When Failure is a Good Thing

“It’s all about getting kids to engineer and re-engineer after they fail,” says Darren Coon.

Coon, a youngish looking teacher and engineer likes the word failure, paradoxically it seems, but he thinks it’s the best way to learn. He’s so committed to that idea that fifteen years ago he established TeacherGeek.com an on-line company that pursues that mission with a passion.

We spoke to him by phone at his home/office in upstate New York. He took a few minutes to explain the seemingly inexplicable philosophy.

“We are taught early and too often that failure is a bad thing, but real accomplishment is based on failure. Kids learn more from their second and third designs than they do from the first. They learn from their mistakes.”

Coon’s company helps schools and teachers “make those mistakes” so kids can learn. Their website (teachergeek.com) provides affordable tools for kids to learn about engineering. The website offers science and engineering products like rubber band racers, mini-wind turbines and advanced hydraulic arms. There’s another one called Breaking Bridges (and rebuilding them), which seems appropriate given the America’s infrastructure problems. There is no shortage of interesting tools to help kids (and quite a few adults) learn about engineering and re-engineering.  

Illustration of how the bridge breaker kit works from the TeacherGeek.com website. The kit works on the idea of failure with each effort to build a better bridge.
Breaking Bridges Activity 10 Pack - TeacherGeek
Prospective engineer building a cantilever bridge

“We hear a lot about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math),” say Coon, “buts it’s really about engineering and evolving.”

The advantage of the sets they sell is that they are consistent, so you know the fault is not in the materials, but likely the design.

“You need products that are consistent so you can get (reliable) data to re-engineer and see how things change.”

According to Coon, there is no perfect design because you can always improve on what you did last time. That’s the goal. Learn and improve. Make something better.

Coon says it’s hard to build things from this and that when the materials are inconsistent. You don’t know if what you built failed because of faulty or odd-ball materials or if it’s a design flaw.

His idea has caught on. TeacherGeek provided the supplies for the Miami-Dade School District summer science program. The district is one of the largest in the country. The company is 15-years-old with tens of thousands of customers buying almost exclusively American-made products.

We implemented the STEM program in a middle school and found it was so popular that it increased dramatically the demand for similar programs in high school,” says Coon. “And we saw a big increase in the number of girls interested in pursuing engineering.”  

Coon is in the midst of re-engineering a very expensive printer they purchased. His company bought some cleanroom wipes from Obtainium to clean things up from the mess they made. John Schiff, the owner of Obtainium says the wipes are not cheap, but they’re lint free and really do a good job on messy things like printers. As Obtainium’s mantra goes: we’re here to help you do great things. Just like Darren Coon and TeacherGeek.       

https://teachergeek.com/