Albert Manero Director, Limbitless Solutions

In Engineering, Failure is Human—and Necessary!

PostedFriday, February 3, 2017 at 9:54 AM

For many educators, the word failure is scarcely uttered in classrooms. It has become steeped in the concepts of judgment and is thought to indicate a permanent condition. This has resulted in strong negative connotations, and as a result, our language in the classroom has changed [Lottero-Perdue and Parry 2014].  Perhaps due to the growing role of standardized tests in defining a student’s success, and a teacher’s efficacy, our culture’s perspective on the role of failure has potentially hindered how we instruct and educate. This is a problem in all of education but has special significance in engineering education.

Studies [Lottero-Perdue and Parry 2015] to capture the perspectives of teachers working to change language in classroom have compared the use of fail words and shown an emphasis in language towards resilience and perseverance, focusing more on the forward action than a personal judgement of the student. Questions such as “Why do you think your design didn’t work” were much more commonly reported than “We all fail,” and this emphasis helps encourage the iterative process where requirements are met in a multi-step process. .  In this research, encouraging teachers to be comfortable with failure language was identified as a challenge for nearly a third of study participants, resulting in the use of euphemisms or alternative language, such as “not successful or not working” (as opposed to “failing to meet expectations”). Creating an environment friendly for iterative design will require further changes to how we use language in education.

I grew up in an environment where trophies for just participating in an activity did not make me feel better about my performance. Bringing home a report card or test grade that showed unsatisfactory results was not acceptable.  My parents’ would emphasize that they believed I was capable of achieving in my academic studies, mastering the sheet music in my music lessons, and through dedication and practice making a goal on the soccer field. And I believed them; I sure did not want to prove them wrong!

That said, I was not often the kid with straight A’s on the report card; spelling and “penmanship” always proved to be my Achille’s heel. Fortunately for the reader, I am writing this blog with the help of spell check and a digital font! However, my parents’ belief in the potential for success affirmed my effort to strive for excellence. Later, I would have a band director who would emphasize that “perfection can never be obtained, but it must be the goal”. This outlook created enormous pressure to find success and excellence, because not meeting the goals was then indicative not of a lack of ability but rather a lack of effort and determination.

Wanting to become an engineer, I was given the book To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design (1985, St. Martin’s Press), by NAE member Henry Petroski. It provided me a new perspective: 1) failure is ultimately a part of the human condition, and 2) there is so much to be learned following failure. In another of Petroski’s books To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure (2012, Harvard University Press), he asserts the idea that “…every successful design is the anticipation and obviation of failure, every new failure – no matter how seemingly benign – presents a further means towards a fuller understanding of how to achieve a fuller success.”  

My senior design team project in college was to build a remote-controlled airplane and to fly it in competition for multiple challenges. It was large, with a wingspan of about 6 feet. Our advisor told us to expect failure. Every plane he had seen crashed on the first test flight. This highly motivated our team to reject his expectation. And, our plane flew! We flew nine successful flights over two weeks of testing. We had designed the plane to withstand what we thought were the worst case scenarios. Aircraft design is all about tradeoffs, especially weight vs. strength vs. cost. On the tenth flight, we had a sensor malfunction, which caused us to take the plane outside our defined (successful) performance envelope. The result was that the wings ripped off the fuselage and flew away in the distance, while the main body of the plane slammed into the ground and disintegrated. It was a catastrophic failure; we had less than two weeks before competition.

And we learned more from the real-world failure, and the painful slow motion video of it, than we ever had from the successful flights. We studied the frame-by-frame still images looking for the cause, and we investigated the wreckage as evidence. Then we went back to work, around the clock, in an effort to rebuild with our modifications before the competition. It was exhilarating! For our final presentation, we showed the crash video (to the surprise of the class and our professor), and that allowed us to show what drove our modifications and ultimate success.  Had our plane not crashed in testing, it most certainly would have failed in competition.

The ability to learn from setbacks is ultimately what defines us as humans. However, how we perceive failure in the classroom compared with how it’s viewed in engineering is radically different. In engineering, an end-point failure, catastrophic or unforeseen failure, or safety failure is unacceptable. Success is driven by an iterative process of design, test, reflect, and repeat. Constraints of time and budget certainly play a role and guide the process. But in many classrooms, the converse is often the case: Rigorously timed, closed-to-notes, high-pressure exams This can hinder the creative process of iterative design, Lottero—Perdue and Parry note.  Transitioning to the iterative design methodology was seen to result in new teacher student dynamics, where students would self-assess their design’s performance and through teamwork elicit a response/change, and after subsequent iteration teachers would provide some intervention to help guide further iteration. This can provide a “growth mindset” where some students feel increased ownership and that they are learning, while some students may struggle with disappointment or negative responses due to the required imperfect iterations [Lottero-Perdue and Parry 2016].

There are of course areas where we need to learn the consequence when excellence is not achieved on demand. There are many fields where an iterative process is not afforded. Yet, to encourage healthy and creative design skills, perhaps it is time to consider how we change the language and the culture in the classroom to allow students space to design, test to failure, and iterate to meet constraints and objectives via project-based learning. This may lead to a more engaged classroom and cause young girls and boys to enjoy design and engineering.

For those who want to do more thinking about the role of failure in engineering, I’m including links below to the several papers I referenced in this blog.  Pam Lottero-Perdue and Liz Parry are are members of our community. You can ask them questions on their profile, if you would like to learn more about their research.



Lottero-Perdue, P. S. & E. Parry. (2014) Perspectives on Failure in the Classroom by Elementary Teachers New to Teaching Engineering. age24, 1.

Lottero-Perdue, P. S & E. Parry.  (2015). Elementary Teachers’ Reported Responses to Student Design

Lottero-Perdue, P. S., & E. Parry. (2016). Elementary Teachers' Reflections on Design Failures and Use of Fail Words after Teaching Engineering for Two Years (Fundamental) In Proceedings of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Annual Conference.


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