Research IT

The Next Generation of RSEs

Emma Simpson from the Research Software Engineering (RSE) team, hosted 3 college students as part of the in2science program introducing them to the role of Research Software Engineer as well as working within a STEM subject area and academia.

In August I hosted three 6th form college students as part of the in2science program. In2science aims to promote social mobility and diversity in STEM subjects by provide young people from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to gain practical insight into the STEM sector as well as the knowledge and confidence to progress to university.

My role as host of an in2science placement included providing the students with: the opportunity to shadow me in my role as a Research Software Engineer (RSE), a practical project to work on that is related to my role at the university, the chance to interact with other researchers and staff across the university, and an insight into life as a student and/or research staff at the university.

All students had a keen interest in coding, aiming to apply for undergraduate computer science degrees, as well as currently studying relevant courses at college. As part of the placement the students worked on developing a web app to display historical rainfall data at a series of weather stations across the country. The motivation for this project came from the NERC Digital Solutions Programme which aims to increase accessibility and usability of 1000s of environmental datasets. The rainfall dataset used by the students being one of these.

The project gave the students the opportunity to experience several aspects of the software engineering lifecycle including:

  • requirements gathering – thinking about who the users of the web app will be and what their needs are
  • design – how will the requirements be met in the app
  • prototyping – designing and building a working product.

The students developed the app in the Python programming language, and even though they did not all have much experience in the language, they were able to produce an impressive web app!  The web app included a dropdown menu of available data, an interactive map where a user could click on a weather station of interest and a graph of the selected rainfall data. This was a great achievement in such a short period of time, around 10 hours of development time. At the end of the placement the students confidently demonstrated their working web apps to colleagues within the Digital Solutions Programme.

Another aspect of the student placement was meeting with academic researchers and other RSEs giving them a flavour of the types of research undertaken at the University and the different support roles available . They were also given a tour of atmospheric science research facilities including the Whitworth Observatory on the roof of George Kenyon Building, the Manchester Ice Cloud Chamber and the Manchester Aerosol Chamber in Simon Building. In all of these meetings the students learnt about different areas of active research at the university, the different roles available within STEM subjects as well as the different pathways colleagues have taken to their current roles.

Overall the placement was a great positive experience for myself and the students. I really enjoyed the week and was able to improve my communication and teaching skills which I can utilise in my role as an RSE. The students felt that the placement gave them real world insight into working as a software engineer and confirmed that their choice of pursuing a degree and career in computer science is right for them.