What Happens After 'Failure' in the Science Classroom?

What Is the Positive Side of Failure in Science? 

“Fail early, fail often, in order to succeed sooner.” —Thomas Kelley

Kids are taught to avoid failure, that failure is a bad thing, but it’s really just part of the engineering process. It's really important to give kids an opportunity to learn what failure is in an engineering context. It actually has opportunities to spill over into daily life and to help kids recognize that if you fail once, it doesn't mean you're a goner or a loser; it only means that you learn something—and something of great value.

Failure in the Classroom

The idea of having kids design and build things and then test them to failure has been done for many years. In the Next Generation Science Standards* (NGSS), students are expected to evaluate different designs for devices or solutions to problems. And often, this entails evaluating the designs for not only structure and qualities (e.g., how much weight can it hold?), but also in what ways the designs failed.

There's a failure site—that’s where it broke. There's a failure mode; for example, if it’s a tower, it might buckle or bend, or it might tear loose from its moorings. If it was taped down to a table, there are areas that would tear loose. Some structures fail at the joints; the joints might be the weakest point.

The students have to figure out what actually went wrong so that they can redesign. For this reason, engineering is known as an iterative process; that means you do it again and again, so that each time it improves.

After the first time they build something—let’s say it’s a bridge—that's an opportunity for the teacher to step in and offer some suggestions. For example, the teacher may have the students build some structures with straws, just to illustrate that the form and function of something you construct really makes a difference. These ideas are introductions to the field of architecture and structural engineering.

The students then look at a structure like what’s pictured in the above image—it's called a truss, made out of triangles; many, many bridges are built using trusses of various sorts. The students begin to understand why it's built this way and why a structure like this is much stronger, even though it's still made out of fairly weak individual pieces.

The Teacher’s Role 

A very important idea here is the teacher's role. Students typically enter their first engineering classroom with the idea that they don't want to fail because in daily life, in school and so forth, failure means getting a bad grade, not passing a class, having to take it over again. So, the teacher has a very specific role here to recognize that students have these ideas and help them unwrap those ideas. The term failure is a really important one. It has many different meanings in different contexts, and in my view, it's important for students to realize that failure is not necessarily a bad thing.

If you have not seen the video before of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsing, it may be shocking and surprising. How could a bridge that was just built collapse like that? What were the engineers thinking when they built it? The engineers who built it actually were aware that there was a problem with the bridge because in high winds before, it had started to shimmer and shake; and they had a plan to fix it already in place, but a stronger wind came up and just destroyed the bridge. This is why understanding what happened—what went wrong—is terribly important.

The idea is for your students to understand Thomas Kelley's idea: that you fail early and often to succeed sooner. What that means is to build a model and see the different ways the model fails so that you avoid failure when human life is at risk.

Many Possible Solutions

One of the really important ideas about engineering, and what makes it different from science, is that in engineering, there’s no single right answer. There are many solutions, and some solutions are better than others. And you learn about those by testing the different solutions.

By emphasizing engineering as a set of skills in the NGSS, students learn to think about the term failure in a different way. Failure, in this sense, really means that their solutions didn't necessarily work as expected; and they rarely do. It's an opportunity to figure out what works, what doesn't work, and improve from there. Failure, in other words, is something to be embraced and learned about—not something to be avoided.

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This blog is based on a Professional Development video found within HMH Science Dimensions.

*Next Generation Science Standards and logo are registered trademarks of Achieve. Neither Achieve nor the lead states and partners that developed the Next Generation Science Standards were involved in the production of this product, and they do not endorse it.

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