Fixing Short Circuits and Faulty Code: Learning From Productive Failure With Electronic Textiles

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Journal/Book Title/Conference

American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting


American Educational Research Association


Washington, DC

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Most current research on maker activities has focused on the processes of producing and completing an artifact—be it a robot, a rocket, or a program—and what kind of skills and practices students can learn in this process. Much less attention has been paid to the challenges, or the many moments of failure, that invariably accompany any maker learning effort as students learn about new materials, crafting skills, and engineering and computing concepts. We propose that these moments of failure are in fact, not a detriment, but a productive contribution to students’ learning in maker contexts.
In our study we focused on the maker activity of electronic textiles using the LilyPad Arduino construction kit (Buechley, 2006) that enables novice engineers and designers to embed electronic hardware into textiles sewing circuits with conductive thread instead of using wire. Several studies have now documented what students can learn by completing electronic textiles in terms of understanding computational concepts and practices broadening their perceptions (e.g., Author 3, 2013; 2014). Here we focused on (1) identifying the different types of productive failure instances in crafting, circuitry, and computing in student projects and (2) on students’ perspectives on overcoming (or not) these challenges. We organized a wearable electronics workshop with 16 high school freshmen (ages 14-15), who learned how to make human sensor projects with the LilyPad Arduino. We collected a range of qualitative data, including: extensive field notes, pre- and post-surveys, photo documentation of artifacts, weekly reflections, online posts of design ideas and final artifact, and final interviews (Miles, Huberman, Saldaña, 2014).
Our analyses indicate that all students experienced some degree of failure in their projects, but they interpreted and responded to these failures differently. On the one hand, Jordan clung to his original design idea throughout his process and did not articulate his failures until the final interview at which point it was too late to iterate, troubleshoot, or fix. On the other hand, Maggie was in a constant state of ‘failure’ or iteration throughout her project; she reworked her stitching and circuit multiple times. She still had many unresolved issues in time for the interview, however, she explains, “I learned from my mistakes, I didn’t just like, “oh I made a mistake, ugh, give up.” These two examples outline anchors of when learning from failure might happen in an e-textile project. Furthermore, most students reported that the mid-process external critique – students shared their projects online with and received feedback from students more advanced in e-textiles – helped mitigate some of the potential failures of their projects. These understandings and reflections of learning from failures in making also contribute to the growing body of research on productive failure that has mostly focused on well-defined math problems that students can solve, alone or together, in short periods of time.

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