Failure is an option: Reactions to failure in elementary engineering design projects

Open Access
Johnson, Matthew Michael
Graduate Program:
Curriculum and Instruction
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
March 04, 2016
Committee Members:
  • William Carlsen, Dissertation Advisor
  • Gregory John Kelly, Committee Member
  • Scott Mc Donald, Committee Member
  • Danny Glynn Sykes, Committee Member
  • Christine M Cunningham, Special Member
  • engineering education
  • epistemic practice
  • discourse
  • sociolinguistics
  • failure
  • improvement
Recent reform documents in science education have called for teachers to use epistemic practices of science and engineering researchers to teach disciplinary content (NRC, 2007; NRC, 2012; NGSS Lead States, 2013). Although this creates challenges for classroom teachers unfamiliar with engineering, it has created a need for high quality research about how students and teachers engage in engineering activities to improve curriculum development and teaching pedagogy. While framers of the Next Generation Science Standards (NRC, 2012; NGSS Lead States 2013) focused on the similarities of the practices of science researchers and engineering designers, some have proposed that engineering has a unique set of epistemic practices, including improving from failure (Cunningham & Carlsen, 2014; Cunningham & Kelly, in review). While no one will deny failures occur in science, failure in engineering is thought of in fundamentally different ways. In the study presented here, video data from eight classes of elementary students engaged in one of two civil engineering units were analyzed using methods borrowed from psychology, anthropology, and sociolinguistics to investigate: 1) the nature of failure in elementary engineering design; 2) the ways in which teachers react to failure; and 3) how the collective actions of students and teachers support or constrain improvement in engineering design. I propose new ways of considering the types and causes of failure, and note three teacher reactions to failure: the manager, the cheerleader, and the strategic partner. Because the goal of iteration in engineering is improvement, I also studied improvement. Students only systematically improve when they have the opportunity, productive strategies, and fair comparisons between prototypes. I then investigate the use of student engineering journals to assess learning from the process of improvement after failure. After discussion, I consider implications from this work as well as future research to advance our understanding in this area.