Embracing failure as exploration and understanding

At Science Club for Girls we recognize that careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are about thinking, creating, designing, and re-designing – not a right or wrong answer. Failures in clubs are frequent and varied – water filters that seem to add more sand to already dirty water, cartesian divers floating obstinately at the top of a bottle, perch dissections where no one is quite sure what they are seeing…The question in our clubs is not, “Will there be failures?” – the question is “What do we do with our failures?”. How do we help girls understand failure as an integral part of science?

This story shared by our Lawrence Program Manager Melissa Hirsch shows how one mentor turned a “failed” project into an opportunity to recognize the girls as scientists.

The junior mentors chose the window while the fourth and fifth graders started to build.

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The girls have been working through a semester of rocket science, and this session features an egg drop. Girls design and build a device to help rockets land safely, then test it by dropping the device from a high place with a delicate payload (an egg) inside. After the fall, the girls examine the state of the egg and determine what modifications they would make on future designs.

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Five groups of girls stuffed coffee cans with cotton balls, built parachutes from shopping bags, and created cage-like, protective structures from popsicle sticks. They designed, built, tested, and re-designed. One group changed their design three times after learning they’d used too much of a rare material – scientists must be aware of their supply chain and budget.

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Meanwhile, the junior mentors settled on a window five stories above a lawn. Sometimes having club in an old mill building provides great opportunities! Besides a small ledge protruding from the building wall, nothing would obstruct girls’ projects as they descended. Two junior mentors watched from near the lawn as mentors dropped each lander, with an egg cradled inside, from the 5th floor. A coffee can with a grocery-bag parachute hit the ground. Another design, with two coffee cans on top of each other, smashed onto the green lawn shortly after. The drops continued until the final group’s device was released.

It never reached the ground. The parachute caught on the small ledge protruding from the building wall, holding the lander too far from anywhere to be retrieved. The junior mentors collapsed into giggles, grabbed the rest of the projects and ran upstairs so girls could examine the state of their eggs.

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When they handed the projects back, the group whose members had changed their design three times was perplexed. Why were the junior mentors suddenly empty-handed when one landing device was still missing? “Hey,” they asked. “Hey, where’s ours?”

If you have ever seen scientists react to news of a failed experiment, the following is pretty routine. First, emotion. In this instance, two scientists became angry and shed tears (yes, real scientists cry too). Second, quick brainstorming about what the heck went wrong and what to do differently next time. The entire team grabbed their Science Club journals, chattered about what to do next, and scribbled new ideas onto paper.

The mentor team took the group outside to see their project. There it was, about 30 feet up from the ground, swaying on the ledge in the breeze. Between open-mouthed gapes and giggles, the girls expressed frustration, shock and amusement.

But the club’s mentor scientist, herself a student of biology and computer science, smiled. “Congratulations on your first failed experiment!” she said to the girls. “You are all officially scientists. Welcome to the club!”

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She shook their hands.

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