176 rising seniors participated in NCSSM’s 2019 Summer Research & Innovation Program.


Permission to fail: Trial, error, and deep learning in NCSSM’s Summer Research & Innovation Program

Educators know that a person’s mistakes offer some of the richest opportunities for true learning, yet today’s educational system often cushions students from failure.

“Few students have the opportunity to work in [an independent] environment for eight hours a day,” Jonathan Bennett, Instructor of Physics at North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, says of the school’s Summer Research & Innovation Program (SRIP). Freed from moving rapidly from one subject to another with tests and assignments at the forefront of their minds, SRIP students focus intensely on one discipline. With that focus comes the opportunity to ask difficult questions, make ambitious plans, and break complex projects into manageable steps. Alongside those beneficial life skills come less palatable experiences: how to expect failures, for example, and how to recover from them.

Bennett says he tries to start the summer by managing student expectations of what research looks like. “I tell all the students early on that their experiments will not work as they expect the first time and that they may never work as expected.”

Humanities instructor David Cantrell echoes this sentiment, insisting that the value of SRIP is in “developing a question, not rushing to answer it.” The students in Cantrell’s Summer Research in Humanities cohort may, in fact, discover that they have more questions at the close of the program than they did when they began. In essence, a failed lab experiment and a flawed theoretical standpoint are only different in subject matter. Recovering from either requires the same set of steps: retracing one’s work, figuring out where things went wrong, and starting again. 

Starting again, though, is frustrating. Even adults seasoned in trial-and-error learning may balk at returning to the drawing board when things don’t work out as planned. That’s why NCSSM instructor Cheryl Gann and Elon University professor Todd Lee stress to their SRIP mathematics students that failures are a necessary part of the process: “Often the erroneous paths help lead them to correct claims,” Gann says. And when students run into setback after setback? “We encourage them to take a different approach,” she says.

The tasks the mathematics students face are complex. One group worked to discover the conditions under which the hour and second hands of a clock could form an equilateral triangle. Another group considered a problem in the field of combinatorics and algebra that required exploration of programming in Mathematica, matrix operations, and formal mathematical proof. Whatever the problem at hand, that step outside the familiar can drive students to learn. 

This summer, instructor Chad Keister placed eight rising seniors in local tech startups as five-week SRIP Entrepreneurship Fellows. Within their placements, students are assigned tasks from coding to data analytics to marketing content — but it’s the nature of startups that everyone including students is consistently pushed outside their comfort zones. Keister says he’s been “stunned by [the students’] emotional stability” and their ability to rise to the challenge of high-intensity workplaces, and there’s a big implicit lesson, too: the utility of failure. Students  learn that, for entrepreneurs, complexity and ambiguity are part of the process. “If you’re struggling during that process,” Keister says, “that’s okay. Because failures — either on a project or within the business model — are one of the most efficient ways to learn and get better.”

That means that students are not only learning to fail better, they’re also learning to form ideas and iterate them in ways that challenge their assumptions and promote critical thinking and self-advocacy. In Cantrell’s humanities experience, which delves deeply into the cultural history of North Carolina, this ability to embrace ambiguity is also an essential piece of the research puzzle. Students find themselves holding a new lens to assumptions they’ve held all their lives.

Humanities student Aniyah Woods says that she’s been surprised to learn, through her research, how certain histories have been “overshadowed” or “sugarcoated” in textbooks and schools. She’s learning to acknowledge the subjectivity of history and to challenge assumptions derived from her previous education. 

There is no SRIP experience that provides a clear or simple path from beginning to end. Students are encouraged to discover a path on their own and to change direction when that path leads them astray. In the mentorship program, in which students work alongside university researchers and local professionals in ongoing projects, ambiguity is par for the course. As one mentorship student explained, “In my research, everything was uncertain. We never knew how a prototype would turn out until it was 3D-printed, assembled, and tested.” 

Accepting the failure of an experiment, the sting of a failed assumption, or the postponement of a project due to setbacks can be tough. But with the support of their instructors, peers, and on- and off-site mentors, SRIP students are not only learning to accept such failure, they’re learning to use it to their advantage. 

Kim Monahan, who welcomes students to campus for three weeks of intensive biology research, says that learning to fail is actually how her students come to see the value in their own ideas. “They gain confidence through troubleshooting,” she says. The summer program, because of its highly independent and focused nature, allows a vulnerability that students may not be comfortable with during the academic year, when they’re so focused on  grades. Here, “the reward is what they achieve.” As a result, Monahan finds her SRIP students are highly receptive to feedback from both their instructors and their peers. 

Elise Ray, an online student in Monahan’s program, is developing a proposal she began in the spring to test the impacts of tauopathies on Alzheimer’s and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Her ultimate goal with this research is a new pathway for the treatment of these degenerative diseases. Her home high school, however, has just one pipette that is shared among several departments. At NCSSM, Ray says, “I have the resources to apply what I’ve learned and to see if my idea does or doesn’t work.” Ultimately,  Ray’s work in the lab did not pan out the way she’d expected, but she’s already recalibrating and brainstorming new approaches. 

Failure is, of course, subjective. In Keethan Kleiner’s computer science SRIP experience, students Duncan Glynn and Daequan Peele are interested in automatic music generation. Once they’d created an app that could write songs, they tried to replicate the process on a simulated quantum computer. “We went through a long period of just learning about quantum mechanics,” Glynn says.

In fact, they read a 120-page paper on Pyquil (an import to add quantum logic to the Python programming language), and then ended up not using Pyquil after all. But to Glynn and Peele, this was not time wasted. “It was interesting just to learn how Python functions,” Glynn said. Peele agreed, adding, “Our ambitions were lofty, but this experience allowed us to shoot for what we were trying to do and plant the seeds for that work.” 

It is a rare experience, in a college-prep world, for students motivated by external goals such as the highest class rank or admission to the best college to embrace failure so readily. In SRIP, students are, in a sense, competing with themselves, but in a way that most of them find both exciting and motivating.

Every summer, biomedical engineering instructor Letitita Hubbard encourages her students to “try, try again … even when they have no idea what the next step is or what the outcome of the project will be.” It’s a tough lesson, and one that takes perseverance, but as she reminds her engineering students each year, “Many of the greatest scientific and engineering discoveries were found right around the corner from disappointment and failure.” 

Chemistry instructor Michael Bruno points out that, even in a university lab setting, students are working on projects already set up by the principal investigator, which means that at least the initial stages of the project are likely to be successful.

Here, that’s not the case. Students are exploring their own unique questions, and while there is a scaffolding in place to support them — from instructors to peer advisors to Socratic discussions and state-of-the-art equipment — there is nothing to prevent them from failing.

Freelance writer Kate Van Dis holds a bachelor’s in English and creative writing from the University of Michigan and a master’s in teaching from UNC-Chapel Hill. She is also an award-winning fiction writer.