My STEM Units

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Failing in STEM

I get real excited when my students fail in STEM.  Wait!  What?!  Yes, I encourage failure.  Let me explain.

There is a movement in the business world called Fail Forward.  There are books and websites and consulting firms based on this concept.  A common phrase is "fail fast, fail early, fail cheap".  

In the Daily Beast article "Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win", Ryan Babineaux shares the story of a teacher who discovered something interesting about failing in class.  Read the article here.   

"They understand that feeling afraid or underprepared is a sign of being in the space for optimal growth and is all the more reason to press ahead." (Babineaux)

So, how do we help our students get out of their comfort zone and experience real growth?  Let them fail.  

I know.  I know.  It's real hard as a teacher.  Somehow, we feel as teachers that if our students fail, we have failed them.  By "fail", I don't mean the final grade.  I mean the process of learning.  I have blogged about our hot air balloon unit.  The students engineered hot air balloons.  After careful planning and measuring and gluing, they tested their designs.  Guess what.  They failed!  The balloons failed to gain lift and sustain flight.  Did any students stomp their feet or throw their books?  No.  They are comfortable with failure.  Immediately, they hypothesized what what wrong and how they can redesign their balloons so they would fly.  And they did.
The same was true with their presentations.  Fail.  They had access to the rubric but their first presentations lacked polish and depth.  I didn't even have to ask them if they wanted to re-do their presentations.  They BEGGED to have time to work on them and do it again.  They are comfortable with failure.  In fact, they know it's an essential part of the design process.

I was in a fourth grade class, working on our Renewable Resources STEM unit.  The engineering challenge for the day was for the students to create a machine that will use the power of wind to lift a cup (with weights) from the floor to the top of the desk.  I have done this challenge countless times before (with students AND teachers) and had always seen success within 45 minutes.  But, something was different in this class.  After 90 minutes, no group had successfully lifted the cup.  

We had to clean up for the students to go home and I overheard one student say, "I failed".  Teachable moment!  I told them about Thomas Edison and his famous quote “I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  

I always end a STEM lesson with some sort of short informal assessment.  Sometimes it is a diagram, but today I decided to do a quick writing prompt.  Their ticket to leave was to write 5 things they learned today.  

Here are some of the gems. 
·         I learned today that when one thing doesn’t work, try something different.
·         That doing stuff with a team makes stuff easier.
·         When something looks easy, it’s really hard.
·         I learned how to make something out of spare parts.
·         To not give up.
·         I learned that students should never give up on what you are doing.
·         If you try to succeed doing something you will never fail.
·         I learned that when you try to do something successful, sometimes you fail first.
·         I learned that every assignment will not be a success at first.
·         I learned that sometimes people FAIL a lot (emphasis students’).
·         I learned that no one can always win.
·         I learned that I had a ton of failures.
·         I learned that I had a hard time to get to success.
·         What I have learned today is trying to make success may be hard.
·         What I have learned is that the more you try, success will come.
·         I learned that Thomas Edison failed a lot.
·         I’ve learned that we are having a bit of trouble on our experience. (they probably meant experiment, but it’s still applicable)

And that, my friends, is a successful lesson.  How do you use failure in STEM?  Comment below or email me

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