Failing forward

By Casey Stegman & Beau Vorous

Give someone a blank sheet of paper, and they're likely to do one of three things with it: write something, draw something, or fold the sheet into a shape.

Franklin Middle School student (and Futureboys & Girls Club member) Taylor can make it light up.

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"So, the project was, like, we had these book pages and we had to take copper tape and LED lights," she says. "And a battery. And then we had to put all those things together to make the LED lights light up."

Taylor is explaining what she and her fellow Future Girls did at CO.LAB last fall. CO.LAB, a program from Red Hat, is a hands-on educational activity, where middle-school girls convene for a day to learn the power of open source through collaboration.

While there are different CO.LAB curricula, the one Taylor did in Minneapolis in October focuses on open hardware.

Students take on a series of challenges related to paper circuitry—all in the form of a storybook. Alicia Gibb, founder of the Open Source Hardware Association, collaborated with children's book author Lauren Sabel to create the book, with Gibb designing the circuits and Sabel writing the story.

Listen: Alicia Gibb on creating an open hardware storybook

CO.LAB - Boulder photo (1)
CO.LAB - Boulder photo (2)
CO.LAB - Boulder photo (3)
CO.LAB - Boulder thumbnail (1)
CO.LAB - Boulder thumbnail (2)
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CO.LAB travels to cities across the country—and globe—to work with local schools that are underserved or that focus on science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.

When Franklin Middle School teacher Michael Bratsch (or "Mr. B" as he's known) heard about the program and its focus, he found a striking similarity with The Futureboys & Girls Club, which he co-founded.

CO.LAB - Mr. B
Quotation marks

This aligns perfectly with the mission of Futureboys & Girls

"With CO.LAB, when I read about the mission of it being collaboration—not just learning about the technical pieces of it, but it's also about the collaborative piece and the leadership skills that go along with that—I was like, 'This aligns perfectly with the mission of Futureboys & Girls,'" he says.

CO.LAB and the Futureboys & Girls overlap on one point that's particularly important: the role of failure.

As part of its pedagogical approach, CO.LAB teaches students the importance of "failing fast"—an open source principle that reframes mistakes as learning opportunities. Similarly, Mr. B uses mistakes as lessons on leadership principles.

"When it comes to leadership, we give our students the opportunities to make mistakes," he says. "We then talk about it and ask, 'So, how could we have done this better?' This solutions-oriented approach is central to Futureboys & Girls."

For Taylor, working with paper circuits for the first time presented many opportunities for making mistakes —and learning from them.

"When I started my first activity, I was getting frustrated," she says. "But then one of the CO.LAB instructors came over and started to encourage me and help me. And then when she walked away, I had fixed it and it started to work. So what I learned from CO.LAB was to not give up, even if what you're doing is complicated. Try until you get it."

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For Taylor, as for the other students in the Futureboys & Girls, learning to embrace failure is not easy. The club helped her recognize that the benefits of potential failure far outweigh the drawbacks.

Especially when it comes to sharing ideas.

"Back when I was in fourth grade, I didn't really want to share my ideas," she says. "I thought people would think they were stupid. But since joining Futureboys & Girls, I'm like, 'Okay, my ideas are my ideas, and nobody's ideas are wrong.'"

Even before Taylor started at Franklin Middle School in 2017, she knew she wanted to be part of Futureboys & Girls. Two of her siblings had been in the inaugural group that composed the Franklin school song. "After seeing what they did, I was like, 'Dang, when I go to Franklin, I want to be in the Futureboys & Girls,'" she says.

She was unable to participate in her first year at the school because of sports. Before starting her second year, she made joining the club her top priority. Getting in was easy enough.

Quotation marks

I asked Mr. B and the first thing he said was, 'You're 100% in.' I was so happy.

Future Girl sitting in chair

Mr. B is quick to point out how much Taylor's excelled in the club.

"She's a true leader," Mr. B says. "She's a great problem solver. And she is also very caring. She likes to see everyone doing well."

Caring is another principle the club teaches. And it does so by showing how collaboration is a form of caring.

"When I was a little kid," Taylor says. "I thought sharing was, like, if I have something then I have to give it to somebody else. But now I see that it's working with other people so you can create different ideas."

In doing so, students learn to encourage others. And that encouragement continues even after students graduate from Franklin and move on to North High School.

"Students that were in the Futureboys & Girls come back and visit all the time," Mr. B says. "They talk to the incoming students all about the program and what they learned."

Alumni advocacy reaches outside the classroom and into the local community.

"There are families who have told me they've made the decision to come to Franklin based on the work of the Futureboys & Girls," Mr. B says.

Future Girl in front of backdrop

What advice would Taylor give to the Futureboys & Girls of the future?

"Share your talents," she says.

Because, as she goes on to say, it's easy to do nothing. But if you share your talents and you're not afraid to put yourself out there, other people will see it. And it'll inspire them to do the same.

"And that," Taylor says, "is what Futureboys & Girls is all about."

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Words by Casey Stegman
Visuals by Rachel Ertel, Liz Wetzel, & Aaron Williamson
Video by Beau Vorous
Photography by Jason Arthurs
Audio by Brent Simoneaux
Editing by Jimmy Ryals
Code by Ryan Altvater
Executive production by Kim Jokisch

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