Implementing Soft Skills in STEM Education
Leads to Hireability and Career Success
STEM-related careers are one of the fastest growing in the job market and STEM graduates are expected to earn some of the highest starting salaries. In the meantime, soft skills are increasingly becoming important and sometimes required in these industries; in particular communication, teamwork,leadership, creative and critical thinking. While the number of STEM students and graduates have been increasing overtime, some employers have reported that they are not “job ready” and don’t possess the soft skills needed for the position. However, with an STEM education system focused on quantifiable academic success, it is no surprise that soft skills are pushed aside.
A sufficient soft skills curriculum consists of a differentiated instruction which allows professors to teach students in a variety of ways using a variety of tools while in the process students are exposed to new and effective material that will prepare them for their future careers. For example, at Purdue University, researchers Louis Hickman and Mesut Akdere conducted a study on “Exploring Virtual Reality for Developing Soft-Skills in STEM Education.” The goal of the program was to “improve essential workplace skills for STEM students through experiential case studies, experienced in immersive virtual reality simulation modules that immerse students in intercultural leadership scenarios”(Hickman and Mesut, p.1).Virtual reality technologies allow professors to provide students with “highly realistic, immersive experiences” while in the process students develop soft skills through E-learning as well as self-evaluation and reflection. The research concluded that virtual reality modules are successful for intercultural leadership and soft skill development as well as providing an effective educational tool outside the STEM curriculum.Their findings will also “contribute towards addressing soft-skill shortages that employers have recognized”
(Hickman and Mesut, p.4). In addition developing workplace skills through virtual reality creates the potential for STEM students to solve both “technical and people problems” that they will eventually encounter in their careers (Hickman and Mesut, p.4).
Furthermore, according to the study “Focus on Employability Skills For STEM Workers: Points To Experiential Learning,” researchers Mason Willams and Cramer from the National Institute of Social Economic-London and the Institute of Education- University of London concluded based on their findings that employers involved in STEM curriculum development “may have a positive effect on graduate employment”
(Bunshaft, A, p.#8).Thus, establishing this connection between employer and STEM student before graduation “gives students a better understanding of employer priorities and how companies operate and make decisions” (Bunshaft, A, p.#8). Furthermore, internships give STEM students an opportunity to apply their skills learned outside the classroom which will increase their prospects for finding a job after graduation. Internships also allow STEM students to observe and learn about company culture and what skills are essential for being hired after graduation. Hence, “employers believe that curriculum changes should be made to degree programs that address the current and future economic climates and specific needs for talent” (Bunshaft, A, p.#7).
Experiential learning is a pragmatic way for STEM students to develop Employability skills “within the context of a career”
(Bunshaft, A, p.#20). In order for STEM students to be successful, they must learn through experience and learn the necessity of utilizing soft skills as well as adapting to changes in their work environment, collaborating with colleagues and utilizing various technologies and tools made available ( Bunshaft, A, p.#20). According to “The Blended Learning Book” by Josh Bersin, “individuals retain only five percent of what they hear, ten percent of what they read, twenty percent to thirty percent of what they see and almost fifty percent of what they learn through discussion and interaction” (Bunshaft, A, p.#20). When direct experience is added to the equation, the retention and application percentage of “new skills and information go up 75 percent or more” (Bunshaft, A, p.#20).
Due to the fact that the world is increasingly becoming more technical and advanced, there has been a push to get more students involved in STEM careers. However, some employers worry that the STEM curriculum fails to teach students the necessary soft skills that will contribute to success in business and social settings. While soft skills are a major core requirement for employers, the students pursuing a STEM degree at higher education institutions may lack extensive soft skills needed for hireability and long term career success.
Therefore, professors should not have to choose between emphasizing a STEM education at the expense of developing soft skills in their students. We need to update the STEM curriculum to implement soft skills so students have a deeper understanding of how their work will affect society as well as equipping them with the skills needed for hireability and long term career success. To help understand how we can enhance the STEM education system, professors and educational experts in the U.S need to come together to develop classroom lessons that are relevant to the job market so students will have the necessary skills for careers after graduation. Students should also be exposed to more authentic and diverse learning experiences that are associated with the STEM job market. Implementing soft skills early on in the STEM curriculum is vital, if not then students may not develop them later on.
Time and money are the obstacles universities face in changing they’re STEM curriculum; in which adequate time is essential for creating new learning methods, planning new ways to collaborate with others and pursuing professional development. Enough money is required to make the space available to create these new innovative learning environments. Partnerships between employers and universities can offer support to students by providing time, money as well as an opportunity for students to obtain internships in order for them to build a network and apply skills learned in class into the workforce. Furthermore,it is important to note that the STEM education curriculum should not be narrowly focused on four subjects and hard skills; rather there should be an integration of subjects, perspectives along with soft skills in order for students to become more hireable in the job market and ultimately achieve long term career success.
Bunshaft, A., Boyington, D., Curtis-Fisk, J., Edwards, T., Gerstein, A., & Jacobson, C. (2015, July). Focus On EMPLOYABILITY SKILLS For STEM Workers: Points To Experiential Learning. Retrieved March 30, 2020, from https://www.stemconnector.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Focus-on-Employability-Skills-Paper-1.pdf
Hickman, L., & Akdere , M. (2017). Exploring Virtual Reality for Developing Soft-Skills in STEM Education. Retrieved March 30, 2020, from https://ieeexplore-ieee-org.ezproxy.rowan.edu/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=8467037