When Things Go Wrong, Could You Lend Me a Hand?

There’s a great deal of discussion right now in educational circles about the positive benefits of failure. You don’t have to look far to find TED talks, psychological reviews, and blog articles on why it’s okay–and even beneficial–to fail. Failure, we read, makes us stronger, fights against complacency, and recommits us to our goals. The warnings are shouted loudly: Parents! Don’t shield your kids from failure! Our own faculty member, Carri Svoboda, shared an article earlier this year about why women in particular might be afraid to fail.

The Foundations of Engineering II class in the Providence Engineering Academy were recently given a new project to wrestle with: design and build a robotic prosthetic arm. Using metal motors and controls for the forearm frame, they then had to 3D print a functional palm, fingers, and thumb. No instructions, and nothing off-the-shelf. Oh, and with one more twist–the entire thing was made double size.

James and Zach prepare the Pink Team’s hand

Isaiah and Kaitlyn working on the finishing touches

So what happens when you give a room full of budding engineers a bunch of robotics parts and computers and a 3D printer? Well, for one, a lot of failure. Dead ends and broken components are commonplace. The line of code that worked yesterday doesn’t work today. The team member that needed to design their part in time just doesn’t. Control wires break. Batteries die. Entropy seems to work harder than its usual self.

And that’s okay!

Davis shows Alan his giant metal forearm; the green boxes down
the side are the motors to control the 3D-printed fingers

The teams worked hard for seven weeks. During this time, they also visited PathPoint, a nearby organization dedicated to working with those needing assistive technology–the original inspiration for this robotic limb project. The direct experience with those who daily use technology to overcome their difficulties was very moving.

The whole group visiting PathPoint, non-profit working here in
Santa Barbara with those needing assistive technology

When all was completed, the four teams loaded up into the school vans, and headed over to the San Roque campus. Their giant articulated hands waved a cheery hello to cars driving by, fingers flexing and twitching in eerie mimicry.

Pedro shows the Yellow Team’s code to a
Lower School student

James checks the workings of his pink articulated fingers

The class presented their designs to the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th Grades across two days. On the first day, failure was the name of the game, as every team experienced the frustration of things going wrong. To name just a few of the dozens of problems:

  • A control line connecting a motor to a finger broke or came untied.
  • A stop keeping a finger from bending backward broke away.
  • An elastic band returning the finger to neutral position broke.
  • A remote control, necessary for demonstration, would not “pair” with the onboard computer.
  • Another remote control was left behind in the engineering classroom!
Nolan, chief coding specialist for the
White Team

A myriad of challenges–yes! More importantly, how did the students respond?

  • They switched to manual operation instead of motor-controlled.
  • They took extra time to talk to their elementary-aged guests about 3D printing and robots.
  • They used tape and scrap pieces to rebuild a finger stop.
  • They retied control lines, anchoring them with bolts and washers.
  • They avoided focusing on the problems, and drew their audience’s attention to what was working.
Our 5th Grade teacher, Mrs. Suleiman, shared her highlight of the experience: “Hearing the students talk about the ‘failures’ that happened as they were designing the hands, and watching them deal with problems that occurred during their demonstration.”

Lower School students take a turn wiggling the giant fingers
back and forth with the remote control

The students themselves reflected on this very same idea a few days later:

Pedro: “There will always be failure. Failure is good. You learn from it.”

Zach: “Perhaps it is not our mistakes that are the true failures, but the ways that we handle our mistakes that are.”

Alan: “The point of this isn’t about how many failures we have, but how we deal with them.”

Isaiah: “All this goes to say that every problem has a solution. You just have to be willing to persevere.”

And persevere they did. On the second day of presenting, most of the kinks had been worked out. With smiles on their faces, our 9th and 10th Graders talked at length about their coding and CAD. The elementary students were able to take turns at the controls and wiggle those giant fingers back and forth. What a joy to see older students inspiring the younger ones with warmth and kindness!

Nolan helps our Lower School students
operate the arm

Our closing thoughts come from Sydney (9th Grader), who wrote some powerfully encouraging thoughts for all of us:

“I know that even in my academic journey at Providence, I have failed many times… This seems like the world can end, yet once you rise up and decide to learn from those failures, you really do learn the most… Through the project of making a robotic hand, I understand that failing is normal and is bound to happen at some point… I have learned that I need a team or a group who can help me when I fail. I need to give myself grace when I do fail… I am grateful for this experience and the hand that was our outcome, even if it was losing a few nuts and bolts by the end. Great work, team!”

3225 Calle Pinon, Santa Barbara, CA 93105, USA

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