Getting started with data in R

Key concepts that you will learn:

How do I access RStudio?

You will navigate to and use your Pomona credentials to log in. If you are a Pomona student, this is simply your Pomona email. If you are a non-Pomona student, ITS should have provided you a Pomona account. You may need to first activate this account. to be able to proceed.

Subsequently, once you are able to log in to RStudio.Cloud, use this link to join the EA 30.1 - Fall 2022 workspace.

What are R and RStudio?

In this class, we will take a cookbook approach to environmental data science.What does a “cookbook approach” mean in this context? In this course, I do not assume that you have prior programming experience and instead I will provide worksheets and worked-through example code that you then execute and learn by doing (or code running). Where appropriate, I will also use faded examples to advance learning in a structured and scaffolded way (see Section 7 in Wilson 2019 for more details if you are curious).

Specifically, you will interact with R, a statistical programming language, using RStudio. RStudio is an “IDE” or an integrated development environment. Basically, if R is the engine of our (statistical programming) car, then RStudio is our dashboard, with all of the controls that we’d be more familiar with (plotting window, file visualization pane, help pane, etc.).

Image from Ismay et al. (2020)

What does RStudio have anyway?

RStudio has 3 different panes:

Image from Bailey (2018)

What do each of these panes do?

Running your first R code!

Copy the code below into the console and hit enter. What do you see?

x <- c(1,2,3)

You should see the following:

## [1] 1 2 3

Congratulations! You have created your first object in R: a vector storing the numbers 1, 2, and 3.

You achieved that by using the assignment operator <- to tell R to create a new object, x, that stores the values 1, 2, and 3 in a vector, denoted by c(...) where the ... is just a placeholder for whatever you’d like to enter (where each element is separated by commas).

Learning more about R with swirl

We will use the package swirl to learn more about several fundamental concepts in R.


  1. Log-in at
  2. In the console, type in library(swirl)
    • All subsequent steps should be run in the console.
  3. Type in swirl()
  4. You will see a message in red text, reading | Welcome to swirl! yourself something unique.
    • In the line below, you will see a prompt in blue asking What shall I call you?
    • Please type in your first name or nickname.
    • Note that if your name overlaps with commands in R, you may see functions popping up in auto-complete.
    • The image below shows this exact problem for my nickname, Char.
    • Type out your name and use the back-arrow to avoid auto-selecting a function or some other command if it does pop up as an auto-complete field. (This is–hopefully–very unlikely to happen!)

  1. After you type in your name, you will see this message in red text. Basically, the gist of the message is that swirl will interact with you in the console, and any time you see three blue dots (an ellipsis), you should hit enter.
| Thanks, <FIRST NAME>. Let's cover a couple of quick housekeeping items...
  1. Continue through the next two swirl steps, which lead to this query in red text: | Please choose a course, or type 0 to exit swirl
    • NB (Nota bene): By this point, swirl has mentioned the R prompt (>) several times.
    • The character > is an example of a command prompt where you tell a computer (in this case, the server hosting RStudio Server which is running R code) to execute your command.
    • Examples from other languages: In Python, the command prompt is denoted by >>> (if you are interacting with Python on the command line in a terminal). In Unix operating systems (e.g. Linux distributions or Mac OS), the command prompt for the terminal is often denoted by $.
    • TL;DR: The carat symbol > in the R console within RStudio Server is where R awaits your instructions (commands).
  2. In response to the query (| Please choose a course...), type 1 after the blue text reading Selection:
  3. In response to the next query, | Please choose a lesson..., please type 1 after the blue text reading Selection:.
    • We will be taking on the 1: Basic Building Blocks lesson!
  4. You are ready to go and learn about fundamental programming concepts in R using this first class in swirl.
  5. If you encounter errors, don’t worry! Just try something different and think a bit more carefully about the swirl instructions at that step. You can always use the vertical navigation bar on the right-hand side of the console to roll back up and see what the last instruction was. For example, in response to this instruction:
| To see another example of how this vector 'recycling' works, try
| adding c(1, 2, 3, 4) and c(0, 10). Don't worry about saving the
| result in a new variable.

my command here was incorrectly specified (typed in at the R command prompt >):

c(1, 2, 3, 4) _ c(0, 10)

and threw an error:

Error: unexpected input in "c(1, 2, 3, 4) _"

In this case, I ended up fixing it by typing:

c(1, 2, 3, 4) + c(0, 10)

Unfortunately, with these types of syntax errors (akin to a grammatical error in a human language, like kluging your verb conjugation and forgetting the term for a conjunction to join two clauses together), swirl won’t jump in and “automagically” help you.

If you get really stuck, first try entering something that is syntatically correct in the console at the command prompt. For instance, you could try myName <- "Char". While this isn’t the correct answer to this swirl instruction, because this command can be interpreted by R, you’ll get kicked back into swirl instructions that may offer you something that you could directly copy and paste into the console, e.g.:

| That's not exactly what I'm looking for. Try again. Or, type info()
| for more options.

| Type c(1, 2, 3, 4) + c(0, 10, 100) to see how R handles adding two
| vectors, when the shorter vector's length does not divide evenly
| into the longer vector's length. Don't worry about assigning the
| result to a variable.

(Note that here you would type or copy and paste c(1, 2, 3, 4) + c(0, 10, 100) into the console at the command prompt >.)

  1. If you are in the middle of interacting with the command prompt (>), you can exit the course and swirl at any time by typing bye() into the console.
    • Don’t worry: swirl will save where you are in the course so you won’t lose your progress!
  2. The course tracks your progress: when you see the black text displaying |=========, the number at the right hand side, after another | represents the percentage of this course that you have completed.
  3. At the end of the course, you will see a question from swirl asking:
| Would you like to receive credit for completing this course on

I recommend typing in 2 (representing “No”) at the Selection: field.

  1. Afterwards, swirl will tell you that you’ve completed the course, you will see the following in red text:
| Excellent work!
| You've reached the end of this lesson...
| Please choose a course, or type 0 to exit swirl.

In response to the blue Selection: query, please type 0.

  1. When you have completed the first swirl course, please navigate to the Gradescope assignment or the Gradescope POM subpage in our Sakai site and select the correct option for the Completion of swirl class (Basic Building Blocks) assignment.