Exploring how learning from experimental error may teach students more than a successful experiment would

By Malavika Eby

Complete with Eppendorf tubes, carefully measured vials of plasmid DNA, calcium chloride solution and petri dishes of LB agar, students from AP biology teachers Renee Fallon’s and Pamela Chow’s classes set out to perform their bioluminescence lab on Oct. 9 and 10. Students set up their lab work to the best of their abilities, knowing what should be waiting on the other end of the experiment: glowing E. coli. 

The sorry sight that met their eyes upon examining results under the UV light that Friday was quite the opposite. For lab groups across all six periods, only one petri dish out of four even contained live E. coli anymore, and none of it glowed. The experiment had failed.

So where did it all go wrong? 

And an even better question might be: now what? 

Experimental error, while perhaps crushing efforts of countless hours, is inevitable to some extent in all experiments. While India’s latest moon-landing mission, Chandrayaan-2, was scheduled to have its lander, Vikram, arrive at the moon’s surface on Sept. 7, the spacecraft ultimately lost communication with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) before then crashing on the surface and drifting off its intended path.

The mission consists of three parts sent into space on July 22: the orbiter, lander and rover. The mission’s experimental design intended for the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter to map the lunar surface and create three-dimensional representations of the moon. The purpose of the Vikram lander was to perform extensive scientific assessments for roughly two weeks. The rover was set to examine the moon’s mineral and elemental composition along with general topography. While the orbiter is currently successfully orbiting the moon at an altitude of roughly 62 miles and taking high-resolution images, the lander, containing the rover, has yet to be relocated despite efforts from both the ISRO and NASA for the past several weeks.

These relocation attempts have continued, expending time and money as scientists have held hope for better imaging conditions, such as more optimal light. NASA has currently scheduled for another inspection by its photographic spacecraft, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC), for the Vikram’s landing site. The goal is to figure out the root cause of the lander’s malfunction in trajectory and communications.

Often the most difficult facet of failure is making the critical choice of where to invest resources — in trying to recover efforts or starting over. 

Junior Lakshmi Talapaneni, an AP biology student with real-world lab experience, believes that a natural boundary is often drawn in this situation, when resources are visibly strained.  

“[In this specific scenario] I think the reasonable level would be constricted by monetary limits. A lot of money was already put into this mission so going down a rabbit hole would lead to even more money lost,” Talapaneni said. “However, [it is also true that] finding the lander and getting a better understanding of why the lander crashed could help prevent a similar issue from arising in future missions.”

As a result of its inevitability, it’s vital to be open to failure; these valuable lessons set up an individual’s will to continue to try again and learn, regardless of roadblocks. Stanford Associate Professor of Psychology, Dr. Leena Khanzode, speaks to the same idea when referencing the most significant lessons she derived from her medical school research experiences.

“[A g]rowth mindset and positive and flexible attitude [are undoubtedly critical to] being open to face each type of outcome,” Khanzode said. 

In addition, whether a scientist chooses to invest efforts into recovering an experiment or starting over, the very process of hands-on scientific research itself could still be a potential learning opportunity that allows for deeper, engaged comprehension of concepts. 

According to junior Siddhant Kumar, previously an AP Physics 1 student now taking AP Chemistry, regardless of failure, learning opportunities remain abundant because of their independence from the outcome of an experiment.

“The best takeaway [of scientific research] is your enhanced ability to logically think through […] your plan of attack regarding setting up the experiment, what data you are going to collect, how you are going to record the data and what you are going to use that data to show,” Kumar said. “All of these aspects, almost enhance your brain’s ability to think laterally versus a very basic, usual solution.” 

Junior Lakshmi Talapaneni also expands on the significance of learning from error. 

“[R]esults only shift because of how the experiment was implemented, not because of the project ‘disliking’ you,” Talapaneni said. “Thus, it’s important to be careful and detailed so if a mistake or unintended results does appear, you […] can […] look back at what was done and the reason this mistake was caused.” 

So while our E. coli may not have survived in any dish except one, let alone glow, we know this — since one dish did survive, it wasn’t the bacteria that were defective, nor was it the heat shock used for all the dishes; it wasn’t human error because the lab failed throughout six periods of thirty students; and it wasn’t our water bath since both Fallon and Chow didn’t use the same one and yet had the same results. So purely from process of elimination, we know where the lab went wrong and what to attribute our empty petri dishes toward: the plasmid DNA. 

In the end, our lab may have been a “failure” in regard to our genetic engineering goals, and the moon-landing mission may have been a failure in regard to the Vikram-lander and rover; these sometimes inevitable experimental errors ultimately did not impede upon the true takeaways of research: learning. 

With our plasmid DNA identified as the culprit defect, and the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter successfully imaging the moon and tracking solar flares, we did not reach the skies just to fail.

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