When science blew up in my face, I learned… | Science News for Students

When science blew up in my face, I learned…

Finalists at the Broadcom MASTERS share what they learned when they failed
Nov 1, 2016 — 7:00 am EST
Broadcom MASTERS 2016

The Broadcom MASTERS still love science, even though they've all messed up a few times. 

L. Doane/SSP

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Finished science projects may look like the perfect combination of ideas, data and results, but they rarely start out that way. Everyone who does research will tell you that scientists fail — a lot. The trick is learning from your mistakes and turning your failures into success.

This week, 30 middle-school students and high-school freshmen from around the United States are meeting here for the 2016 Broadcom MASTERS competition. (MASTERS stands for Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering for Rising Stars.) It was created by Society for Science & the Public and is sponsored by the Broadcom Foundation. Society for Science & the Public also publishes Science News for Students and this blog. 

The MASTERS finalists have all completed successful science projects. But many of them hit bumps along the way. Here, in their own words, they tell about the times they totally blew it in science — and what they learned from the experience.

My project is ‘Can a modified windmill create electricity in a traffic setting?’ .… The blades flattened, it was too heavy [and] it wasn’t sturdy enough. The car wasn’t the same distance away. There were lots of problems that I just can’t name. I learned that more duct tape is always the key, and…sometimes prototypes don’t go right, just keep trying. It’ll go right sometime.

- Rachel Pizzolato, 12

My project is ‘Optimizing the performance of a small-scale wind energy harvester for remote sensors.’ One time it failed because I was putting in [bubble] tea straws as flow straighteners into my test rig. I actually put them in too loosely, so when I turned on the fan, they all flew out. And so two hours of work was gone in five seconds…. I learned I should be more cautious when I’m doing things.

- Akhilesh Balasingam, 13

My project is about heart failure assist devices. One time it went wrong when my circuit almost exploded and I had to rebuild everything. [But] because I rebuilt everything, it started working and went perfectly, as I needed it to go.

- Ethan Levy, 14

One time, I failed at science because my task was to transfer Petri dishes from place to place, but I dropped [one] and E. coli [a type of bacteria] spread across the floor. I learned to be careful with biological materials!

- Aalok Patwa, 13

One time in sixth grade I was doing a wind turbine project, and one of the [light] bulbs for the electricity broke in the afternoon we tested it. Three of the four wings [of the turbine] fell out and it kind of destroyed a glass. I learned I needed supervision from family or an adult.

- Joaquin Haces Garcia, 14

My first science fair project completely failed…. I was testing how many holes you had to poke in a potato so it wouldn’t explode in the oven. One of the potatoes had zero holes; it failed to explode. I’m not sure why…. I had no data to draw a valid conclusion. So what I learned from that is repetition of the experiment can give your data more robustness that it would have otherwise.

- Lucas Ritzdorf, 14

My project is ‘Rockets and nozzles and thrusts, oh my!’ One time it kind of failed…I learned that my experiment was only producing 40 psi [pounds per square inch, a measure of pressure] when I actually needed it to do 100 psi…. My results were all off and I was like, ‘what happened?’ I was nervous at first, I thought I would have to rebuild my nozzles and do this and that. I thought about it and researched, and I learned I could just recalculate my theoretical results…. It was actually a lot easier.

When you have a mistake, don’t think about it too hard. Take it for what it is, sometimes mistakes can become happy mistakes.

- Eleanor Sigrest, 13

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Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

audio     Having to do with sound.

bacterium  (plural bacteria ) A single-celled organism. These dwell nearly everywhere on Earth, from the bottom of the sea to inside animals.

blog     Short for web log, these Internet posts can take the form of news reports, topical discussions, opinionated rants, diaries or photo galleries.

Broadcom MASTERS     Created and run by the Society for Science & the Public, Broadcom MASTERS (Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering Rising Stars) is the premier middle school science and engineering fair competition. Broadcom MASTERS International gives select middle school students from around the world a unique opportunity to attend the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair.

circuit     A network of that transmits electrical signals. In the body, nerve cells create circuits that relay electrical signals to the brain. In electronics, wires typically route those signals to activate some mechanical, computational or other function.

data     Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that gives them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.

E. coli     (short for Escherichia coli ) A bacterium that researchers often use to study genetics. Some types of this microbe cause disease, but many other forms of it do not.

electricity     A flow of charge, usually from the movement of negatively charged particles, called electrons.

engineering     The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

family     A taxonomic group consisting of at least one genus of organisms.

glass     A hard, brittle substance made from silica, a mineral found in sand . Glass usually is transparent and fairly inert (chemically nonreactive). Aquatic organisms called diatoms build their shells with it.

heart failure     A weakening of the heart that leads to its inability to pump enough blood to meet the needs of its tissues. It does not mean the heart has stopped. But if left untreated, heart failure can lead to death.

holes     (in electronics) The absence of normally expected electrons in a semiconductor crystal

nozzle     A round spout or slot at the end of a pipe, hose or tube. Nozzles are typically used to control the flow of a jet of high-pressure liquid or gas.

Petri dish   A shallow, circular dish used to grow bacteria or other microorganisms.

pressure     Force applied uniformly over a surface, measured as force per unit of area.

prototype     A first or early model of some device, system or product that still needs to be perfected.

rocket     Something propelled into the air or through space, sometimes as a weapon of war. A rocket usually is lofted by the release of exhaust gases as some fuel burns. (v.) Something that flings into space at high speed as if fueled by combustion.

sensor     A device that picks up information on physical or chemical conditions — such as temperature, barometric pressure, salinity, humidity, pH, light intensity or radiation — and stores or broadcasts that information. Scientists and engineers often rely on sensors to inform them of conditions that may change over time or that exist far from where a researcher can measure them directly. (in biology) The structure that an organism uses to sense attributes of its environment, such as heat, winds, chemicals, moisture, trauma or an attack by predators.

society     An integrated group of people or animals that generally cooperate and support one another for the greater good of them all.

Society for Science & the Public  (or SSP ) A nonprofit organization created in 1921 and based in Washington, D.C. Since its founding, SSP has been not only promoting public engagement in scientific research but also the public understanding of science. It created and continues to run three renowned science competitions: The Regeneron Science Talent Search (begun in 1942), the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (initially launched in 1950) and Broadcom MASTERS (created in 2010). SSP also publishes award-winning journalism: in Science News (launched in 1922) and Science News for Students (created in 2003). Those magazines also host a series of blogs (including Eureka! Lab).

star     The basic building block from which galaxies are made. Stars develop when gravity compacts clouds of gas. When they become dense enough to sustain nuclear-fusion reactions, stars will emit light and sometimes other forms of electromagnetic radiation. The sun is our closest star.

technology     The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

theoretical     An adjective for an analysis or assessment of something that based on pre-existing knowledge of how things behave. It is not based on experimental trials. Theoretical research tends to use math — usually performed by computers — to predict how or what will occur for some specified series of conditions. Experimental testing or observations of natural systems will then be needed to confirm what had been predicted.

thrust     A force that makes an object move forward.

turbine     A device with extended arm-like blades (often curved) to catch a moving fluid — anything from a gas or steam to water — and then convert the energy in that movement into rotary motion. Often that rotary motion will drive a system to generate electricity.

wind turbine     A wind-powered device — similar to the type used to mill grain (windmills) long ago — used to generate electricity.