The Importance of Failure

When you hear the word “FAILURE”, what comes to mind? What feelings surface? Failure is something adults face often; for example, in our jobs when we fail to meet a deadline, in our relationships when we fail to act appropriately to situations, and in our homes when we fail to get chores accomplished or items fixed, to name a few. How a person responds to failure, and more importantly, how one goes on to succeed may be based on how he or she is conditioned at a young age.

This coming week is National Engineer’s Week—a celebration of all that engineers have accomplished and inspire the next generation to fulfill the need for more engineers. It is seemingly ridiculous to point out that no famous engineer became great when they failed in their mission and that is where the story ended. But it may not be emphasized enough that every great engineer has experienced failure. In fact, failure, in essence, plays a vital role in the engineering design process.

The engineering design process, shown above, organizes the progression from a problem to a tangible solution that is followed by professional engineers. For more detailed information about each step of the process as well as a FREEBIE engineering design challenge with worksheets guiding students through the EDP, check out our post here.

Check out our post for Engineers Week here.

Check out our post for Engineers Week here.

For the purpose of this discussion we will key in on the pivotal moment during the engineering design process; testing. The precise problem has been honed in, the design has been considered and created, and now the moment of truth arrives when faith may become sight…. But your device fails. Your bridge doesn’t hold the required weight. Your airplane can not take off in the required distance. Your goal is outside your reach.

Now what? Defeated. Spent. Done. That is what many kids feel at this point of a project. However, the Engineering Design Process includes this obstacle as a part of the testing phase. The test is conducted and the results are evaluated. The evaluation allows for consideration of where improvements are needed because the next step is to redesign! The process repeats here—build, test/evaluate, redesign – until a great, improved solution is found. Without the failure, new and possibly the best solutions may never have been possible or realized.

The final step is to share not only the final design, but what was learned along the way. We don’t realize how much we have grown from others’ mistakes, but think back to things you have seen your friends or family struggle through and what it has taught you! In the same way, failure in engineering is vital to the growth and momentum of future designs as we learn from what others have done before us.

Failure is important. So how should educators/parents help kids learn through failure? We have comprised a list of ways you can teach kids the importance of and even how to celebrate the opportunity to learn from failure.

1.       Point Out The Good

Direct the focus towards what went well. By highlighting what worked in a design, you may illuminate methods that were used there that may help in the areas that did not work so well.

2.       Provide A Growth Mindset

Talk in terms of what “needs improvement” and not what “failed”, “was wrong/bad”/etc. This comes from what is called having a “growth mindset” where situations are framed to inspire constructive action rather than a “fixed mindset” that is focused on judging. Read more about this here.

3.       Give Examples

Give examples prior to activities about failures that have occurred throughout history that lead to great accomplishments! There are good videos out there like this one from the movie The Right Stuff.  Nothing gets kids more interested in failure than showing a compilation of rocket explosions! This example one of the most dramatic instances in history where there have been repeated failures as well as great achievements, both well publicized and on a large scale-- going from blowing up multi-million dollar rockets to landing on the moon.

4.       Set the Tone

Create an atmosphere where “failure” is celebrated as a necessary step in achieving success. Have the whole class get involved in helping the student/group that failed. Instead of singling them out and having them work to find a solution on their own, consider asking the entire class to offer ways to improve the design. This corporate ownership of the problem is often how industry in the real world works and can take some of the edge off of “trying again” for some students who are struggling to not be defeated after failure.

5.       Provide Inspiration

Excerpt from Rosie Revere, Engineer

For younger students, there are many books that illustrate the importance of pushing through failure that are relatable and fun reads. Before embarking on STEM challenges, reading books like these and discussing how the characters overcame disappointment can be a good reference when they face failure later.

a.       Rosie Revere, Engineer – Andrea Beaty 

b.      The Most Magnificent Thing – Ashley Spires

c.       The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes- Mark Pett and Gary Rubinstein

6.       Necessitate Effort

Make a distinction between failing after genuine effort and failing by not trying. Society has come to a point where it seems that people think every kid deserves a trophy for no particular reason. This mentality helps no one. Failure is only beneficial if great effort was made leading up to it as well as actively learning from mistakes made.  Only then is the success that hopefully follows real as well as gratifying.

The Engineering Design Process worksheets included with each Vivify STEM design challenge guide students through a process that if followed, requires genuine effort, challenges while providing tools to succeed, and allows for constructive failure to be overcome. We hope that this week you reflect on the great contributions that engineers have made to society and feature how failure and correction are the foundation to success.  

How do you handle failure in your classroom or program? 

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