Learning new skills

Last semester I took an introduction to logic circuits with Dr. Jeff Ashley. Dr. Ashley was engaging and excited about his subject matter, all things that make being a student an easier experience. However, as a non-traditional student, one of the things he said (repeatedly too) was very important to me.

Incremental learning.

He reiterated during the semester that you need to do a little bit every day or so in order to learn the material, keep skills sharp, and fine tune your understanding. In his end of the semester email he suggested specific things that students could do in order to be successful in the semesters and years ahead.

It’s true.

The first time I went to college, I was attempting a biochemistry, Japanese studies double major. Each summer I worked in the college library system, and while it paid the bills and was work I loved, it was also a sign that I was short changing myself. By being risk averse I did not treat my summer as an opportunity to continue learning. The summer between my sophomore and junior years most of the students went to Japan. It showed, and it was built into the teachers’ expectations of the students. Myself and the other student who didn’t make the trip did not compare favorably to our peers.

LifelongLearningI find the fall semester the easier semester, because I now use that summer break to refine skills on Codecademy, pre-study for fall courses on Coursera, or try something new.

What makes this most interesting to me is that it is a practice used by top professionals in the open source tech industry. In this Dice article, around 4500 people were surveyed about what makes open source interesting and how they maintain and improve their skills. The types of things they are doing closely match the model of incremental learning championed by Dr. Ashley and enforced in the college learning model.

So, learn something new today. It is a pathway to excitement, job growth (for job-related learning), stability, and happiness.

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I have been through a number of different, mostly lower level, computer programming classes. At this point through school I have done C++ and Java, which if I was more skilled or had the degree or had defined job experience (at least one of the three) could result in a decent job that kept my husband in bacon and me in chocolate.

At the University of Kentucky, they start new students in Python. Now, I was grandfathered out of taking that class because, well, Java. Nothing wrong with that. So, instead I took the Python course in Codecademy. Now, I’m under no illusion that using Codecademy is going to net me a job involving creative problem solving with computer programming. It does, however, allow me to become familiar with different types of programming languages, different database tools, and different programming tools (yeah, I’m looking at you Git).

All told, last year I completed 11 skills. Not too bad for an aging 40-something, full time worker, part time student, parent, volunteer, what have you.

It’s a great tool, and like doing the crossword puzzle on Sundays, it helps keep my brain sharp. Sadly, I don’t get to use most of what I’ve learned on a daily basis. Other than going in and working towards a new skill (Ruby at almost 50% completion), what do other people suggest for making programming more a part of daily life when it isn’t part of your work life?