A different kind of test

When launching student-designed and built rockets, failure is always an option. But so is spectacular success. Photos by Phil Houseal

May 25, 2017–I spent the last week watching a thousand students take a test. A field test.

Because the tests took place in the middle of a field on a working ranch near Willow City, Texas.

It wasn’t a paper and pencil kind of test, although hours of calculation were completed.

It wasn’t a “do I get out of high school” or “can I get into college” test. Although futures were changed.

It wasn’t a test where success is guaranteed. In fact, most of those testing experienced failure along the way.

The event was Rockets 2017, the culminating activity for the SystemsGo program. This innovative project-based curriculum was developed in the 1990s by Brett Williams at Fredericksburg High School. Today, more than 55 high schools in Texas and New Mexico participate in the STEM-based program. Students design, build, and launch rockets that travel up to 15,000 feet and beyond the speed of sound. That’s 767 mph for those who didn’t pay attention in 6th grade.

SystemsGo expounds a different way of learning. As one education magazine editor titled it–“Failure is an Option.” It’s an amazing change in paradigm. Where else in school is failure celebrated?

Seth Godin, a popular business blogger, proposes that being “good at the beginning” is not as important at being “good in the long run.”

Whether a toddler learning to walk, a beginner violinist, or a non-science type student trying to build a rocket, “the people who are good in the long run fail a lot, especially at the beginning. So, when you fail early, it might be worth realizing that this is part of the deal, the price you pay for being good in the long run.”

What we call a “Texas T-post”–when a rocket goes ballistic and plants itself on the prairie. Photo by Phil Houseal

These rocket kids fail a lot. Over the many years of sending up their “one pound, one mile” rockets, we’ve seen rockets that never leave the pad, don’t deploy a chute, blow up in mid flight, or plant themselves firmly in the Texas topsoil like a fencepost with fins.

And you know what? That’s all right. Godin declares, “Every rejection is a gift. A chance to learn and to do it better next time.”

Why is this important? Because as we survey the educational landscape, we see fewer and fewer opportunities where our kids can fail safely. This is not just in schools, but on playgrounds where no one ever gets hurt, sports leagues where no one ever loses, and bureaucracies where no one ever gets fired.

And yet this rocket program, where you can fail–in sometimes spectacular ways–continues to grow and draw more teachers, students, and schools (including Ingram, Boerne, and Fredericksburg) that relish the challenge of facing uncertain outcomes.

I know, because I’ve experienced it firsthand. My daughter went through the rocket class. And something happened to her that had never happened in 12 years of attending several different schools–she got excited about learning.

One fall day at noon, she sent me a video of her first model rocket launch attempt, complete with a description of what worked and what didn’t–the motor burned through the recovery tether, so the nose cone blew off.

Failure. She was thrilled.

That evening, she rushed in the door and sat down to describe every detail of the flight with the thoroughness of Mission Control, from launch to recovery. Well… attempted recovery.

Failure examined.

Most important, she had started figuring out ways to avoid burning through the cord on her next launch. In fact she had already contacted a former rocket student (her brother) to brainstorm workarounds.

Failure solved, leading to success.

These failures are precious. As Godin calls them: “An opportunity to figure out how to bounce, not break. Don’t waste them.”

Because where you land is more important than where you launch.


To find out more about how to start a SystemsGo program at your school, contact www.systemsgo.org.