Today in my last STEM class of the day the students and I had a magical moment. These don’t happen every day, and this will definitely “go down” in my personal memory bank as one of my highlights of the entire past year.

This is the second week of we’ve built and launched water bottle rockets in STEM class, and today was launch day number two for my students. I’ve emphasized the importance of students NOT puncturing any holes in their bottom 2 liter soda bottle, because it won’t pressurize (when we pump it up to 90 psi with a bike pump) if it’s not sealed. Despite these warnings, I’ve had a couple students learn the hard way what happens if they cut into their bottom bottle. Each time (this has happened 2 other times in addition to today, I think) I’ve still put their rocket on the launcher and allowed them to pump it up, because everyone nearby can hear the air escaping through the duct tape when they pump air into it.

Today this happened again, and the student who had made the rocket was crushed. He had clearly worked a LONG time on his rocket at home, and it looked great cosmetically. When he realized what was happening and the mistake he’d made, he walked away from the class and actually started rolling down a nearby hill away from us. He just wanted to get away.

I called him back, and said we needed to turn this situation into a big positive. I asked how many times it had taken Thomas Edison to figure out how to make the light bulb? Several kids knew it was hundreds of times. I then taught them the “failure bow,” which tangibly demonstrates how we want to learn from our failures but resolve to move on… and not be defined by them. I said in this case, we’ve all learned an important lesson about making water bottle rockets. I hoped that would help cushion the blow for the student who’d failed so dramatically in front of his classmates with his water bottle rocket design.

I wasn’t expecting what happened next.

The student went back with this classmate / teammate, and they took apart his non-functioning rocket. They moved the nose cone, and made the bottom bottle the one which was not punctured, so it would pressurize. They even re-used duct tape which they previously had used on their design, so they didn’t need any more. The student came up to me and asked if they could launch their new rocket, and I said absolutely! Sadly, the video of that launch (which started at 2:13 in a compilation video, shot in “slow motion video mode” on my iPhone 5S) is no longer available. That uploaded video, which was about 3 minutes in length, got reduced to just TWO SECONDS of total video. I fear this was because I left “color correction” and “stabilization” checked by default as video “enhancements” by the YouTube Capture app.

Here is another video of another 4th grade class launching their rockets, which isn’t truncated. Beware the default “enhancement” settings on YouTube capture! 🙁

When we got back to class and watched the videos of our launches, I emphasized how this situation showed what STEM and the engineering design process is all about. The student tried something, it didn’t work, so he modified his design and tried again. He and his teammate were successful! I had the students all applaud this example of persistence and learning from mistakes. I said he could have quit and not tried again… but he didn’t, and he taught us all a valuable lesson as a result.

This situation provided an outstanding “teachable moment” which I could not have planned myself, and I’d guess many of my students will remember for a long time. It’s so important that we help students “recover” from failure and learn to both re-engage in the learning process as well as experience success. I’m not taking the credit for what happened today in class… My hat is off to this student and his teammate. It energized me and warmed my heart to see him so thoroughly embrace and exemplify the ethos of “the failure bow” and iterative engineering design as a 4th grader.

Hands-on learning can be messy, but it can also be fun and lead to memorable experiences!

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2 Responses to Learning and Recovering From Failure in STEM Class

  1. Would love to see the video – only 2 seconds are posted. Thanks!

  2. Wesley Fryer says:

    Yikes, that is crazy! I edited my original post and added a different video – the original was over 3 minutes long! My best guess is that I left the “enhancements” feature turned on in the YouTube Capture app, and somehow it malfunctioned and cut my entire video down to 2 seconds. I don’t think I can undo this… and sadly I deleted the original. Yuk!

    I really appreciate you bringing this to my attention.

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