What You Need to Know about How Failing Could Fix the STEM Pipeline

The pipeline to careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has leaks. This leaky STEM pipeline is seen as the reason women and many minorities are underrepresented in STEM careers. Numerous suggestions for how to patch these leaks have included introducing STEM education at a young age, relying on curricula that emphasize hands-on learning and real-world problem solving, identifying and emulating role models, and developing postsecondary educational programs committed to diversity.

Now, another option is emerging. These days, STEM leaders emphasize teaching failure as a normal part of STEM learning and discovery. This way, people might not give up on STEM degrees or careers when facing their first failures.

How Failure Results in Success

Recently, researchers at Arizona State University (ASU) addressed the leaky pipeline. Based on previous research showing that problem-solving skills, resilience, and confidence can predict degree completion, they designed an intervention focused on female doctoral students in engineering and the physical sciences at 23 universities. After receiving online training on how to solve problems, become more resilient, and gain confidence in their ability to cope with setbacks, participants improved in all three areas.

ASU researchers focused on teaching participants how to solve problems. They claimed that doing so would help participants bounce back from setbacks and avoid discouragement from failure, or to be resilient. The training website suggests that if participants manage to turn challenges into opportunities, they can build confidence in their ability to cope. Participants were taught to complete four problem-solving steps: 1) assess the problem, 2) specify the desired outcome, 3) strategize, and 4) execute and evaluate. Results showed that using these steps had the desired effect, and the website indicates that, through these steps, women can become more successful in their STEM education and careers.

Famous Examples of Failures in STEM

One example of learning from failure is astronomer Erika Hamden, PhD. Her 2019 TED Talk focused on setbacks encountered when trying to launch a telescope into the stratosphere. She described a decade-long process that included sensor, mirror, cooling system, and calibration failures in addition to weather delays and even telescope damage caused by a baby falcon. These mishaps paled in comparison to one colossal failure when the balloon lifting the telescope leaked and crashed, leaving the telescope destroyed. Nonetheless, having learned from these experiences, Dr. Hamden and her team will soon launch another telescope.

Dr. Hamden also referenced another telescope plagued by failures on its way to success, the Hubble Space Telescope. The official National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) website about Hubble mentions that five missions have been required to work on the telescope since it was launched. In describing how Hubble even came to be launched, NASA explains that funding, which required downsizing of the original, was a major problem from the telescope’s beginning in 1969.

NASA also mentions the emergence over time of more problems, including the failure of the space shuttle’s cargo bay to accommodate the telescope. Moreover, its timeline highlights the challenges of balancing the size and number of parts with the cost. NASA explains that a setback occurred when the launch date was postponed after components had to be redesigned and rebuilt to stay under budget and weight requirements. Next, according to NASA, when Hubble was ready for launch, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on takeoff, delaying launches for two years.

When Hubble was finally launched and activated in 1990, NASA explains that the telescope’s mirror was out of focus by a fraction of an inch, resulting in blurry images. It was not until 1993 that this flaw was corrected during the first of the five trips to service the telescope. According to NASA, the third and fourth trips focused on repairing four of the telescope’s gyroscopes that failed and rendered the technology inoperable. NASA also explains that yet another mission was needed to replace two more failed instruments. Despite these setbacks, NASA has realized success by more than doubling Hubble’s original anticipated lifespan of 15 years.

Promoting Failure in the STEM Pipeline

To promote the idea that failure is a normal occurrence in STEM, prominent media outlets have begun sharing failure stories. TED Talks is just one. Scientific American, which claims to be the longest continuously published magazine in the United States and focuses on sharing news about the latest advances in science and technology, is another. Nature, a leading scientific journal publishing peer-reviewed research in science and technology, is yet another. STAT, an online affiliate of The Boston Globe focused on the latest news in life science and medicine, also joins the list. The more word gets out, the more likely the STEM pipeline can be repaired.