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Failure and Idea Evolution in an Elementary Engineering Workshop (Fundamental)

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering Division: Fundamental; K-12 Students & Engineering Division: Fundamental; K-12 Students & Engineering Design Practices: Best Paper Session

Tagged Division

Pre-College Engineering Education Division

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Paper Authors


Chelsea Andrews Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach Orcid 16x16

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Chelsea Andrews is a Ph.D. candidate at Tufts University in the STEM education program. She received a B.S. from Texas A&M University in ocean engineering and an S.M. from MIT in civil and environmental engineering. Her current research includes investigating how children engage in engineering design through in-depth case study analysis.

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In the engineering education community, failure at the design stage has been promoted by researchers and policy documents, generally in an effort to engage learners in authentic engineering practices. Less often in engineering education, failure has been discussed as productive in its own right. One way failure may be beneficial is by encouraging students to revise and build on their ideas about why their designs are working or not. This connects directly to decades-old constructivist ideas that learning occurs through constructing, testing, and refining theories about how the world works.

If students are indeed learning from failure, then we can expect to see evidence that their ideas progress over the course of a design task. This raises the questions: How do students’ ideas evolve over the course of a failure-prone engineering design task? And, what differences are seen between tasks with failure and success? To investigate these questions, I draw from literature examining failure in science and mathematics education to better understand the role that failure can play in engineering. I examine video data from a single-day engineering design workshop for 13 upper elementary students at a university engineering education center. I focus on two consecutive tasks: the wind tunnel task, which featured rapid iteration cycles and repetitive failure, and the water transport task, which featured immediate success.

I closely examined student groups’ discourse and the changes they made to their design constructions after failures for evidence of the ideas informing their design decisions. For the wind task, ideas were coded, with codes such as, “attending to weight of object,” and tracked both across groups and over time. The analysis revealed that some ideas, such as weight, were common across all groups and persisted through the design task, while others, such as air flow, were taken up by a few groups, often after a long series of failures. Importantly, the initial ideas, such as weight, were not abandoned in order to accommodate later ideas, but rather these additional ideas were considered in combination with the original ideas. In contrast, in the water task, there was little evidence that groups closely considered what factors led to the success of their designs and as a result there is little evidence that they built upon their initial ideas.

I found that all groups used ideas about how the world works to respond to testing failures, and indeed, students seemed to be designing in a more sophisticated manner, attending to multiple factors of the task, after experiencing repetitive failure. These findings provide empirical support for failure as a productive aspect of engineering design tasks because it provides opportunities for students to articulate and build on their ideas. These results have direct implications for engineering curriculum design and teaching practices; in short, it is critical that students are given tasks that incorporate physical testing and are given time for multiple iteration cycles.

Andrews, C. (2016, June), Failure and Idea Evolution in an Elementary Engineering Workshop (Fundamental) Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26895

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