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.


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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.

STEM Tuesday
STEM books ENGAGE. EXCITE. and INSPIRE! Join us each week as a group of dedicated STEM authors highlight FUN topics, interesting resources, and make real-life connections to STEM in ways that may surprise you. #STEMRocks!