Previously, I’ve differentiated between inquiry and project-based learning. I’ve also dug into the difference between modeling and phenomenon-based learning. In this part of Breaking Down the Buzzwords, we’ll investigate new jargon surrounding 21st century skills and design thinking and discuss implementing these ideas in STEM education!

21st Century Skills

What are 21st Century Skills?

students using laser cutters

Students learning about laser cutters in our Fab Lab

In the world of STEM, 21st century skills allow students to prepare for many new STEM professions. These skills involve understanding new technologies that can help STEM professionals.

Many organizations, like 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education, are designing curricula specifically to support building these new skills. Their website has loads of information about how to integrate these ideas with others around the world.

Students modeling on TinkerCAD

Students modeling on TinkerCAD

What do they look like?

Integrating 21st century skills looks different than it did 15 or even 5 years ago. New technology is constantly being invented and improved and therefore must be integrated into STEM education. The result is students actively participating in activities involving 3D modeling, digital fabrication technologies, CAD, and more!

What are they not?

These skills are no longer properly executed by simply being on a computer. While computer skills like creating slideshows and typing in a word processor are still important for students to master, they are not considered 21st century anymore (oh how times change). Now 21st century skills integrate cutting-edge technology, which can present a problem for schools with smaller budgets. I suggest tapping into local resources or finding your nearest Fab Lab.

How can I try this tomorrow?

TinkerCAD can be a great jumping off point for students to start modeling. However, you don’t need a 3D printer to get started on 21st century skills. Have students watch YouTube videos on using cutting edge technology. Show them how aerospace engineers use 3D printers and laser cutters to create pieces for rockets! Then use TinkerCAD to try and make your own. These skills are at everyone’s fingertips, and creativity is only a click away.

Design Thinking

What is Design Thinking?

Students designing spaghetti bridges

Students designing spaghetti bridges

When integrating design thinking into a STEM classroom, it is important to remember that it revolves around people. Humans invented design thinking! In the words of IDEO CEO Tim Brown, “Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” IDEO is an innovative engineering company that offers its own online university for people to develop design thinking.

What does it look like?

An example of design thinking in the classroom is students considering a consumer in their creations. This can be as simple as solving a human problem or as complex as marketing it to their peers. At the very least it involves creation. Students should be the makers in design thinking.

What is it not?

Design thinking is not having students recreate things that already exist. It is imperative that their designs are unique and somehow better the lives of other humans.

How can I try this tomorrow?

Have your students go through the design process! Have them find a problem in your school and try to solve it by designing a product. They can make it out of cardboard, popsicle sticks, or even 3D model it (oh hey 21st century skills!).

In the end, these buzzwords just put words to practice what you’re probably already doing! Don’t be nervous the next time one of these new buzzwords comes up—you only need to make small tweaks to your lesson to incorporate these ideas. And don’t forget, you’ve got this!


Check out the other blogs in Savannah’s Breaking Down the Buzzwords series:

Breaking Down the Buzzwords: Modeling and Phenomenon-Based Learning

Breaking Down the Buzzwords: Inquiry and Project-Based Learning