STEAM Activities and 21st Century Skills: A Perfect Pair

When it comes to the future we want for our students, navigating whatever life throws at them is high on the list. 21st Century Skills, a phrase coined in the early 2000s, can be a central aspect of making this future a reality. They are skills that will help young people in all aspects of life – professional work, personal relationships, and even their own self-development.

In this blog, we’ll discuss how incorporating STEAM lessons into your curriculum planning is a perfect way to ensure your students are exposed to, and practicing, many key 21st Century Skills.

Woman works on laptop in the hallway of a 21st century tech company

What are 21st Century Skills?

21st Century Skills, generically speaking, are skills that make one successful in not just today’s reality, but also in a rapidly-changing tomorrow. More specifically, 21st Century Skills are broken into three categories:

  1. Learning and Innovation Skills: These skills have to do with how students absorb, process and utilize new information, and include creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.
  2. Information/Media/Technology Skills: These are functional skills in our high-information age and include information literacy, media literacy, and technology literacy.
  3. Life and Career Skills: At times referred to as “soft skills,” these intangible skills ensure success in not just a job, but in relationships, our personal identity, our communities, and beyond. The five life and career skills are flexibility, initiative, social and cross-cultural skills, productivity, and leadership.

How STEAM Education Develops The Four Cs of 21st Century Skills

There are virtually endless opportunities for overlap between STEAM and 21st Century Skills within the four C’s of the Learning and Innovation Skills. Most STEAM activities are ripe for creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. 

Many STEAM projects are focused on solving a problem and students are often asked to work in small group settings. How can my team support 50 pounds with just popsicle sticks? At what point does a wind turbine’s output cover the resources that went into building it? As students work towards answers to these STEAM questions, they must think critically and creatively. The answer might involve a new perspective, or coming at the problem from a new direction. Perhaps two teammates have differing views and must analyze and evaluate each respectfully before moving forward.

And remember, the A in STEAM stands for Art. And make no mistake, it is not an art extension or add-on, but means real art integration. By definition, a true STEAM activity embeds artistic creativity – often with visual art, but also with music, drama, or beyond.

A designer combines art and tech as they use a tablet, laptop, and Adobe Creative Suite to complete their work

Technology is Central to STEAM and 21st Century Skills

Both STEAM and 21st Century Skills place an emphasis on technology. And for good reason. Much is unknown about the future but it is clear that technology will be present. As students work with technology through STEAM projects in the classroom, they increase their technology literacy and overall comfort. 

How STEAM Education Develops Life and Career Skills

A group works together on a STEAM project, using a laptop and drawings to brainstorm a creative solutionFlexibility and initiative are two easily practiced Life and Career Skills that come into play with STEAM. As students problem-solve, they must be flexible in their thinking. First ideas don’t often solve the problem, so students must be able to pivot. Additionally, while the first idea might work, perhaps it’s not be the best option. So students must take the initiative to keep going until they’ve found the very best solution possible.

Incorporating other 21st Century Life and Career Skills into STEAM projects is also possible with just a bit of forethought. Again, small group work can be the key to providing these skill-building opportunities. Team members can take on various leadership roles with groups. Setting up benchmarks and teacher check-ins provide structure for accountability. And of course social skills like respect, active listening, empathy and showing gratitude can be practiced, whether structured or not, in small-group STEAM activities.

Making the Case for STEAM

So much daily effort goes into ensuring students are prepared for a future of new technologies, changing priorities, and their own wellbeing. Teachers strive to instill 21st century skills in their students – skills that will prepare today’s youth for a future that is not set in stone but rather dynamic and fluid and perhaps even unimaginable to today’s masses. Let STEAM projects and ideas help introduce, teach, and reinforce the important 21st century skills that will benefit your students as tomorrow’s leaders.

Image credits: Woman in office with computer (Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash); Tablet and swatches (Photo by Theme Photos on Unsplash); Group problem solving (Photo by UX Indonesia on Unsplash)