A Lesson in Failure: An EGGcellent Example

I promised the kids that during the next heat wave we would attempt to cook an egg outside using only the heat from the sun. I knew the success of this experiment was a long shot but that didn’t matter. Perhaps this would be more like an episode of MythBusters?

I’ve heard of people attempting to fry an egg on a sidewalk or an asphalt roadway, but unfortunately we have neither. We live out in the country and gravel and dirt roads are plenty but certainly not ideal for our scientific cooking experiment.

We also have the problem that our property is surrounded by trees, which is great when it’s a zillion degrees outside, but not so wonderful when you need direct sun.

Were we setting ourselves up to fail?

We managed to find ONE spot in the backyard that allowed the sun to peek through. We set up a pie plate on a cookie sheet and let them bask in the sun, getting nice and HOT! The temperature gauge sat in the direct sunlight and read from about 36°C (when a cloud drifted in) to 50+°C (although, we learned that when the temperature goes above 50°C, our digital room thermometer displays H°C! As if to say, it’s so hot, it doesn’t really matter what the actual temperature is, it’s HOT degrees!).

I had told the kids and their friend that when our cooking zone was nice and hot we would crack the egg. The excitement was extreme, just like the temperature.

We had pre-warmed the egg (to decrease the chances of cooling down our cooking surface). A lovely farm fresh egg from a friend’s farm. I picked the smallest egg from our supply in the fridge, in hopes that smaller eggs would cook better (and save our larger eggs for things like french toast and pancakes!).

We cracked the egg directly into the pre-heated pie plate, our cooking surface, and well… nothing. Nothing! No instantaneous sizzle. My scientists-in-training were, well, less than impressed. I told them to go play, maybe it takes time! (And I secretly crossed my fingers).

In the meantime, my husband decided we needed to direct more sunlight towards the egg to increase the temperature. We should build a parabolic reflector! He went into the house and came out with 3 tin pizza trays. While standing in what I’m sure was the hottest part of the yard, he attempted to construct this device around the egg. Finally, he gave up, it was just too hot (and after many near egg spillage accidents).

More failure?

We then realized that the cookie sheet was getting hotter than pie plate. So we let the egg slide of the pie plate (clearly not cooked) directly to the cookie sheet. And then we walked away.

The kids, who had been playing, asked if they should go check the egg. I told them absolutely and to report back with their findings.

They came running, and screaming, It must be working! This is so exciting! But sadly no, they were screaming because they had just watched the dog EAT the egg. Argh. Are you kidding me?

Another failure?

So back to the fridge, another egg (no time to fully pre-warm it this time around). Crack it straight to the cookie sheet. Keep dog out of yard. Cross fingers. Walk away.

Well, after a couple of hours of the egg “cooking” in the sun, it appears that the egg was more dried out than cooked.

The yolk was shriveling up and an outline of where some of the egg white once was appeared.

Bill Nye the science guy has said that the minimum temperature needed to cook an egg is 55°C for 20 minutes. I don’t think we were able to keep the temperature that high for any length of time. So yes, Bill you are right, given our conditions, it is unlikely that our egg would fry (our skin, however, is another story).

So did the sun cook the egg during our heat wave? Nope. But it sure can dry it out through the power of evaporation.

WARNING: DO NOT CONSUME THE EGGS FROM THIS EXPERIMENT (despite what our dog tells you)!!!

Normally, this is where I would give you how-to instructions for this experiment, however, since it didn’t really work I will pass this time. Basically, find a hot spot in direct sunlight and crack an egg and wait and see what happens. Maybe you will get lucky.

A Science Lesson in Failure

I could tell you about why the sun is hot, or about irreversible chemical reactions or even about evaporation. But the most important lesson here was FAILURE.

Yes, you heard me correctly, failure. Failure is part of science. Trust me, if everything always goes right the first time it wouldn’t have taken me 5 years to complete my PhD.

We should always embrace the failures. This is where our teachable moments are created. This is where we grow. This is where we learn to troubleshoot, to ask better questions, to approach a problem from many directions, and to solve problems. It’s not always about the solution to the problem, it’s about all the twists and turns it took us to get there.

I love failure!

We need to teach our kids that failure is a good thing. Don’t get upset if things don’t go as planned, it’s not the end of the world, it’s just part of the journey. So things didn’t work out. What could you do to make it better? We attempted to change the cooking surface, build a parabolic reflector (although defective), eliminate problematic variables (like the dog). These are improvements in experimental design. And yes, these may fail too.

I worry sometimes, that we are so afraid to let our kids fail that they are missing out on these important lessons. (And as a parent, I am often guilty of this too!). When a STEM project does go wrong, it’s a perfect time to turn the experiment into a fun lesson in failure. You can joke about all the silly things that happened later.

This EGGcellent experiment isn’t our first failure, and it certainly won’t be our last. As a graduate student I used to always say “scientific research doesn’t work 99% of the time, but when that 1% happens, where everything works perfectly, it feels simply AMAZING!”

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