Michigan youth participating in 4-H learn to see mistakes as “untapped” resources

Scientists, engineers and 4-H youth see "mistakes" as resources for learning and opportunities for growth.

Thomas Edison, a Michigan native, Youth working on wind turbinetried two thousand different materials in search of a filament for the light bulb. Edison once said, "I have not failed once. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.” Michigan youth who are participating in 4-H Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) lessons are also learning first hand to “think like a scientist or engineer,” in the same fashion as Edison. In the process they are building important life skills – such as teamwork, leadership  and are learning to look inside themselves to explore how they think about success and failure.

As students work through the engineering and design process, making mistakes (and messes), pondering, asking questions and sharing ideas, they are also taught to think differently about trial and error and the beauty of learning from their mistakes. At the same time, they are learning about important subject matters such as health and fitness, agriculture, natural resource stewardship, animal science and alternative energy.

The Michigan State 4-H Science Team has a goal of turning out youth who are critical thinkers, problem solvers and decision makers. Over the past year, this team has worked to expand science programming in order to partner with formal education (eg. schools). The idea is to offer hands-on inquiry based science lessons, workshops, science blasts and learning opportunities that help spark youths’ interest in important community, state, national and global issues (eg. world hunger, fresh water conservation, how to increase crop yields with shrinking farm lands and many others).

This programming is supported by a recent SET study prepared for National 4-H Council (2010). According to the study, more than half of youth said that the following are “always” true in their 4-H programs:

  • It is “okay” to make mistakes
  • Youth are encouraged to take responsibility
  • Youth feel safe and respected

At the same time, 4-H volunteers are taught how to provide a safe environment for youth so they can experiment, make and correct mistakes, learn and grow. Overall, 4-H youth are taught that making mistakes is not equivalent to failure, but rather an accepted and expected part of the normal learning process. As mastery occurs, new challenges are set and it’s time to move on to learn a new skill.

In an article entitled “Why Mistakes Are Your Greatest Untapped Resource,” Nicole Carter discusses why people should stop feeling bad about mistakes and start using them to be more successful. She states, “Bottom line, there is no innovation without failure. If your perception of failure is ‘something to avoid,’ you can kiss innovation goodbye. Failure comes with the territory. If the word puts you in a foul mood, use another one—like ‘experiment,’ for example.”

Thomas Edison once said, "I make more mistakes than anyone else I know and sooner or later, I patent most of them.” More recently, in the "Think Different" commercial, the late Steve Jobs discussed why he believes that successful scientists, engineers, technologists and entrepreneurs benefit from making mistakes and why we should all be making more of them: “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do."

Additional information regarding Michigan 4-H Science as well as information on inquiry-based science lessons at the 4-H Science Blast in the Class can be accessed online.

For more information on getting involved as a youth or volunteer, contact your county MSU Extension office.

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