Failure is an important part of engineering and plays a critical role in solving problems.
When engineers design and test a prototype, oftentimes it doesn’t perform as expected. These failed attempts are a normal part of a systematic engineering design process. A successful solution to an engineering problem is often reached only after persisting through many attempts. Such “failures” help engineers understand their problems better, as well as the limits of the materials. As engineers try and fail to solve a problem, they learn many useful things.
For many of us, “failure” has negative connotations, and we feel like it should be avoided. Engineering experiences that involve iteration or multiple cycles of design, building, and testing can show youth that not only is failure often unavoidable, but that it can be helpful in problem-solving. Such experiences can teach youth to persist through failure and learn from it.
“I would like to be remembered as someone who was not afraid to do what she wanted to do, and as someone who took risks along the way in order to achieve her goals.”
— Sally Ride
The lubricant WD-40 is so named because it was an engineer’s fortieth attempt at creating a formula for water displacement. He understood that persisting through failure is an essential part of generating innovative solutions.
Engineering designs may “fail” by not meeting required criteria or constraints. In such cases, engineers analyze why the design did not perform as expected. They make changes, then test and evaluate their solution again. Through multiple cycles of testing, failure, and re-design, they learn how to use each failure as an opportunity to improve subsequent designs.
Once engineers create a successful solution that meets their specified requirements, they may employ failure in another way—by creating computer or physical models that test a particular design’s outer limits to understand conditions in which it might fail. Testing for failure – pushing a design beyond its real-world constraints helps engineers develop even more robust solutions.
For example, after designing a bridge, engineers might use computer models to understand how much weight it could support before collapsing. Testing to the point of failure allows engineers to define parameters and make predictions about how their solution will perform in extreme conditions.
“Failure is central to engineering. Every single calculation that an engineer makes is a failure calculation. Successful engineering is all about understanding how things break or fail.” ― Henry Petroski
Think about a time when you were able to learn from a failure. What happened? How did you feel?
It is important to support youth in developing positive experiences with failing in engineering activities by providing time and supplies to test, evaluate, and improve their designs. Including a distinct phase of the design process to “improve” or “iterate” helps youth understand that their first idea may not work, but that they will have an opportunity to change their design and try again.
This can be very liberating. To make this work, you must allow enough time for youth to design and test their ideas. With well-designed learning experiences, educators can use engineering activities to destigmatize failure by re-orienting youth toward a mindset of persisting through the failed attempt and learning from it. With your support and encouragement, youth can come to accept, expect, embrace, and even celebrate failure as part of the problem-solving process.
Engineers learn from failure to revise and improve their designs. This requires perseverance and improvement through multiple iterations. If we want youth to learn to persist through failure and learn from it, we need to provide many positive opportunities to do so.
Developed in collaboration with Christine M. Cunningham. These practices are also more fully described in educational research articles, such as Cunningham & Kelly (2017).