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Perspectives on Failure in the Classroom by Elementary Teachers New to Teaching Engineering

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Principles of K-12 Engineering Education and Practice

Tagged Division

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.980.1 - 24.980.36



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Paper Authors


Pamela S. Lottero-Perdue Towson University

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Pamela S. Lottero-Perdue, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Science Education in the Department of Physics, Astronomy & Geosciences at Towson University. She has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, worked briefly as a process engineer, and taught high school physics and pre-engineering. She has taught engineering and science to children in multiple informal settings. As a pre-service teacher educator, she includes engineering in her elementary and early childhood science methods courses, and has developed engineering education courses for middle school pre-service teachers and practicing elementary teachers. She has provided science and engineering professional development (PD) to multiple schools and school systems in Maryland, and has significantly contributed to the writing of many integrated STEM units of instruction used by teachers and within school systems. Her research has examined factors that support and those that hinder elementary teachers as they learn to teach engineering, and currently focuses on how children and teachers learn to engineer and in the process, learn to fail and productively persist. She is a 2013 recipient of the Regents’ Faculty Award for Public Service from the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, and currently serves as the Chair-Elect of the K-12 and Pre-College Division of ASEE.

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Elizabeth A Parry North Carolina State University

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Elizabeth A. Parry is the secondary contributor to this paper. She is an engineer and consultant in K-12 STEM Curriculum, Coaching and Professional Development and the coordinator of K-20 STEM Partnership Development at the College of Engineering at North Carolina State University. For the past fifteen years, she has worked extensively with students from kindergarten to graduate school, parents and pre-service and in service teachers to both educate and excite them about engineering. As the Co-PI and project director of a National Science Foundation GK-12 grant, Liz developed a highly effective tiered mentoring model for graduate and undergraduate engineering and education teams as well as a popular Family STEM event offering for both elementary and middle school communities.
Current projects include providing comprehensive professional development, coaching and program consulting for K-8 integrated STEM using engineering schools in several states and serving as a Professional Development partner for the Engineering is Elementary program. She is also a Co-PI on two NSF DR-K-12 grants focused on practice and research in K-8 engineering education and the chair of the ASEE Long Range Planning Committee on K-12 Education. Liz's involvement in K-12 STEM is extensive: she currently serves as the immediate past chair of the American Society for Engineering Education K-12 and Precollege Division and is on the executive board of the Triangle Coalition for STEM Education and the STEM Consortium. Liz has published over 35 papers on issues relating to K-20 STEM and is a frequent keynote speaker on the topic. Prior to joining NCSU, Liz worked in engineering and management positions at IBM Corporation for ten years and co-owned an informal science education business.

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Using and Euphemizing the F-word: Perspectives on Failure in the Classroom by Elementary Teachers New to Teaching Engineering (Research-to-Practice) This mixed-methods study draws from empirical evidence to explore how elementaryteachers new to teaching engineering perceive of concepts of student failure and persistence inand outside of the engineering design process. This work responds to arguments amongengineering educators that K-12 engineering education brings students experiences learning howto fail, persisting in the face of failure, and learning from failure. The importance of failure in thelearning process is a feature of Carol Dweck’s growth mindset, discussed as part of thetheoretical context of this study. Despite arguments for the adoption of a growth mindset byteachers and children in K-12 education, failure as an essential learning experience is much lessubiquitous than is learning that is carefully scaffolded by the teacher. Further, little has beendocumented in the research literature about teachers’ perspectives on how failure experiencescan be incorporated into the classroom setting. To explore teachers’ perceptions of failure, this study includes analysis of survey datafrom approximately 250 third through fifth-grade elementary teachers participating in a multi-state research project. The survey was given to teachers prior to receiving professionaldevelopment to prepare them to teach engineering to their students. Four survey questions,including open-ended and Likert scale questions, were about failure and persistence. In addition,41 of those teachers participated in semi-structured, audio-recorded interviews about failure afterreceiving professional development. Interviews lasted approximately 30 minutes, on average. A somewhat unsurprising finding from survey analysis was that the word “failure” ismore often associated with unproductive experiences and negative feelings (e.g., “notacceptable,” “not and option,” “loser”) than it was associated with productive experiences andpositive feelings (e.g., “learning,” “an opportunity to learn,” “an indication to regroup, revise,and try again”). Survey results also indicated that while teachers readily supported the idea ofencouraging students to persist, few allowed students to regularly fail (e.g., 25% of teachersstated that they never allowed their students to fail). Interviews and open-ended survey responses demonstrated how jarring the words "fail"and "failure" can be to some educators and how unlikely they are to use those words. Further,these qualitative data suggested that even when teachers indicate that they value failure andincorporate failure experiences in their classrooms, these teachers utilize euphemisms (e.g.,“making mistakes”) rather than using a variant of the loaded “f-word” (i.e., “failure,” “fail”). This study has two major implications. First, the study suggests how the persistent desirein education to scaffold students’ learning and ensure successful outcomes may be at odds with agrowth mindset that utilizes failure as a mechanism to support learning. Second, the studysuggests that teachers range in their likelihood to adopt a growth mindset that includes failureexperiences; for some, the classroom culture seems ripe for making failure productive andexplicit, while for others, this aspect of engineering education may be dampened by euphemisms,if addressed at all.

Lottero-Perdue, P. S., & Parry, E. A. (2014, June), Perspectives on Failure in the Classroom by Elementary Teachers New to Teaching Engineering Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--22913

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