Learning from mistakes: Stanford engineering course builds students' confidence by encouraging them to fail

In ME 203, Design and Engineering, students must learn several manufacturing processes to design and build a final project. Things rarely go as well as planned, which is perfectly fine with Professor David Beach.

Video by Kurt Hickman

In the Product Realization Lab, students learn manufacturing skills.

David Beach is happy to see his students fail.

Beach teaches Mechanical Engineering 203, Design and Engineering. By and large, it's the first time his students have ever laid hands on a welding torch, poured molten metal or guided a router to carve a block of aluminum.

This unfamiliarity sets up a valuable learning experience. Students come up with an idea for a final project – a teapot or hammock swing or a conveyor belt for loading bread dough into an oven – and use their new skills to manufacture it. The first attempt fails, the student learns why and how to improve it, and builds it again. Often the new version isn't quite right either, and the student must get back to work.

This is what Beach likes to see, because as the project rounds into better and better shape, so does the student.

"At some level the tools and materials are irrelevant," said Beach, a teaching professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Product Realization Laboratory. "Most Stanford students have always excelled academically. The trickiest thing for us is to convince them that they have to do some bad stuff before they can do good stuff.

"ME 203 transforms the lives of its students by giving them the agency and confidence that they can go into the world to actually modify materials to create things to change the world."

Tracy Yang, an engineering graduate student, had long been interested in design, but her undergraduate degree and professional experience had centered around computer science and electrical engineering. In order to build her mid-century modern metal-and-wood table, she had to learn how to weld, laser-cut templates and cast molten metal.

"I had never spent time before in the machine shop or the foundry, or doing any type of welding," said Yang. "I just never thought I'd be able to design and produce something, so I think that's why this class means so much to me."

The experience, she said, has given her confidence that she can handle new challenges, no matter how foreign they might be.

ME 203 also provides first-time mechanical engineering students the opportunity to turn concepts from their other studies into physical works. Trevor! Kalkus, '14, who incorporates an exclamation mark in his first name, wanted to expand his experience beyond the wet labs he's been immersed in as a bioengineering student. For his final project, Kalkus built a set of wood and metal crutches with rounded bottoms that allow a more natural, steady gait than standard "peg leg" crutches.

"I took a class last quarter called Biomechanics of Movement, and it was really neat for me to use what I had learned in a bioengineering class in a mechanical engineering class," Kalkus said. "We learned about how people walk and gait, and forces put on the ground, and I could apply all those things as I was designing my crutch."

ME 203 and other courses taught in the Product Realization Laboratory have become highly popular in recent years. According to Beach, student enrollment at the lab has grown from 500 students to 2,000 in the past four years. The reason, he said, is simple: Humans are hard-wired to make things.

"This course succeeds in part because it ignites and reignites the energy that comes from the joy of making things and the confidence in the sense that you actually can make stuff," Beach said. "If they're proud with what they've done by the end of the quarter, nothing else matters to me very much. I care that they're exhilarated and proud as a result of having been in this course."