Molly Schuld

STEM Programs and Outreach Specialist

Failing Forward: Lessons from Our STEM Challenge with Milwaukee Students

Topics: STEM Outreach.

Is the next generation prepared to fail so it can ultimately succeed?

This is the question we asked during Fall Experiment (Fall X), a festival in Milwaukee that brings together creatives to immerse themselves in and celebrate music, tech, art and gaming. During the event, members of Northwestern Mutual’s STEM outreach program, hi, Tech, along with our partners from Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD), co-hosted a program specifically targeted at middle and high school students in Milwaukee. We called it the Failing Forward Design Challenge.

Our goal with the challenge was to help kids embrace the value of (and feel comfortable with the idea of) failing forward; taking risks and experimenting while being okay with and learning from the (often necessary) failures that might arise throughout the innovation process.

As a former educator, I know this is counterintuitive to what many kids learn in school, unfortunately. The goal is to get an A. 100%. If you get 90%, you've made mistakes. Now, I’m all for striving for top marks, but our current education systems often disincentivize kids from taking risks and experimenting – arguably key ingredients for learning. At the same time, the “failing forward” mindset is what our region needs from our current and future talent, if we're going to be a leading technology hub.

Thus, we decided to create a safe space to let kids try on their failing forward mindset. We invited 100 students, grades 7 through 10 — a cross section from public, private, charter, middle and high schools — to join us for the challenge during Fall X 2019. We divided them into heterogenous teams, each with a MIAD student mentor, and challenged groups to design and build a rocket that could go as far as possible across a suspended wire. We gave them paper and pencils to sketch out their ideas. Then, we gave each table a set of materials they could use to build their rockets: Rubber bands, pipe cleaners, straws, zip ties and laser-cut boards cut into different shapes.

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Periodically (and by design) we'd throw the teams a curve ball to see how well they could recover from an unexpected or disappointing development. For example, groups received limited and different material sets; They were also given the opportunity to sabotage each other, stealing materials from other teams. At one point, the slope of the suspended wire was altered, escalating the challenge. And so on, the pattern continued – we threw curve balls, teams tried to pivot.

As they worked to design and build their rockets, Northwestern Mutual judges took notes about the levels of collaboration and frustration witnessed, paying close attention to the conversations taking place.

What did we learn?

  • Age seems to be an indicator of how agile students are. Initially, the younger students were more comfortable adjusting to the curve balls, with the older students being more focused on a linear plan. This created an interesting peer-to-peer mentorship dynamic, in both directions.
  • Milwaukee’s youth thrive in cross-city collaborations. In the beginning, many students barely spoke to their table mates – students from diverse schools, neighborhood, demographics, etc. — so much so that we wondered if we overestimated how well this might go! In the end, the welcoming spirit of youth won out. When it was time to say goodbye, there were abundant cries of "Wait! I need to say goodbye to my new friend!"
  • There is a need for this type of learning. Attendees and teachers walked through the Failing Forward Design Challenge, taking notes on how they could teach the mindset to their own kids. One of the schools is having all their Fall X attendees lead a similar session with the rest of their student body.
  • Students are natural innovators when they are given safe space and permission to fail. At Fall X, attendees were thrown out of their comfort zones, which forced them to shift away from freezing when curve balls were presented. Instead, they were able to see these curve balls as an opportunity, which helped them complete the task in the end.

By the way, many of the rockets did not move far, but the entire group clapped hard – even for the teams whose rockets didn't budge an inch! Talk about celebrating failure in the learning process.

Estephanie Mendoza, one of the MIAD Innovation Center students, said the event helped students understand that failure isn't a word that should be feared, but strived for. “Working with the students continues to inspire me to jump into my work by casting that fear aside,” she told me. “The fear of failure will stop you, but the acceptance of failure will make you unstoppable.”

I learned a little something, too. I now have a greater level of hope for what the future of Milwaukee will look like. Our city is going to be on the map in terms of innovation, and I know our region’s youth are going to be some of the game changers that help us get there. We just need to get out of their way and let kids be creative, run with their ideas, and fail forward.

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