Failing Better with K-12 Engineering


The “E” in STEM is becoming a part of formal K-12 learning. Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) include it at all grade levels, and many states and school districts have adopted NGSS-inspired standards that include engineering.

However. Few teachers or schools are prepared to teach engineering.

At Start Engineering, we want to help people make sense of engineering as a topic in K-12 teaching and learning.

Our approach builds on three key concepts associated with engineering: failure, design, and relevance. This post is part of a series meant to accomplish this goal. We don’t think this series will be the last place anyone goes to make engineering part of their classroom. We do think it can work well, though, as the first place.

“Failure, Design, and Relevance: An Approach to K-12 Engineering”


Failure gets a bad rap in education. In the cauldron of high-stakes testing, intense college admissions competition, and helicopter parenting, the pressures on students to succeed - at every turn, in every activity - are great. Indeed, these pressures have transformed from private stress to public health issue, with a WebMD section of its own to prove it. 

Pushback is visible. Sitting with failure - inspecting it for life lessons, plumbing it to build reserves of resilience - is the topic of a rivulet of books among the Amazon currents: Being Wrong, Teach Your Children Well, The Gift of Failure, to name three. All counsel teachers and parents to practice at least patience with failure, or even staging it for the benefit of the life skills it can promote among children.

Failure as a Virtue

In some circles, failure carries a degree of cachet. Silicon Valley, for example, boasts an enormous number of failed businesses; thousands of start-ups every year are required to generate a dozen lasting businesses

This phenomenon shapes people's attitudes. It has given rise to a subgenre of posts about failure on Medium, FailCon - an annual meeting at which tech workers gather to anatomize, you guessed it, how they've failed - and a general recognition that failure marks a necessary milestone on the way to success. "We don't celebrate failure in Silicon Valley. We celebrate learning," as Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, put it.



How It Got This Way

It is no accident that this attitude has found a home among tech workers. Great numbers of tech workers are engineers, and failure is a bedrock principle in engineering. Engineers have been friends with failure since antiquity, as Vitruvius shows in De Architectura, a book about Greek and Roman building that makes much use of failure as a spur to learning.

And it makes sense, right? Engineers are tasked with building real-world technologies that solve problems and improve people's lives in the real world. Before they put a technology into the world to do its work, they want to be sure, to the greatest degree possible, that it is reliable and effective. 

To arrive at this certainty, they try to make it fail in all the ways they can imagine it failing. This process means testing and testing and testing, over and over again, to understand the different circumstances and different conditions that can lead to failure. Testing the paint used on a car, for example, can mean shooting packets of gravel at a quarter panel, oh, say, 100,000 times, from different angles, at different speeds, with different mixtures of rock sizes, and so on, ad near infinitum.

Real-World Lessons

Of course, failure sometimes happens after technologies get deployed. Those are moments that engineers really pay attention to.

Henry Petroski is the poet laureate of failure in engineering. He wrote, among other books, To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design and Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design. He notes, "Successes are not very interesting.... What interests me about failure is that it presents real lessons to be learned, because there's no ambiguity. When something fails, it failed."

From the 1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse to the 1981 Hyatt Regency walkway collapse to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion, engineering failures both command attention and impart lessons.

3, 2, 1 ...

This past June 28, the Falcon 9, a SpaceX rocket equipped with supplies and experiments destined for the International Space Station, exploded during the second stage of flight into space. This high-profile event provided a textbook example of how engineers make use of failure as a matter of course.

... Blow Up

At first, the cause was unclear. In a tweet just after the explosion, SpaceX CEO/CTO Elon Musk reported, "There was an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank. Data suggests counterintuitive cause." He continued, "That's all we can say with confidence right now. Will have more to say following a thorough fault tree analysis."

The Learning that Follows

The first task was to isolate the area in which the failure originated: a liquid oxygen tank. Work for the engineers quickly turned to gathering all the information they could about the tank: how it was supposed to work, the materials it was made of, its function in the liftoff sequence, and so on. 

As the "thorough fault tree analysis" ran its course, they gathered volumes of information and zeroed in on the cause. A strut inside the liquid oxygen chamber holding a helium tank had failed, setting the tank loose to shoot through the chamber like a missile inside the highly combustible environment. Tested to hold at 10,000 pounds of force, the strut had failed at only 2,000 pounds.

SpaceX engineers had not tested the strut themselves. They had relied on the warranty provided by the manufacturer. The failure led to changes in procedure requiring independent testing of all such struts used in subsequent launches. And a greater understanding of the importance of struts.

The Work Failure Can Do

The story illustrates a fundamental truth about failure. It is the flipside of data.

Getting retweeted 25 times in the STEM corner of the Twitterverse is "blowing up."

Getting retweeted 25 times in the STEM corner of the Twitterverse is "blowing up."

And data is useful because it implies a course of action, a series of operations to be performed. You have to identify, collect, categorize, analyze, measure, differentiate, and talk about data. 

Learning with Data

Making sense of data activates learning in all kinds of areas: numbers, material properties, chemical attributes, forces of physics, physiological phenomena, and so on. Students must draw on lessons from math, chemistry, physics, biology classes. It builds computational thinking, measurement skills, and critical thinking faculties.

Engineering Integrates

Engineering projects for students can involve many of these modalities all at the same time.* A simple team-based, popsicle-stick-and-glue bridge-building exercise - designed to test the capacities of a structure to bear a load under various stresses and look good at the same time - can put students through math and science paces with them hardly even realizing it. 

They will have to consider the strength of popsicle sticks, the adhesive quality of glue, the design requirements for building something to carry weight, diverse viewpoints of their team members, the importance of angle and position of both bridge parts and the structure as a whole, and any number of other factors. 

When the bridge falls down or a part breaks off or someone doesn't like the look of it, the team will have to go through its own "thorough fault tree analysis" to identify and correct the failure. Often the path to a successful outcome leads students along a path they had never considered, a learning journey revealed only through the iterative process of designing, building, failing, and repeating until everyone is happy with what they have helped produce.

What Failure Can Teach

Any well designed engineering lesson will take students through this process. Besides building students' resilience through the experience of encountering failure and muddling through it, such a lesson opens up space to recognize and talk about failure. And talking about failure helps make the concept part of their cognitive framework, something to be openly addressed rather than silently feared. Research into the uses of failure as a classroom experience and topic of discussion is scant, but studies do indicate that “failure” activities can both benefit teachers and improve student learning.

Engineers have long seen failure as a way-station on the path towards, at best, a successful solution and, at worst, a valuable opportunity for learning. For them, failure is not a label or end-state, it is a necessary part of the process. It is a signal to dig deeper, to question assumptions, to ask for help, and to make the next effort a step forward.

The best teachers see failure this way, too. Engineering lessons can help them put this knowledge to constructive, purposeful use.


How has failure registered in your learning experiences? Have you put it to use as an intentional part of teaching, parenting, or leading teams? Please leave a comment or contact us directly on the matter.

* is a great place to start looking for K-12 engineering lessons, aligned with standards, spanning all different areas of math and science learning. It’s an NSF-funded, multi-university collaboration with over 1,400 lessons and activities available for use, free of charge.

Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEngNow.

And don’t forget to take a look at our popular K-12 engineering outreach books, Dream, Invent, Create, What’s Engineering?, and Start Engineering.