Finding success in failure

Many gifted students have learned to play the game of school. They memorize answers to make the teacher happy and receive the desired grade. All too often, they never experience failure. This environment is not suited for learning how to solve problems and overcome issues in the real world. Our goal in Problems You’ve Never Solved Before is for VAMPY students to rethink the definition of failure. We want to give the students an opportunity to learn from failing. 

In class, students have completed challenges in engineering, problem solving, and logic – and they have learned how to succeed through failure. The first day of class was one of the most exciting since the first problem the students had to solve was to find their teacher! With Catherine Poteet on Zoom, the students were put in pairs and given a variety of puzzles to solve for clues as to where she was in the building. 

A more typical class day involves students overcoming an engineering challenge, solving a difficult puzzle, or learning how to communicate like an engineer. These tasks range from building a bridge with only spaghetti and marshmallows, to making an egg survive a seven-story drop, to building a shipping package for a potato chip, to making a crossbow that will shoot a projectile accurately and over a far distance. Most builds give the students the opportunity to improve on their designs and (perhaps) fix their failures, which helps them learn that failure is always an option. The students have shown a large amount of creativity along with a willingness to help those around them in their own builds. 

When the students aren’t building, they are usually solving puzzles or working on communication skills. Puzzles have featured a wide variety such as solving a bank robbery, discovering various numerical patterns, and even some classic Sudoku. For communication practice, the campers instructed a classmate on how to build a LEGO structure without being able to see the other person’s progress. 

As a future physics teacher, I have enjoyed seeing the students learn about the engineering process and the physics behind it all while experiencing “productive struggle.” Students naturally want to avoid failure and find an answer immediately, but this struggle helps them learn and retain information. We’ve seen this idea in action in our class these past three weeks: The students have enjoyed the class most and take pride in their abilities when they are able to finally figure out a difficult puzzle or engineering challenge. 

— William Poteet, teaching assistant