Is Failure Okay?

I spent the day at the Massachusetts Association of Science Teachers annual meeting in Boxborough. While at the meeting, I gave a one-hour workshop on InterLACE.  One topic that came up was the debate between mastery of content (needed for MCAS testing) versus science processes (Common Core Standards and National Science Standards). Any bright kid can master content. But what the National Academy of Sciences wants are young minds who can innovate, be creative, argue for their ideas, and solve problems. Traditionally, a body of knowledge is presented and memorized.  Canned experiments with a detailed procedure and guaranteed success are performed, producing human computers with a body of knowledge who can set up equipment but lack the imagination or fire in the belly to do new science. Failure causes us to revisit and revise.  Failing is okay! When one solution does not work, one must rely on creativity to generate a new solution. Of course, time is a major constraint on the number of iterations we can perform.  I spent over 12 months analyzing my data from my Reduced Gravity Pendulum experiment.   My students do not have that luxury of time.

Last Friday afternoon, while I was away at the physics teachers meeting, the students had a field day sans adult supervision in my classroom.  I was a bit miffed Monday morning when I came in to a somewhat trashed physics classroom.   Their genuine panic arose over trying to finish lab notebooks and have perfect calculations so they can get a perfect A+ and get into Haverford, Swarthmore or Bryn Mawr.  What is often ignored is the reason for a lab notebook.  Not to get an A+ and impress me with great calculations and the right answer and to prove that Momentum is Conserved (I had no idea!), but to be a record of their work for future science students.  I have a shelf full of exemplary lab notebooks from future years.  The students who performed the cookie cutter collisions experiments with ultrasonic motion sensors have an easy job ahead of them, they have a body of 14 years of Academy students’ experiments to build on.  Ahh, but the ones who took not the path less taken but the path never even tried. The students who tried to be creative in their experimentation, took a risk,  and maybe failed.  The question is, “what went wrong” and “what would you do next time?”  Ask any graduate student.  If all you had to do was perform a few canned experiments and write an extensive lab report, you could get a PhD in six months.  The important thing in their lab notebook is not the failure but the process, the record of what they did and how to improve on what they did.  So if their lab notebook goes up on the shelf, students next year can build on their work, similar to the way science is performed in research laboratories all over Boston University.   I hope the students learn to be creative in science, be able to document their work, and collaborate with other students.  If they can do that, they have a future in science.

To be honest, I am bored reading lab notebooks with perfect experiments with late 20th century technology.  They are all the same.  I want to read something new.  I want to learn what can be done with a Touch Table?  What can be done with Image Analysis?  Show me something I don’t know.