ASH Voices: “Fail hard, fail fast, and fail forward” - Teachers in STEM
We interviewed three teachers whose subjects stretch within STEM: Brogan, High School Robotics, Game Design and AP Computer Science Principles teacher and co-leader of First Tech Challenge Robotics teams. Gary, Middle School Design Technology teacher, and teacher of electives Designing Solutions and ASH Manufacturing. Phil, support teacher for science and technology instruction in Elementary School and the Early Childhood Center.
How does your guidance within STEM help students grow?
GARY: Conservatively, about half of the jobs that today’s kindergarteners will do haven’t been invented yet. So our big challenge is how to prepare students for a future that we don't know what it looks like. So part of the work we do with our STEM program is to build thinking skills for kids that can transfer across a wide range of areas. Also, we want to inculcate in them an ‘innovator’s mindset’ where they can be problem-finders, and creative problem-solvers.
BROGAN: One of the biggest things I focus on is how to think in a design-skill mindset. Using an iterative design cycle to be able to solve challenges and problems. My curriculum two years ago looks very different with how it looks today. You see the release of AI-generated tools, and that has totally accelerated and changed how things need to be in teaching. It really highlights how important it is in the STEM field to teach skills and transferable skills and how students think about problems creatively, rather than pure content. That’s the kind of skills they’re going to need when they go into the job world, or if they want to become entrepreneurs.
PHIL: In the primary grades, we focus on the foundational skills. We’re teaching them to be literate, and teaching them those math skills. We’re focused on the mindset of becoming scientists. We're trying to understand what a scientist does, and how a scientist thinks, and how we can apply that to a problem we’re trying to solve. We also want to teach kids to embrace mistakes. We’re teaching them to learn from them.
How do you look at mistakes when teaching STEM subjects?
GARY: They’re baked into any problem-solving that you do in any STEM-related field. You’re going to fail, and hopefully we fail forward - by thinking about what we learn from the mistake, and how we can do better the next time. Brogan said it right before ; We really do create an iterative cycle; we create something, we test it out and get feedback on it, we re-design it and we keep going until we come up with a solution that we’re happy with.
BROGAN: It’s like the concept of “fail hard, fail fast, and fail forward”. It’s not failing for failure’s sake, it’s about analyzing that failure and then learning from that until you have something that works.
I taught a student that came from a country that focuses a lot on “being right”. Then he came to my class, which is more focused on skills, and no memorization focused. During the parent-teacher interviews, he said that: “I feel so relaxed in your class, because I can focus on learning instead of getting it right”. And this is the whole point. It’s to try to get to a goal - one might fumble my way there, but I’m learning.
GARY: The way we present the problems to the students, there’s no one solution or path to get to it, so that gives the child agency to try new things. It may or may not work, but they’re going to get there eventually.
PHIL: In Elementary School, we go a lot with hot glue, paper and found objects. My hope is that we’re creating prototypes that may not actually work, but they can talk about it. Those are the skills that as they hope to Middle School and High School, it keeps evolving. As they get older they work with different materials, but it’s the same process.
Do you have any examples or memories of the classroom where you thought: “Ah, I’m doing it right” ?
BROGAN: It’s hard to pick one. But the First Tech Robotics Challenge club (FTC) started with 8 students last semester that wanted to build a competitive robot. Now we’ve got 35. I basically come and twiddle my thumbs. It’s great that I can do that, because I actually don’t feel like there’s anything for me to do except ask questions because they are so competent and so prepared. They’ve spent all this time doing research, and they’re so vibrant.
Every night they’re still messaging each other, handing out on Friday night calculating new intake for new robots…it’s Friday night! But they’re so engaged about it. This isn’t a course either - they come to the club on their own time on free blocks. I have students who are probably spending about 20 hours a day working on this on top of their full diplomas and Model United Nations…it’s great to see.
GARY: In my courses, it’s where we get to the point where the students are confident with their skills and their designs. And the role switches so that I’m not the teacher anymore, I’m just the coach that is facilitating the work they are doing.
PHIL: For me as a supporting teacher, a lot of that is just excitement of creating a lesson or an experience that the students are excited about. We were looking at how light hits the earth, so we were building a structure that would protect a little animal from the sun. So it had to be cool inside because it’s hot outside…so just seeing them work on that and go back and forth searching for more materials to figure out how to fix it and improve it…it’s very exciting.
As it turns out, no matter the stage of education, success in STEM is all about what comes after making mistakes. In the end, mistakes are among the most valuable lessons one can use to build knowledge, skills and experience.