Teaching the F-Word in STEM: Failure

Each year, new students in the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering go through an adjustment phase as they learn our STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum and our method of exploratory learning. Almost gone are scripted activities, and instead students are tasked to develop their own experiments, research topics of their own choosing, and build objects of their own design. While many students find this academic freedom exciting, many also find it disconcerting and even frightening–they might fail! They often have never failed at anything in school. They have always followed directions and gotten straight A’s. Now they feel threatened by the uncertainty of choosing their own path in learning and discovery.

This fear of failure is especially true as students begin to design and build things in our makerspace. Many an academic whiz kid is all thumbs in using tools, and their ideas on paper do not necessarily come out as expected when they try building them. Yet, they learn that our grading of these projects using our Engineering Design Process Rubric is not based on how well they hammer and glue things together, but in how well they think through a design and go through a deliberate process to improve it. None of our students following the engineering design process will “fail.” We also study the trials and tribulations of real-world inventors from the Wright Brothers to Elon Musk and SpaceX, and students see how the failures of many early inventions eventually led to success as the inventors persevered to make improvements. Eventually, our students learn that failure is not the F-word, but a necessary step on the path to success.

The first makerspace project our 7th graders do tends to be where they face failure for the first time. This project requires each crew (group of about four students) to design and build a Rube Goldberg machine that demonstrates a series of simple machines, one of the main topics in their science class. It is a good first makerspace project since the students can use junk materials and scraps that cost almost nothing and allow for mistakes. The culminating event is a demonstration of the machines by each crew. Often, the machines don’t work, or they break down during the demonstration. Many of the students get upset under the pressure to present. But in the end, the students learn it’s okay if everything does not work out, as long as they can explain why and show how to improve their designs. This year our 8th graders also came out and offered their encouragement during the Rube Goldberg machine demonstrations, and many of them said how they had learned to embrace failure. Having spent over a year in our academy, they now know that failure is not the F-word, but an expected part of inventing and learning.

Here are photos of the students as they build their machines, then demonstrate them:



Author: Bryan Holmes, Physics & Math Teacher, STEM Competition Mentor

Starting at Thomaston High School in Thomaston, Connecticut, in fall of 2018.

One thought on “Teaching the F-Word in STEM: Failure”

  1. Spot on. Failure is critical to success, because hard problems (and *all* problems are hard the first time) are made up of smaller problems that must be solved first. And there is the issue of getting something to first work, then get working *correctly*. The *only* way to get something complex to work correctly is to know what things are hard and going to fail, so you can work on them. On top of that, problems you *never* would imagine will pop-up out of the weeds.

    To become a good problem solver is first *solve problems*. Practice + theory are needed.


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