To Encourage STEM Fields, We Need To Teach Kids It's Okay To F*ck Up

by Christine Organ

My first semester of college, I took calculus 101. I had done fairly well in a precalculus class in high school, and I actually enjoyed working my way through proofs. I figured if I showed up to class once in a while, studied the material, and did my homework, I’d be fine.

I’m pretty sure I got a D on my first test.

After struggling my way through that semester and eeking out a C thanks to the help of a tutor, I quickly decided I was not a “math person.” I picked Spanish as my major and never took another math class again.

My experience isn’t uncommon. Math is hard, and people often realize that collegiate-level calculus is no fucking joke. But to consider myself “not a math person,” abandon math entirely, and only take the required amount of science classes, well, I have to wonder if that was because I wasn’t interested in those subjects or because I was too damn afraid to struggle, or even worse, fail?

In a recent article published in Scientific American, Sara Whitlock explains the way America’s education system — and society — is preventing kids from pursuing STEM fields simply because we aren’t taught how to fail. She explains a situation like my own college calculus experience, but hers ended differently — she stuck with it, learned how to accept and even embrace failure as a necessary part of the field, and went on to create a successful career as a scientist.

Now, I’m not saying my path was less rewarding. After all, I earned my J.D., began a legal career, and currently have my dream job as a writer, but what if I hadn’t written off math and science so easily? Perhaps my interests and talents don’t lie in the STEM fields, but how many people are making this conclusion about their talents simply because something is difficult?

What’s more, this discomfort with failure tends to impact girls and women more significantly. In a powerful TED talk, Reshma Saujani — the founder of Girls Who Code, a nonprofit dedicated to closing the gender gap in technology — girls are raised to be perfect, whereas boys are raised to be brave.

“Most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure,” she said. “We’re taught to smile pretty, play it safe, get all A’s. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to play rough, swing high, crawl to the top of the monkey bars and then just jump off headfirst. And by the time they’re adults, whether they’re negotiating a raise or even asking someone out on a date, they’re habituated to take risk after risk.”

This reluctance to be imperfect — or god forbid, fail — is particularly harmful to STEM fields, which depend on risk and failure to progress. Experiment. Fail. Try something new. Rinse and repeat. Eventually the experiment fails a little less, and then a little less, until eventually you have a breakthrough. According to Whitlock, our nation’s discomfort with failure creates long-term risks for progress in STEM fields. Although the country is teeming with scientists, many of them are immigrants or the children of immigrants, and given the current administration’s hostile attitudes toward immigration, progress in STEM fields could be stunted as a result.

“The U.S. has plenty of scientists, but fewer and fewer are being born in the U.S.,” she wrote. “These foreign-born scientists are welcome, as far as I’m concerned, but with all the recent changes in immigration and visa policy, it’s an uncertain future — large numbers of our scientists-in-training could be forced to leave after they finish graduate school or postdocs… Without these scientists, American science will suffer.”

In her TED talk, Saujani explained that, at the fifth-grade level, girls routinely outperform boys in every subject, including STEM subjects, but they approach challenges differently. In fact, by the time girls have reached adulthood, this conditioning for perfection — or at least an absence of failure or struggle — has cemented itself in some rather dramatic ways. According to Saujani, an HP report found that men will apply for a job if they meet only 60 percent of the qualifications, but women, women will apply only if they meet 100 percent of the qualifications.

Take a minute to let that sink in. Women will only apply for a job if they meet all the qualifications — one hundred percent (i.e., perfection). Never mind that perfection is unattainable, in order to innovate — an essential component of STEM fields and others as well — Saujani reminded us that we need to be comfortable with imperfection. What’s more, we need to teach our children, and girls in particular, to be more comfortable with taking risks, acknowledging failure, and accepting imperfection.

So how do we do that? How do we teach our children, and our daughters in particular, to take risks, fall on their faces now and then, and get back up again?

According to Whitlock, resiliency plays an important role, and “students who believe their intellect can grow, rather than it being fixed, are more resilient in pursuing their goals.” In other words, praising our kids for their effort and stick-to-it-iveness rather than their intellect is important.

But equally important, I think, is showing our children how to fail and embrace imperfection. It means taking risks ourselves, falling flat on our faces (either literally or figuratively) from time to time, and then getting back up and trying again. And it means talking to our children and other adults about our own vulnerabilities, imperfections, and failures. Let’s not let our children see us beating ourselves up after we make mistakes. Let’s show them we can learn from them, and move forward.

Whitlock attributes much of her resilience as a scientist to the guidance of successful older science students who shared their failures with her. One in particular told her how she failed an exam her first semester — something Whitlock remembered as she encountered her own failed experiments, lower-than-expected test scores, and other setbacks.

Talking about failures, letting others watch us stumble, and acknowledging our imperfections is hard work. We are often raised to hide our failures and insecurities. Personally, I would rather the entire world think that I’m a goddess unicorn woman who has never once failed, erred, or fucked up, but that just isn’t true, for any of us. But when we lead by example, showing others how we take risks, fuck up now and then, and deal with failure, we give them permission to do so as well. We open the door to progress, innovation, and (best of all) authenticity.

Our children deserve those opened doors — and so do we.