Epic Achievements and Fantastic Failures

STEM Tuesday — Epic Achievements and Fantastic Failures — Interview with Anna Crowley Redding

Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!

Today we’re interviewing Anna Crowley Redding about GOOGLE IT: A History of GoogleThe book received a starred review from Booklist, saying, “Redding does an admirable job of chronicling Larry and Sergey’s amazing successes and will inspire young people to follow in their ingenious footsteps.”

Mary Kay Carson: How did Google It come to be?

Anna Crowley Redding: This book was the brainchild of my incredibly talented and brilliant editor, Holly West. We are both excited about technology and the human stories behind tech. The more we talked, the more excited I became and dove into the research immediately. We knew from the start that this should be a fun look at exactly how this company came to be and that, of course, begins with the dreams, ideas, hard work, and failures of two students. Starting with that focus in mind, I have to say it was really delightful peeling back the onion layers of Google. That’s not to say that there aren’t serious or poignant parts of this story, there truly are. And exploring those aspects really allowed the book to demystify this huge company and the people behind it. From losing a dad, to coming to this country as a child refugee, to constant rejection, and then controversy, the personal struggles and triumphs are as much a part of the story as the technology.

MKC: Do you have a favorite aha! discovery or surprise finding you’d like to share from your research?

Anna: As far as aha! moments, there were many, but two stand out. First, reading about artificial intelligence and machine learning changed the way I think about our future and it changed the way I teach my own children about the future. As a society, we are the candlemakers standing at the dawn of electricity. That’s how big these developments are and it made me realize anew the importance of critical thinking, communication, and flexibility. These are the skills every child needs for our future. While a big change like that can be scary to think about, it can also be super exciting and fascinating. Another bit of research that changed the way I think was learning about failure, Google’s failures as a company, and the failures of people who work there… and most importantly, how THEY view failure––as a key ingredient to success. When you look at failure as an intellectual exercise, as a tool for improving your effort, as getting you closer to the solution for the particular problem you are trying to solve, well then it becomes far less personal and emotional. Your journey becomes very much about the process itself instead of a focus on instant perfection. One of Google’s attitudes about this is: fall in love with the problem, not the solution. This changed the way I approach my work, parenting, and just about everything else. It’s a concept I also actively teach my kids.

MKC: Why do you choose to write STEM books?

Anna: My background is in journalism, starting with television news. And as a TV news reporter, so much of current events touches STEM. From stories on ice-storms, plane crashes, environmental pollution, medical stories, crime, public policy and more––they all involve STEM. And using technology itself to gather and report the news is essential. That experience has kept me perennially interested in all things STEM. As an investigative reporter, that’s where I fell in love with research. The process of digging and digging is something I truly enjoy. And the common thread with every story is storytelling itself… how do I take these facts, this science, or tech and talk about it in a way that is as compelling as it is informative. As far as choosing STEM topics for writing books, I love stories about big thinkers and risk takers and naturally STEM fields are full of those stories. Sometimes when we think about STEM, it can be easy to focus on the STEM topics or products themselves, rather than how people connect to these subjects. The human aspect of STEM is what I find endlessly fascinating. Enormous problems are being solved and that requires personal and intellectual bravery. I find that very moving. It really is rewarding to tap into that part of STEM. And hopefully, in taking that angle, young readers can see themselves in these fields, in these careers, solving the problems they deem worthy.

Before diving into the deep end of writing for children, Anna Crowley Redding’s first career was as an Emmy-award winning investigative television reporter, anchor, and journalist. The recipient of multiple Edward R. Murrow awards and recognized by the Associated Press for her reporting, Anna now focuses her stealthy detective skills on digging up great stories for young readers — which, as it turns out, is her true passion. AnnaCrowleyRedding.com

MKC: To whom did you imagine yourself writing to while drafting the book?

Anna: When I was writing this book I thought a lot about my older brother as a kid. His room was full of Star Wars posters and toys. He loved Lost in Space. Every book that Elon [Musk] adored as a kid, so did my brother. So my writing goal was to write a book that my brother might have picked up and been inspired by. For Google It, it was important to recreate the world that needed Google. That meant going back to the past in a relatable and sometimes funny way to think about life before Google. What types of phones did we use? How did we get to the library if we didn’t have directions? It really was a different world, recreating that for young readers in a relatable way was, for me, an essential ingredient in bringing Google’s story to life. Hopefully that will allows students to think about today’s tech and problems the same way and challenge themselves to take these problems on–– (whether political, technological, artistic, whatever they find interesting!)

MKC: You’ve also written a book about Elon Musk, correct? What’s the appeal of entrepreneurs and inventors?

Anna: Elon Musk’s life is fascinating. Young readers are going to love diving into his back story and understanding what drives him and how he got where he is today. In ELON MUSK: A Mission to Save the World, I spend a lot of time on who Elon was as a child and as a reader. The science fiction and comic books he read as a child were his refuge from school bullies, from a complicated home life. Ultimately those stories inspired him to ask big questions, examine the world’s biggest challenges and do something about them. And when I tell you he read, I mean he read every science fiction book he could physically put his hands on. At the comic book shop, he read every comic book in the store! Flash forward to today, Elon has changed the game for electric cars. His company, SpaceX, has revolutionized rocket technology and is making plans to colonize Mars. Even though Elon often courts controversy (or controversy courts him), his work and the way he approaches problem-solving, his tolerance for failure in the course of reaching a goal––is fascinating. I hope that readers will themselves in his story, that they see their own seemingly unattainable dreams as worthy pursuits.

Win a FREE copy of Google It

Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below. The randomly-chosen winner will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (within the U.S. only) to receive the book.

Good luck!

Your host is Mary Kay Carson, author of Alexander Graham Bell for Kids, Mission to Pluto, Weird Animals, and other nonfiction books for kids. @marykaycarson

STEM Tuesday — Epic Achievements and Fantastic Failures– Writing Tips and Resources



Fear of failure. It’s something I hear from my students all the time. They are afraid to get things wrong, mostly because it might mean points off on their quiz or test. While I can understand that (no one likes to get a low grade), but when they are afraid to fail in lab class, that’s a different thing. Students need to understand that not every experiment turns out “right”. Sometimes you can do everything correctly in the procedure, step by step, and still mess it up.

When I was in graduate school, I had a simple job. I had to make plates of agar for an experiment. To explain, agar is the gel that goes into the petrie dishes BEFORE you even do the experiment. Agar plates are used to grow microorganisms, like bacteria. In order to compare the growth of bacteria on each dish, the dishes must all be created at the same time, in the same manner.



It’s fairly easy to make (or so I thought). There are five basic steps:

  1. Pick a recipe (my boss gave me one)
  2. Gather the supplies — sterilized petrie dishes, powdered agar, sterilized water, yeast, and another powder
  3. Mix the ingredients according to the directions
  4. Sterilize the agar by heating it to turn it into a liquid
  5. Pour into the plates

Sounds simple, right? Not so fast. For some reason, I could not get the plates to look like the one above. Every time my plates were too cloudy and had air bubbles in them.

I spent 3 ENTIRE weekends trying to make the agar plates and failed EVERY TIME. It was so frustrating.

Finally, my advisor came in and watched me do two sets of new agar plates. What did she see? I was being very specific about how I followed the directions. BUT she noticed that in every process I was making the same mistake over and over. Once that was corrected, I was able to produce the proper plates.

Was she mad I took so long and wasted so much materials? NO. She said that what she loved about my process was that I was so careful to do the same thing over and over. That is a very excellent trait for a research scientist to have.

I ask you parents and teachers to share this story with your students. Everyone needs to understand that sometimes when we think we are failing we are actually excelling at something else!

Here are a few more examples of technology that wouldn’t exist unless a scientist or engineer failed.

“8 Successful Products that Only Exist Because of Failure”  by Sujan Patel


Since our post today is also about Epic Achievements, I thought I would share a post from guest blogger Laura Perdew. She is helping us to celebrate International Biodiversity Day  on May 22nd!

How is this an Epic Achievement? For the last 19 years the United Nations has set aside one day to celebrate biodiversity in our world. Something that is extremely important for the survival of our planet. Celebrating biodiversity, and even more importantly making strides to save biodiversity on the planet, in our cities and towns, and even in our own backyard is definitely an achievement that we should all hope to accomplish. Here’s Laura:


Ever heard of a velvet worm? A tardigrade? A shoebill stork? These are just three of some 8 million species on Earth that come in all shapes and sizes. The amount and diversity of life on this planet is staggering. And unquestionably fascinating.

Biodiversity includes plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and microorganisms. And it is everywhere, including in some pretty extreme places: near volcanoes, at the deepest parts of the ocean, in the sand, in hot springs and mud pots, in the ice, and even under the ice. And consider this – wherever you are at this moment you are in the company of hundreds or maybe even thousands of other species growing, squiggling, flying, reproducing, wriggling, feeding, and thriving.

What is often overlooked is the fact that ALL OF IT IS CONNECTED. Every species, no matter its size, has a role to play. While the connections between trees in tropical rainforests and polar bears are not immediately obvious, the connections are there. The earth is a perfectly balanced, wondrous system. That balance makes our planet strong. Yet also vulnerable.

We are living in a time when that balance is threatened by human activity. Today is a day to celebrate biodiversity, so I will not dwell on that. Instead, our job as stewards of the planet our children will inherit, is to help them see and understand that magic that is all around them. Jane Goodall said it best: “Only if we understand, will we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help, shall all be saved.”

Celebrate (Bio)Diversity Museum
To get kids excited about biodiversity, challenge them to discover a species they didn’t know existed. With a little research, either with books or on the internet, kids should easily be able to find something new and interesting.

Once they have identified a new species, each student will create a species profile. How detailed the profile is can vary by grade level. The overall goal is to create a visual profile that can be set up as a museum display (and to inspire wonder about Earth’s biodiversity). This might include pictures, charts, maps, basic information, poems, fun facts, or other ideas.

This activity can easily be cross-curricular, integrating language arts, science, social studies, and even math, depending on the requirements you develop for the species profiles.

Once the profiles are complete put them on display and have a biodiversity museum day. Friends and family can also be invited. All students should wander through the “museum” to learn even more about biodiversity. To finish the activity, have students reflect on what they learned both through their own work and from fellow students. This can be done as a class discussion or in writing. And, of course, celebrate biodiversity!

Thanks, Laura. Very well said. Laura is the author of Biodiversity: Explore the Diversity of Life on Earth with Environmental Science Activities for Kids (Build It Yourself) (Nomad Press, 2019)


Have a great week, everyone, and don’t forget, as Carolyn DeCristofano said in last week’s STEM Tuesday post,”failing is just practicing for success!”




Jennifer Swanson is the award-winning author of over 35 books for kids, mostly about science, technology, and engineering. She loves learning new things but still cannot make a plate of agar correctly the first time. But she keeps trying!  You can find her at www.JenniferSwansonBooks.com


STEM Tuesday — Epic Achievements and Fantastic Failures– In the Classroom

This week explore the importance of bringing epic achievements and fantastic failures to your classroom. Let the stories of people persisting in the face of seemingly impossible odds inspire your students to consider how STEM might figure into their everyday lives and future careers. And remember, managing failures is part of the arc of success. Set-backs and disappointments help STEM professionals improve, invent, and innovate their way to their dreams.

Create a “Dream Big” Bulletin Board. Before introducing this month’s books to students, ask students to respond to these prompts:

  • Think about the technology around you—everything from paper plates to bandages to medicine to transportation systems and more. All of these things were figured out by people. Which technologies impress you the most? Why? What else can you think of that’s a big-deal achievement in science, technology, engineering, or math?
  • Scientists explore the unknown and try to describe and explain the world and universe around us. What’s the most amazing scientific discovery you know of? What big questions do you wonder about that science might answer someday?
  • What’s the most amazing discovery or invention you can imagine making?

After students complete index cards or journal entries in response to the selected prompt, give them time to exchange ideas about their “big dreams” with each other. Encourage them to think bigger and bigger as they talk. After several minutes, ask students to consider their answers as a group:

  • What common themes can you find across different achievements and dreams? (For example, several ideas might relate to discovering a cure for disease or inventing a way to travel quickly from place to place.)

Post student ideas on a “Dream Big” bulletin board and refer to it as a context that will help them connect to any of the tales of success or failure in the books from this month’s STEM Tuesday list. As students read the books, ask them to identify the “big dream” behind each success, and motivating the people in the stories to overcome failures along the way.

Is it Failure or Just Practice for Success? In many quarters, failure has a bad reputation. Sure, we all feel like celebrating when things go right, but it’s important to understand that if we are going to achieve anything — epic or everyday — we are likely to encounter bumps, mistakes, hiccups, set-backs, and mess-ups along the way. The better we can accept failures and learn from them, the more we will learn and achieve. You can help students explore this idea with one of these engineering design challenge “launchers,” which focus on the engineering design process and how it embodies a growth mindset. After students test their first design ideas, challenge them to improve the performance of their designs. Lead reflection on how students’ final (and usually improved) designs evolved from the designs’ initial shortcomings and set-back (failures). Be explicit that in many ways, failure is something to embrace—as a chance to learn and explore in new directions.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgConnect students’ experiences with design failures with highlights from a TED Talk and an interview with Astro Teller. Teller, the “Captain of Moonshots” at X, a Google company featured in Google It: A History of Google, discusses his own view of success and failure, and the importance of committing to projects that may or may not succeed. Speaking of moonshots…


Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgMap the Ups and Downs along the way to an epic achievement, such as figuring out how to achieve powered flight or landing people on the Moon. You’ll find these stories in Countdown, Rocket to the Moon, and Epic Fails The Wright Brothers: Nose-Diving into History. To map the vicissitudes of these or any other accomplishments, begin by drawing a horizontal timeline across a piece of paper near the middle. Label the line with each chapter, episode, or student-identified turning point. Ask students to make a mark above or below each label indicating the degree to which the episode seems like an “up” or “down” moment (when people were meeting Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgwith success or failure/setback); then connect the dots. Students can also keep similar timelines in their journals representing their experience of projects in science, technology, engineering or math. Encourage them to focus on the relationship between achieving and navigating through—and learning from—failures.


Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

Combined with hands-on activities and opportunities for student reflection, stories of STEM successes and failures can’t fail to inspire and engage students. How do you help students identify their own, personal “moonshots”? What do you do to foster risk-taking? Drop us a line in the comments suggestion below!

As a co-founding consultant at Blue Heron STEM Education and a partner in STEM Education Insights, LLC, STEM Tuesday contributor Carolyn DeCristofano, MEd, supports the development of high-quality, research-based STEM education resources that inspire students and teachers alike. An acclaimed author of STEM books for kids, including A Black Hole is NOT a Hole and Running on Sunshine: How Solar Energy Works, she enjoys bringing the joy of STEM, creativity, and writing to school groups.