Reading the section called “Google the Error” in Thomas and Brown’s A New Culture of Learning hit home for me. A man named Allen had learned many different computer programming languages through what may be called trial-and-error-and-Google. He would write up a script, try to run it, and when it crashed, he googled the error message for some ideas.
When I started my PhD program, my research project was to pick up where one student left off and keep going with it. The previous student had done basically everything in Python–an object-oriented programming language. There were dozens of Python scripts that I needed to use for my work and I had only one brief prior exposure to Python. I knew that I had to learn how to write in Python and the task was very daunting to me. I have never considered myself to be even a kindergarten-level programmer, even though I did ok in my undergraduate Computational Skills class where I learned basic programming. So how did I learn Python?
I Googled it.
I would look over a script that the previous student wrote, try to figure it out, and then Google hundreds of things that were about as understandable as Chinese to me (and please note… I don’t know Chinese). I won’t sugar-coat this… it was EXTREMELY frustrating and difficult at first until I could figure out the structure and the lingo. There were many days that the word “Python” came out of my mouth almost as a curse. Now I am much more proficient in Python and I actually enjoy all of the neat things that I can do with this programming language. I have even voluntarily used it on a few homework assignments where Python was not part of the class at all. Who would have guessed it?
Now I wonder how I can capture this learning style in more traditional classes within my discipline: civil engineering. As a future professor, I wonder how I can help the students do a little more trial-and-error-and-Google learning. Honestly, when I look back on my learning experiences, learning from my mistakes has been one of the most enduring and memorable methods. Though sometimes painful or uncomfortable (as previously described), it can turn a tough subject into a strength that may end up being your new side hobby. Like Python is for me.