With the release of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), engaging students in engineering design practices has increased importance in science classrooms from kindergarten through 12th grade. According to TeachingEngineering.org, Engineering Design is the method engineers use to identify and solve problems. It is a process of flexible problem-solving that works in almost any situation. Engineers garner information about the problem and possible solutions. Engineering design always begins with an explicit goal. Designers must choose solutions that include the most desired features and fewest negative characteristics while they honor the limitations of the given scenario, including time, cost, and the limits of tools and materials. It is systematic, using steps like planning, modeling, testing and improving designs, all of which can be repeated. It is a social, collaborative enterprise often done in small teams that include people with different kinds of knowledge and experience. Designers continuously communicate with clients, team members and others. Engagement in engineering design practices is typically facilitated through students’ participation in the design of solutions.
Missing from these practices are explicit references to experiencing failure. Henry Petroski, a notable engineer and author stated, “It is an apparent paradox of science and engineering that more is learned from failures than from successes.” Failure is an inherent element of engineering design since students will unavoidably experience moments of design failure when solving open-ended problems, developing prototypes and designing solutions.
But are we always upfront about this with our students? In order for children to engage in engineering design, it is important for them to develop productive strategies for negotiating and learning from unavoidable moments of failure. Petroski argues that successes are built on the back of failures, not through the repetition of past successes. Failures reveal weaknesses or areas that need to be further designed or developed.
In my own experience as both an educator and an educational researcher, I have found that a lack of explicit references to failure blurs the lines between unavoidable and expected failure experiences and negative associations with the word “failure.” If these experiences are not differentiated in a STEAM classroom, we risk the teacher’s and/or students’ negative associations with failure impacting their experiences with engineering design.
Furthermore, avoiding the words “fail” and “failure” does not help students to circumvent the negative connotations they associate with failure. Sugarcoating these experiences will not prevent students from experiencing what failure feels like. Using terms such as “challenges,” “difficulties” and “mistakes” often provide conflicting messages to students. While failure may be an uncomfortable topic in school, design failure is unavoidable within the context of engineering design. Because of this, I now explicitly teach students that design failure exists in a way that disassociates engineering design experiences with the negative or school-related viewpoints they may already hold. All students benefit from productive strategies that assist them in working through design failure.
The avoidant nature that surrounds classroom discussions of failures does not prevent students from the natural feelings of frustration that come with the inevitable process of experiencing failure. More importantly, engineering should be integrated authentically, which would include specific instruction and the usage of the engineering design process. While students have a wide variety of reactions when experiencing failure, typically their initial reaction is not to engage in failure analysis procedures. We often see students either deny that their design was experiencing a form of failure or they associate preexisting beliefs about failure in their interpretation of the event.
Students have all heard the word “failure,” and they have constructed its meaning. At progressive schools, we support explicit instruction of failure as an opportunity for the students to re-conceptualize the word and experience in the classroom. In an effort to increase STEM/STEAM pathways and to develop a future generation into problem-solvers, it is important to teach students a more productive notion of failure – one where they understand it is normal to feel frustrated – and to have a toolkit of strategies for working through the feeling within the context of engineering design.
Jess Cellitti joined Voyagers’ Community School after completing her Ph.D. in STEM Education from Drexel University. She combines her teaching and research experiences to inspire students to persist through failure in both the STEAM Lab and mathematics classrooms. Cellitti’s professional passions include engaging students in deep problem-solving and fully integrating subjects across multiple disciplines.