Why I Encourage Failure in STEM: One Teacher's Experience in Finding Female Leaders in STEM

Ah! The wonderful sound of clanging medals, young voices cheering, and the slapping of high fives -- it's the sound of students being rewarded for collaborating and utilizing their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills. This sound does not come without a price -- it is the sound that can come after as many successes as failures.

As a female STEM teacher and robotics coach at a Middle School in Illinois, my job is to facilitate success by maintaining enthusiasm as my students hurdle from one failure to another. In the classroom, I see such amazing potential in my female STEM students. I watch them try, fail, learn from the failure, and repeat the process until they reap the rewards of success. As a result, curious female students quickly become confident leaders in STEM. And, considering how much we need female leaders in science, it's not a moment too soon.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, women hold a disproportionately low share of STEM undergraduate degrees, particularly in engineering. In fact, women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, but they hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, and men are much more likely than women to have a STEM job regardless of educational attainment.

But, as a science teacher and STEM coach, I am committed to putting a dent in these statistics by helping students such as Leah excel in STEM.

Leah is the captain of the FIRST LEGO League team, "Rockford Christian Royal Narwhals," (aka - the Narwhals) comprised of six other members -- all male. This year, team members were tasked with researching and inventing a new product within a short time frame that would help senior citizens lead more productive lives.

Through their research, my team discovered that many seniors have trouble using electrical plugs, especially lining up the prongs, grasping them and reaching an outlet. Along with this, comes the concern of tripping over power cords.

The team collaborated on a solution, The "Magnetic Plug Adaptor," (MPA) a safe and easy-to-use alternative to the traditional electric plug. The magnetic power of the adapter keeps the appliance plugged in, conducts power safely to the appliance and easily detaches from the wall.

Once the team decided on the MPA as their project, Leah instinctively knew how to develop the idea without overshadowing her team members. She showcased dedication to the progress of the MPA and earned the team's respect by working an additional 60 hours over Christmas break. She encouraged the team to stay positive when files were lost and programs failed, and her strong problem-solving abilities added a dynamic to the team that was necessary to complete the project.

Leah's leadership helped the Narwhals gain an invitation to the U.S. Patent and Trade Office to present the MPA to expert inventors! She admitted that the experience was a little daunting with her being the only girl on the team, but she said it was also "amazing to know that I can do amazing things using science and math while gaining confidence from my failures."

Wow! What seventh grader says that?

It sounds like something Thomas Edison once said: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." We are raising a generation of girls whose future careers will depend on problem-solving skills. They will face adversity and defeat. As an educator, I believe it is my responsibility to provide my students with obstacles; obstacles they will overcome. They will use their weaknesses to become stronger people. I remind myself often that I am not building robotics teams; I am building futures for our problem-solving students.

The clanging medals -- the trophies, are a reward for what we have finally mastered. Our success has not been measured by who we are (The Narwhals) but rather by what we have overcome as a team.

I hope this blog post encourages others to mentor students -- especially females -- to pursue their passions. If we let them explore learning, failure, collaboration and success, we will surely lead them on a path to leadership, innovative thinking and ultimately more girls exploring careers in STEM-related fields.


Julie Rohl is a science teacher at Rockford Christian School, in Illinois, where she coaches a FIRST LEGO League team. FIRST is a not-for-profit that inspires kids to explore careers in STEM.

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