Monday, October 1, 2012

Learning from Failure

Today I learned a little bit about failure. For the past couple of weeks I've been working with our Sci-Tech Club at school on a STEM-Fest project. For this project students got to pick any sort of scientific principle and make a video to demonstrate it. We had groups doing tornadoes, volcanoes, diet Coke and Mentos, and a handful of others. One group of boys decided they wanted to make a Chinese lantern. Now if you're not familiar with a Chinese lantern, it is essentially a paper or plastic bag that you turn into a hot air balloon. The boys did their research and the scientific principles behind it and crafted their first prototype. In the video below you can see the complete and utter failures of the first set of prototypes and how none of them achieved any sort of actual lift or flight.

As we were testing one of the prototypes in the gym one of the young men had an idea. He knew it was the hot air that made these things fly. He then thought that maybe they needed more of a contrast in air temperatures and that might be best achieved outside rather than inside. This seemed to make sense so we took the Chinese lantern outside where the air was a little bit cooler and you can see the result of that test.


As you can see in the video it was a success and the boys got the Chinese lantern up in the air. What I really like was the reaction they had when they saw it work. It is very rarely you see young men such as these have this kind of a reaction to something in school.

Thinking on this whole process of what the boys went through with the failures in trial and error to get to the final product it made me think about some things. First off, I respect the fact the boys didn't give up. How many of our students would have given up after the first attempt that nearly burned a hole in our gym floor? The other thing I think about is do we provide students with enough chances and enough opportunities to fail and to learn from their failure without judgment? Are they able to constantly fine tune and change what they're doing. These boys were able to work through problems and work different scenarios and settings and problems and solutions and figure out what worked and ultimately succeed in the project. What you didn’t see in the video was their changes to the size of the bag, the weight of the fire starter and position of the “carriage”.

I am fairly confident that while the boys were super happy with the final product of the floating lantern, I feel as though they will appreciate it far greater by having failed and gone through that process than if they had gotten it right the first time. I am left wondering if we provide enough time and opportunities for students to fail and learn from it in school.