presentation or speaker that was especially interesting and what was the topic and why was it so interesting? 

RD: We haven’t had a presentation recently. We are discussing ways to bring back regular meetups that can re-engage our community.

What trends do you see in R language affecting your organization over the next year?

RD: The only thing that I can think of is the growth of the tidyverse has made teaching students in the applied sciences easier. It helps, but sometimes knowing the base is more helpful for the advanced stuff. The basic student, however, will probably only use it in their analysis and some classes in general, but will not become an advanced R user. It has made my life as a teacher more accessible and I’d like to see it continue.

Do you know of any data journalism efforts by your members?  If not, are there particular data journalism projects that you’ve seen in the last year that you feel had a positive impact on society?

RD: There is an adjunct professor who is a certified R Studio and R Carpentry instructor who is doing a data journalism class. It started a few years ago with an older professor. When that professor left, it stopped being taught. When the current professor came back, he took up the class. However, he’s an adjunct so he may or may not stay. It was offered for the first time this semester with no advertisement, so the enrollment was low. That’s a constant battle for us is advertising and getting the word out about these things. If they could get this class into a major, like journalism or data science. I will add it as an elective to data science and as a class in the data analytics minor.

Of the Funded Projects by the R Consortium, do you have a favorite project? Why is it your favorite?

RD: Data Carpentry because building capacity at the faculty level is the only way that we will build a community and get it out to more students.

 Of the Active Working Groups, which is your favorite? Why is it your favorite?

RD: I wasn’t aware of the groups ahead of time, mostly due to my schedule. If I did, it would be a community of diversity and inclusion, mostly because we are a Hispanic-serving institution. Over 40% of our students identify as Hispanic in origin and the faculty at Chico does not reflect the same diversity. The main aim of my current grant is to empower traditionally underserved populations to engage in research and data analysis using R and to support their growth in scientific fields.

Four projects are R Consortium Top-Level Projects. If you could add another project to this list for guaranteed funding for 3 years and a voting seat on the ISC, which project would you add?

The current four projects are:

RD: I would like to see a service similar to Data Camp created. That was an amazing tool that I will no longer use due to their corporate behavior. That platform was so helpful for teaching students. If someone were to make something similar to that which was community-driven and not profit-driven that would be amazing. That would be super helpful for instructors. Even enhancing the LearnR and grade this package to have more tools and easier to install and use for new learners. A group that is designed to help teachers to teach R easier is what I would like to see.

When is your next event? Please give details!

ASA DataFest in Spring 2022 returned as a success. We had 28 students from two universities attend, which is not too much lower than our pre-pandemic number of 35. A common theme student stated is that they wished they had more experience with R before going into the weekend. This can be an opportunity for us to do more pre-event activities and meetups in Spring 23. 

Our next Data Carpentry workshop will be in August and again in January. We are trying to offer about 2 each year, but the participation has been still pretty low compared to pre-Covid. 

How do I Join?

R Consortium’s R User Group and Small Conference Support Program (RUGS) provides grants to help R groups around the world organize, share information and support each other. We have given grants over the past four years, encompassing over 65,000 members in 35 countries. We would like to include you! Cash grants and accounts are awarded based on the intended use of the funds and the amount of money available to distribute. We are now accepting applications!