‘One of the largest summer schools in coding and the fundamentals of theoretical and computational science will take place across 30 academic institutions in South Africa and Kenya for the next two weeks, involving over 850 postgraduate students and researchers from the natural and social sciences.

Since 2019, the annual Coding Summer School is jointly organised by the Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC) and the National Institute for Theoretical and Computational Sciences (NITheCS).

Dr Werner Janse van Rensburg, Research Manager at the CHPC, says the summer school is a unique opportunity for researchers to learn how to code and how to access a national asset such as the Centre for High Performance Computing.

“Today, any researcher or institution wanting to do competitive research should be making use of computational technology – from the natural sciences to the humanities,” he says.

Another unique aspect of the summer school is that participants attend in person at an institution closest to them. The training, however, is streamed live from the Universities of Cape Town (UCT) and Stellenbosch (SU). At each of the 30 participating institutions, one or more specialists and tutors will be available to assist students.

Mr Binjamin Barsch, Lead Software Engineer at the CHPC and lead coordinator for the summer school, says this initiative is an example of how the future of education at South African universities can be reshaped in several ways: “We are also challenging the conventional assumption that English is the main language of instruction for the acquisition of technical skills. The content for the first week of training has been translated into isiXhosa, isiZulu, and Sepedi, thereby providing a more inclusive and impactful educational landscape.”

Prof. Mattia Vaccari, eResearch Director at UCT, says the hybrid format of the summer school is an example of how blended learning can scale up access to critical skills training opportunities offered by national institutions such as the CHPC and NITheCS: “While students may be exposed to coding during their studies and via online courses, these initiatives are crucial for them to develop their skills and create a network of peers and mentors in the research environment.

“Our society, economy and research enterprise are increasingly data-centric, and developing the skills required to make sense of data and gain useful insights from it is increasingly important to foster a knowledge-based economy in South Africa,” Vaccari adds.

During week one participants will learn the fundamentals of Python and data science which will allow them to analyse and manipulate various datasets, including an introduction to Linux and Bash.

Prof.  Francesco Petruccione, interim Director of NITheCS, explains that during the second week students will be introduced to the software solutions that they might need in their research, with examples ranging from machine learning to bioinformatics, from the simulation of chemical systems to the application of Monte Carlo methods.

Petruccione says it is exciting to see the growth in student numbers: “Attendance has increased by almost 10% since last year and more institutions have joined. While we focus primarily on South African students, this year the school will also include students from Kenya. Next year we hope to include students from neighbouring countries in the Southern African Development Community.”

Prof. Sibusiso Moyo, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies at SU, says it is great to see higher education institutions, the relevant science councils and facilities coming together to enhance the skills of South African students and researchers in the theoretical and computational sciences.

For more information on this year and future Coding Summer Schools, visit https://events.chpc.ac.za/event/120/’

This article was first published by Stellenbosch University on 26 January 2024.