Failing Gets STEM Students an 'A'

As part of the application process for my job, I was required to take a questionnaire that would ultimately tell my employer what type of personality I had and how my work-ethic was. Several questions asked how I would handle certain situations with answer options ranging from a more conservative - "what you should do" - approach to ones that portrayed you as more of a "risk-taker"  - willing to take a chance on a new approach without knowing the guaranteed outcome. While taking a lot of risks is not something that would be good for the benefit of my own career, science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers require it.

Last month, Kelton Global surveyed 511 American youth, ages 12-17 and 391 parents via an ASQ online questionnaire regarding risk-tasking behavior. The survey showed that 46% of teenagers are afraid to fail and take risks in order to solve problems. The survey concluded that their parents could be to blame, with 81% admitting to being uncomfortable if their child performs poorly in sports, extracurricular activities or social situations. Another 73% said they were not comfortable with their child getting bad grades in school.

Cheryl Birdsong-Dyer, an ASQ member and professional process engineer, believes that failing and getting back up to try again is essential to problem solving, and should not be feared. "If one does not take risks, they risk not solving the problem," she said. "As educators, professionals and leaders we need to reinforce to teens that every failure is an opportunity to learn and grow. Teaching teens that it is OK to take risks and sometimes fail will build their confidence and ultimately their knowledge base of science, technology, engineering and math."

Eighty-eight percent of student’s surveyed said they are pressured to succeed, with 71% of those surveyed saying failing a class makes them feel they have not succeeded. Only 11% of students said they get enjoyment from solving problems.

Paul Borawski, CEO of ASQ, said engineers are constantly working in environments full of risk using quality tools to minimize risk while boosting performance, developing more creativity and innovation in the process for solving on-the-job problems. These types of professionals needs to be mentoring students, he said.

"We need to teach today's students how to take risks and fail so they feel comfortable when faced with challenging work," Borawski said. "If students are going to cure the next deadly disease, solve the energy crisis or end world hunger, they have to be prepared to fail and learn from those failures."

Ninety-eight percent of the students survey said they have developed problem-solving skills, with 27% of those who said they learned from their teachers.

The time is now for educators to step up and develop programs that create these skills while also facilitating interest in STEM careers. According to the survey, the fear of taking risks prevents 95% of teens from choosing career paths in STEM.

Sarah Cechowski is the associate digital editor for Control Design and Industrial Networking. Email her at or check out her Google+ profile.