Git and GitHub


Teaching: 15 min
Exercises: 45 min
  • How do I share code and collaborate on code with others using git and GitHub?

  • Set up a GitHub account.

  • Fork an existing repository.

  • Clone a repository to your computer.

  • Make changes to repositories with git commands.

  • Push changes to GitHub repositories.

  • Make pull requests on GitHub.


Have you ever been working on a project and wanted to go back to a previous version of the project? Or perhaps you’ve worked on a group project where multiple people were making changes to files and you ended up with multiple versions of multiple files and it was very confusing? Now imagine that you are working on a software project with 5, 10 or even 100 people. Every person would need their own copies of all the code, but it would be very hard to keep up with the changes each person was making and merge them all together. All of these issues can be handled by using version control on your project.

Version control keeps a complete history of your work on a given project. It facilitates collaboration on projects where everyone can work freely on a part of the project without overriding others’ changes. You can move between past versions and rollback when needed. Also, you can review the history of your project through commit messages that describe changes on the source code and see what exactly has been modified in any given commit. You can see who made the changes and when it happened. This is greatly beneficial whether you are working independently or within a team.

In this activity, you will make a GitHub account, clone a working repository, and perform some basic tasks that are common in using GitHub and git as a community repository. Note that git and GitHub are extremely powerful and only a very small subset of the capabilities are shown in this exercise.

git and GitHub

The software package git is one of the most popular software packages for version control. GitHub is an online hosting service which hosts the files of many software packages that use git so that these packages can be shared with other people. Anyone can use git locally for version control without using GitHub. To share your code on GitHub, you must create a GitHub account and profile.
In this activity, you will make a GitHub account, clone a working repository, and perform some basic tasks that are common in using GitHub and git as a community repository. Note that git and GitHub are extremely powerful and only a very small subset of the capabilities are shown in this exercise.

Make your own GitHub account

Choosing your GitHub username

It is now very common for employers or graduate advisors to review your GitHub as part of your application process. Choose a GitHub username that is recognizable and professional.

Organization of GitHub

A collection of files for a certain project is called a repository on GitHub. When you are collaborating with others on a project, there are at least three relevant copies of a repository: the main repository on GitHub, your copy of the repository on GitHub, and the local copy of the repository on your computer.

Make a fork of an existing GitHub repository to your GitHub account

Set up a few things on your local git repository

So far, you have only interacted with GitHub. To most effectively make changes in a repository, it is most useful to have a copy (or clone) of the repository on your computer.

To do this, you will first need to open the Terminal window on your computer and set up your git repository. There are several options depending on what operating system your computer is using. If you already know how to open a Terminal window on your computer, use the method you already know.

Any one of these will open a window where you can type in commands. For the rest of the exercise, we will call this window the “command window”.

Now we need to configure git so it knows a bit about you. The first command below is setting your email address and the second one sets your name. (This can be anything that you would like it to be, but most people use their real names so that others can tell who is working on a repository; remember what we said earlier about being professional!) These particular commands are setting options in a file names .gitconfig in your home directory and will be what is used for ALL of your git repositories. In the command window, type

$ git config --global "<Firstname> <Lastname>"
$ git config --global "<email address>"

Make sure that you substitute in your actual e-mail for ​​ and your real name for ​Your Name​. You will need the quotes around ​Your Name​.

Make a clone on your own computer

A clone in GitHub is a copy of a GitHub repository on your own computer. To clone the repository on your own computer, follow these steps.

cd (Desktop)
mkdir molssi-mm-tools
cd molssi-mm-tools
git clone <url>

where you should substitute the location of your Desktop folder for (Desktop). Also, ​ should be replaced with the url you copied above. Make sure to use the url to **your repository** on GitHub.

cd github-tutorial

Then type


so you can see a list of files in the directory.

Making a change in a file

The next thing we will do is to make some changes in a couple of the files and commit them into the local git repository. Note that we can make as many changes to the files as we want without any fear of changing the repository until we use a “​git​” command. Even then, there are ways (that we won’t go into for this short tutorial) to recover from most commands. So, have no fear of trying things out! This is how you learn!

At this point, you have only made changes to your local files, but not to the local git repository. It can be hard to keep up with what you have changed and what you haven’t. In the command window, type:

git status

This will show you what files in your directory have changed. It will tell you that you have two files that have been modified, but you haven’t actually added these changes to your local repository yet. To add the files to your local repository, in the command window type

git add text1.txt text2.txt
git status

The two files are now in a staging area and could be committed to the local repository. But before we do that, let’s add another file.

Adding a new file

Let’s say that we decide we want to add another file that has some of our other favorite text in it to share with our fellow students. So, let’s make another file.


Use appropriate git commands add this file to your local repository and check to make sure they are staged for a commit.


You need to add the files to your repository and then check the status.

git add
git status

Committing changes to the local repository

Now that we have all of the changes and additions that we want into the staging area, we are ready to put those changes into the repository. This is called making a commit.

git commit -m “some simple modifications and additions”

The text in the quotes can be whatever message that you would like to give. The message should usually be more descriptive than this one is; the idea is to describe what the changes were. Now type git status​ again in the command window. You will now see that git says there is nothing to commit. It will also say “Your branch is ahead of ‘origin/master’ by 1 commit.” This is saying that you have made 1 commit to your local repository (a “branch” of your GitHub repository) that is not in your GitHub repository (‘origin/master’).

We could repeat making changes to our files and committing changes to our local repository until we have made all of the changes that we want. We can do as many git commit​ commands as we need to get the files as we want them. Once this is done, we are ready to push our changes back up to the GitHub repository.

Push our changes from our local git repository up to our GitHub account

Now we are ready to save the changes we have made on the local copy of the files (the files on your own computer) to the GitHub repository, where we might share them with others. This is called making a push in git.

git push origin master

The origin​ in that command means the place where the local repository was taken from, our GitHub account in this case, and ​master​ means the local branch that we want to push. By default, your local git repository is called master.

You can check to see if your GitHub repository has been updated by going to the browser with your GitHub repository in it and refreshing the browser screen. You should see the message for the commit on ​text1.txt​ and ​text2.txt​, and you should also see the new file ​text3.txt​.

What if my push doesn’t work?

Sometimes this command will hang (wait a minute or two though since sometimes other things on your computer can cause the hang). If so, type (hold the “ctrl” and “c” button at the same time) to cancel the current command. Then type:

git config --global core.askpass "git-gui--askpass"
git push origin master

This may take a few minutes to run, but should pop up a window to ask you for your GitHub username and password. When it does this, fill these in and hit “Login”.

If you still aren’t getting anything, type:

GIT_CURL_VERBOSE=1 git push origin master

Requesting your changes be made to the upstream repository

Your changes are now in ​your​ GitHub repository. However, you might want your changes to be incorporated into the main repository. This is called the upstream repository. The upstream repository is the repository where you originally made your fork, in this case the MolSSI education copy.

To request that your changes be incorporated into the main repository, you will need to make a pull request. This is basically notifying the owner of the upstream repository that you would like some changes merged into the upstream repository. The originator can decide whether or not to include some or all of the changes into the upstream repository. To start the pull request follow these steps.


This is a very short exercise and doesn’t show all of the many features that are important when using repositories. In particular, it doesn’t show how to directly merge new changes from the upstream repository into your local repository on your computer. This is very important when working on collaborative projects where many people are contributing to the software on a regular basis. You will need to keep you working repository up to date with the upstream repository. You can find additional MolSSI resources to learn more about git and GitHub here, here and here.

Key Points

  • Version control keeps a complete, organized history of all work on a project. It is extremely useful whether you are working individually or on a team.

  • Good commit messages are critical to maintaining an organized and useful repository.

  • Putting your code on GitHub is the best way to easily share your code, collaborate, and track changes.