TITLE: Next Semester: A Prize for Failure AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: May 06, 2011 5:12 PM DESC: ----- BODY: This is finals week, so my Intelligent Systems students have presented their projects and submitted their code and documentation. All that's left for some of them is to submit their project notebooks. By and large, all four teams did good job this semester, and I'm happy both with the produced and with the way they produced it. (The notebooks may be an exception, and that means I need to do a better job convincing them to write as they think and learn throughout the semester.) A couple of teams were disappointed that they did not accomplish as much as they had hoped. I reassured them that when we explore, we often take wrong turns. Otherwise, it wouldn't be exploration! In science, too, we sometime run experiments that fail. Still, we can learn from the experience. This experience, coupled with a tweet I saw a week or so ago, has given me my first new idea for next semester:
a prize for the best failed idea of the semester
I teach Programming Languages in the fall, in which students learn Scheme, functional programming, and a fair bit about language interpretation. All of these are fertile areas for failure, by students and professor alike! At this early stage of planning, I think I'll announce the prize early in the semester and allow students to submit entries throughout. A strong candidate for the prize will be an idea that seemed good at the time, so the student tried it out, whether in code or some other form. After investing time and energy, the student has to undo the work, maybe even start from scratch, in order to solve the original problem. This sounds like failure to most students, but the point of the prize is this: you can learn a lot from an idea that doesn't pan out. If students can look back on their failures and understand why it was valuable trying the ideas anyway, they will have learned something. Whether they win a prize or not, they may well end up with a funny story to tell! Now, I need a good name for the prize. Suggestions are welcome! I also need a prize. I've considered the possibility of giving extra credit but just about convinced myself to do something more fun and perhaps more lasting. Besides, course credit is so not the point. Giving extra credit might encourage broader participation among the students, but I believe that the number of students who care more about their grades than about learning is smaller than most people think. And the idea of offering a prize is to encourage a willingness to explore good ideas, even to cultivate a sense of adventure. Awarding class points would be like giving your best friend in the world money as a birthday gift: it misses the point. My hope in offering such a prize is to help students move a little down the path from thinking like this:
the failure cake
to thinking like this:
[Engineers Without Borders] believes that success in development is not possible without taking risks and innovating -- which inevitably means failing sometimes. We also believe that it's important to publicly celebrate these failures, which allows us to share the lessons more broadly and create a culture that encourages creativity and calculated risk taking.
An annual report of failures! These are engineers who get it. -----