Winter Bootcamp fills growing need for natural hazards engineering programming skills

Published on February 6, 2021


Peter Mackenzie-Helnwein (left) and Frank McKenna, lead instructors for the SimCenter Bootcamps.

SimCenter team broadens participation, improves online curriculum

Since the summer of 2018, the NHERI SimCenter has organized programming bootcamps, intensive, week-long sessions aimed at teaching programming techniques that are especially useful in natural hazards research. The goal of the bootcamps is to train NHERI researchers in programming paradigms not covered in traditional civil engineering courses, but which are needed to advance simulation for natural hazards engineering. The bootcamps are becoming increasingly popular, and requests to participate in the summer 2020 session, held online in August, exceeded the group’s teaching capacity by a factor of 2.

“This surge in demand indicated a clear interest and need in the modeling community for these fundamentals,” says Matt Schoettler, associate director at the SimCenter. “So we decided to conduct another set of sessions this winter, giving priority registration to those waitlisted from the August 2020 event.”

In post-session evaluations, summer participants praised the content offerings and reported significant improvement in their programming skills. “This feedback encouraged us to offer the event again with an expanded capacity and help from Bootcamp Mentors,” says Schoettler. The SimCenter held two winter bootcamp sessions, on December 14-18, 2020, and January 4-8, 2021.

Programming for natural hazards engineers

“Lead instructors Frank McKenna and Peter Mackenzie-Helnwein work extremely hard to create a curriculum that is technical, skills-based, challenging, and natural hazards engineering-centric,” Schoettler says. “Attendees frequently note how McKenna and Mackenzie-Helnwein deliver content with patience, which demonstrates their commitment to ensure students fully grasp the intended skills. And it is a testament to their commitment to fostering the next-generation natural hazards researchers who are well-rounded and capable of tackling challenging problems computationally.”

For the winter session, the SimCenter team introduced a Bootcamp Mentors program. Mentors were attendees from past workshops who, based on their skills, were invited to help support the event. Mentors answered online chat questions, addressed technical problems, and moderated breakout sessions to help attendees work through exercises. “These community members were tremendously helpful to the smooth execution of the event. We expect to offer the Bootcamp Mentor program again,” Schoettler says.

Bootcamp students offer positive feedback and constructive comments that help the SimCenter team to continually improve the curriculum. Reactions from attendees include the following:

“The best thing about the bootcamp is that it opens doors for newbies to programming that pertain to civil engineering, which is a unique combo: engineer + programmer. Self-teaching these skills has a steep learning curve; and it’s easy to get off-track when you’re on your own. This programming bootcamp teaches you to focus on the engineering problems at hand.” 

“This bootcamp shows you how to solve problems without getting off-track and getting lost in a sea of problems. The SimCenter style of presenting a problem, with hints and a guiding path, is very useful. I love Peter's passion for free software. He has increased my passion for open source software.”

“This bootcamp is a must for all those engineers who want to do research in computations and simulations.”

“I appreciate your selfless, sincere and dedicated support from your team for teaching us technology and sharing knowledge without boundaries. I have nothing equivalent to payback for your efforts. I am obliged in thanking you. I will try my best to support the NHERI platform by my work, code, and bug reports.”

A virtual format

Although the bootcamps are traditionally held on-site at the SimCenter headquarters at UC Berkeley, COVID-19 restrictions necessitated an online-only format for both the summer and winter sessions. The team was pleased to discover that the virtual format was conducive to having attendees from a broader range of locations and experiences. The online format also allowed international attendees to join, which was a first during the 2020 summer session.

Although the online format precluded beneficial in-person social interaction and networking, the SimCenter team refined its online teaching curriculum to foster useful interaction and collaboration amongst the virtual attendees as they solved problems in breakout rooms.

McKenna and Mackenzie-Helnwein also enhanced the virtual curriculum to optimize attendees’ use of time, both offline and online. Based on feedback from the Summer Bootcamp, the team broke the bootcamp into two, separate, five-day sessions for the Winter 2020 bootcamp. The sessions provided different content, which allowed attendees to register for one or both sessions, to match their interest and skills.

In short, the SimCenter continues to build on its successes. Reflecting on the winter sessions, Schoettler says, “As educators, we learn a lot from each experience. With our latest bootcamps, we were able to increase participation and broaden our reach across the natural hazards community. We’ve incorporated feedback from participants as we continue to improve the structure of our online curriculum and provide interactive opportunities for attendees.”

Highlights from the winter bootcamp include:

  • Higher enrollment overall. 121 individuals attended the winter sessions, nearly three times the number who participated in the summer session.
  • Broader geographical reach, both globally and within the US. Thirty percent of the winter session participants were international.
  • Broader experience base, ranging from undergraduates, master’s and Ph.D. students, to faculty and professionals.

The SimCenter is already planning its 2021 summer offerings. Due to the pandemic, it is unclear whether events will be held onsite. “We are exploring ways to offer self-paced modules,” Schoettler says. “We are also considering bootcamps on topics such as artificial intelligence and machine learning.”


Group shot from one of the 2020/2021 SimCenter Winter Bootcamps.