Lessons STEMming from Failure

A few weeks ago, someone tweeted this video to us @scoutscanada. I retweeted it myself, under the #ScoutsSTEM hashtag, thinking, “This kind of experiment is one example of how well Scouting and STEM fit together!” I passed it around the program team and a plan was hatched – time to try it for ourselves.

Lessons STEMming from Failure - ClementinesWe started off small, experimenting with some clementines:

The next day, we came in with big plans, wire strippers, a lemon, some nails and a box of steel wool. Over lunch, we set to work experimenting with the lemon (and a grapefruit) to find out how much voltage the citrus would be able to apply. The lemon circuit created a potential difference of about 400 mV – four times the average voltage of the clementine. We were optimistic and excited.

After donning lab coats, safety goggles and our best neckers, the experiment headed outside (without a fume hood in the office, it wouldn’t be safe to try this inside).

We hummed, we hawed, we waited. Nothing happened. The first iteration used pairs of brass and zinc nails. I added two more pairs of nails to the circuit in hopes of a bigger/any result. Still nothing. I replaced the brass with copper, which is more conductive. Our experiments had started to draw a bit more interest from the rest of the office. I was excited, but my optimism was ebbing. After a minute or so of trying and seeing nothing, we decided to call it a bust.

But was it really a bust? Depends on how you look at it.

All scientific (and non-scientific) discoveries have some foundation in failure. Penicillin, radioactivity and microwaves were all discovered by accident. Thomas Edison tested out dozens of metals before landing on tungsten as an adequate filament for incandescent light bulbs. When you report a software bug the developers have the opportunity to create a patch or improved version of the program.

A lot of the best lessons come through hands-on experimenting, and trial and error – build, test and assess. It can be frustrating when things don’t work the way you want them to from the outset. However, failure is valuable so long as you can learn from your mistakes. We all learn about the importance of staying dry by getting wet. The science, logic and value of layering are learned through a few chilly camps. Everyone develops their own “best” way to dress for a rainy day – a method honed over years of practice.

When our prototypes failed to yield any result, we reassessed, made some changes and tried again. Finally, we decided to do a bit more research before trying any new prototypes. Turns out, the original video is a bit of a scam. You can still build a lemon battery, but it won’t create enough voltage to start a fire. (See here and here for lemon battery experiments.)

One of the major tenets of Scouting is learning by doing – Scouting youth gain knowledge and experience by getting their hands dirty and trying new things. The Plan-Do-Review model encourages youth to review their adventures, and reassess for next time. Sometimes, this means remembering to pack matches. Other times, it could be new designs for a camp shelter.

Should we have done a bit more research at the outset? Probably. Would a refresher in basic circuits have been helpful? Likely. Was it more fun to jump in and try it out for ourselves? Definitely.

What lessons have you learned through trial and error? Let us know in the comments!


Scouter AtomScouter Atom is a Colony Scouter with a passion for STEM adventures. There is no question too small, no question too large – if you have a question, Scouter Atom has an answer. Send your questions to stem@scouts.ca.



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