Deconstructing Critical 21st Century Skills at 35,000 Feet

Flying home across the country, I did what many of us do with long hours to fill: I talked with a stranger.

My seatmate, Josh, was 20-something with colorful New Balance sneakers, a cropped Bradley Cooper hairstyle and a MacBook Air. What made him a standout, however, was that this cool, super-hip dude was busy "coding."

His story is a clarion call to all middle school kids to get busy with a science or engineering project on something they love. It is also a call to action for parents to encourage their children's schools to participate in local science fairs this year.

As a seventh grader, Josh had (his words) become obsessed with fractal art, a form of calculating a fractal mathematical set to create digital art, computer graphics, computer animation, video games, computer robotics and the like. When he couldn't find a computer program to help him explore his passion, he turned to his middle school teacher who gave him after-school time and direction as to how to develop a program of his own.

Josh's research eventually led him into science fair competition where he won a trip to an international science fair -- and onto an amazing career as an entrepreneur who designs analytic software for companies that provide services to nonprofits.

What was the key to his extraordinary success at such a young age, I asked? Somewhere over Nebraska, we agreed that it was "project-based learning."

Gary Beach, author of The U.S. Technology Skills Gap, writes that knowing the 3 Rs is not enough in today's world. Our kids must develop the ability to "think critically, collaborate with other workers around the corner and around the world, know how to clearly communicate ideas, and be creative and confident." Project-based Learning is a powerful tool to enable kids to learn the critical 21st century skills and apply them in a global environment where the only constant they will know is change.

There are two things that make project-based learning unique. First, project-based learning is student-centric, where a child identifies an open-ended idea or challenge he or she personally wishes to explore that drives the "need to know." Second, the child must present his or her conclusions or product to an audience, no matter what the size. And, unlike the educator of a traditional classroom, the role of a teacher is that of a mentor, not a guide.

In order to achieve his goal of mastering fractals, Josh had to learn the first critical 21st century skill -- critical thinking. The word "critical" comes from the Greek word "discerning judgment." Josh did research, gathered data, found the right information and computer tools to create his fractals program, which caused him to think objectively, maintain discipline and sustain focus. He applied the next two critical 21st century skills, collaboration and communication, through wide-ranging discussions with his mentor and other computer and math experts, realizing that collaboration requires team-play and that innovation and understanding rarely occur in a vacuum. Josh also learned to listen, articulate his opinions and share knowledge with his collaborators; thus coming to appreciate that parallel play simply won't cut it when solving a real-world problem in a global work environment.

Josh also learned that creativity, the fourth critical 21st century skill, does not magically rain down from a cloudburst of insight; it is the product of trial and error -- the essential tool for mastering a concept -- and often mistyped for those pedagogical bugaboos: "right and wrong."

Josh ultimately entered his work with fractals in a science fair competition, giving him the chance to present his findings to an audience. Josh shared his passion for fractals with judges in a clear and enticing way, defending the critical thinking behind his findings and answering questions about his work. Through this process, he became more confident and self-assured.

So as our plane (itself a technological wonder created by people whose youthful passions gave way to careers in engineering and physics) descended toward the city where my middle school science fair season for the Broadcom MASTERS® is about to begin, I thanked my new-found friend for sharing his insight into mastering the critical 21st century skills through project-based learning. What was most heartening for me was his assimilation of the fifth skill -- confidence. For not only does Josh have the skills he needs to change the world, he believes he can do so.