Making Makers — Not Failure

AnnMarie Thomas

AnnMarie ThomasWhen I moved to St. Paul there were two things that I was really excited about: my new job as an engineering professor, and the circus school a short distance from my house. Within months, I was hooked and taking classes in flying trapeze, Spanish web, and whatever other equipment I could get access to. Thus, I was spending a lot of time around spinning, bouncing, and turning people.

I remember thinking how it was like being in the world’s coolest physics lab. Suddenly I was the mass that was swinging from a pendulum (flying trapeze), bouncing on a spring (bungee trapeze), or in a transforming coordinate frame (German wheel, which is like a human-sized hamster wheel that isn’t locked in place). This seemed like the perfect time to combine work and play, and a few years later I found myself teaching a dynamics course where the experimental labs took place at the circus school. Think “daring young engineers on the flying trapeze.”

Fun as the class was, one of the most amazing parts for me came on the final day. Rather than give my students a written final, I asked them to perform a circus for middle school students, in which the science behind the acts was explained. They took the challenge, and performed a great show.

One act consisted of a student swinging on a low-casting rig (a small version of a flying trapeze). As he swung, his partners explained conservation of energy, discussing how potential energy is converted to kinetic energy. As the amplitude of his swing decreased, he demonstrated how beating (kicking at specific points in the swing) allowed him to increase the swing amplitude. But where did his body get the energy to perform these kicks? Chemical energy from food that he’d consumed.

Another group of students discussed inertia, center of mass, and gravity, showing how they could control a German wheel by changing where they stood in, or on, the device. In the middle of this demonstration, in front of a room full of middle school students, the wheel fell over with one of my students inside of it. Rather than get flustered, this young woman stood up, looked at the students, and said that in engineering things don’t always work out the way you want them to, but you get up, brush yourself off, and try again.

With all eyes on her, this is exactly what she did, and she performed a perfect series of “cartwheels” in her wheel. Honestly, of all the lessons that the young audience heard that day, I suspect the most important one was this impromptu demonstration of the power of being willing to try again.

I’m sure every maker can relate to this moment and to this lesson. You think the project is going perfectly and then the part breaks, the light fades, or something starts spewing smoke.

People extol the virtues of failure, and how much you can learn from it. I agree, but prefer to focus more on resilience. It’s not failure itself that leads to success, it’s the willingness to pick yourself (and your project) back up in hopes of getting it to work. If that’s what you do, those early hiccups weren’t failures, they were rough drafts. To me, it’s only truly a failure if you give up.

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