Soft skills are an invaluable ‘counterpart to STEM.’ Here’s how a USC program is equipping teens

Adaptability is a competitive advantage, Chris Swain, a product designer, entrepreneur and lecturer at the University of Southern California, tells the young men and women gathered for his presentation.

“How often are we not getting what we want out of the world?” he asks them. “Every single day.”

But students’ ability to show those they hope to impress that they can deal with setbacks and keep working toward their goals will make them stand out, he added.

Swain, who founded the Electronic Arts Game Innovation Lab at USC in Los Angeles, gives this talk to executives from companies such as IBM, Google and United Airlines as part of the leadership training delivered by the university’s Center for Third Space Thinking. Founded in 2017 by Ernest Wilson, former dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC, the center teaches the “soft skills” corporations say they are looking for in employees.

But one afternoon last month, his audience was made up of juniors and seniors from the Merced Union High School District interested in filmmaking and media. They live in California’s San Joaquin Valley, a region known for its agriculture industry — not news and entertainment. 

“We’re always like, ‘It would be so great to go to [Los Angeles] and get the vibe of what it’s like to be with other filmmakers,'” said Oscar Perez, a senior at Atwater High School in Atwater, California, who recently entered his short film “Insular Counselor” into a SkillsUSA competition.

But Perez, whose parents both work in the agriculture industry, also understands collaboration and patience are important in the career he wants to pursue. “If you can’t work with other people,” he said, “don’t work in film.”

As part of their exposure to digital storytelling and photography, the students are also learning about the skills the center has identified will help them be successful in their careers. In addition to adaptability, there’s cultural competency, empathy, intellectual curiosity and 360-degree thinking — understanding multiple perspectives. The center calls these the “counterpart to STEM.”

“I was doing research to find out what my students need to know,” said Wilson, now a professor of communication and political science. “I talked to people who are going to employ them. I came to realize that this is hugely needed work.”

Taking his cellphone out of his pocket and holding it in front of his face, he said, “the more time you do this” is linked with anxiety and depression in young people. “Our kids desperately need soft skills.”

Such skills are a leading topic in business publications, and a study conducted by researchers at MIT Sloan School of Management showed that providing training to employees on areas such as communication, problem solving and decision-making improved productivity.

In addition, an analysis of 142,000 job descriptions released in January shows that oral and written communication, collaboration and problem-solving are the most highly requested 21st century skills in the workplace. Others appearing in the review included social intelligence and self-direction.

Other examples of curriculum at the K-12 level include Project Lead the Way, a STEM curriculum and professional development program that also emphasizes “transportable” skills, and a Georgia Department of Labor program that teaches and rewards students for attributes such as punctuality, teamwork and communication.

Leveraging soft skills

Shellee Smith, the executive director of the center, said she began to receive inquiries from educators in 2018. Those who lead migrant education for the Los Angeles and Riverside county offices of education thought training in how to network or give an elevator speech would be valuable for students who experience frequent transitions. 

“They said, ‘Our kids can’t look people in the eye, much less tell them a story,’” Smith said. Or maybe students have learned how to adapt and interact with new people, but they haven’t been taught how to “leverage” those skills when applying for college or a job, she added.

Myra Sanchez, who leads migrant education programs for the Riverside County Office of Education, was among the educators who wanted high school students to have the experience of attending the on-campus program.

“I wanted them to feel like they belong there on a university campus,” she said. “The competencies are all assets that the students will need.”

About 30 students from Riverside high schools attended a four-day summer workshop last year and another group will attend this summer. It’s good, she said, for them to interact with students from other districts because it helps “them to start thinking of the world beyond where they live.” She also plans to track college enrollment data to see if the students are deciding to pursue higher education.

Interest in the center’s work with high school students is spreading to other districts, and workshops for students have also been held in Chicago and Kansas.

The center has an assessment tool it uses with business leaders, but it has since created a modified version for youth. While assessment of non-academic or social-emotional skills in a K-12 setting is still an emerging area, Smith said the results can be useful for educators when deciding how to combine students for projects or groups. 

“There’s no right or wrong answer,” Smith said. “It builds self-awareness.”

USC lecturer Chris Swain, left, and high school senior Oscar Perez role play on how to respond when turned down for a big proposal.

Linda Jacobson/Education Dive


Making ‘industries relevant’

Working with theater arts teachers Amber Kirby at Golden Valley High and Julianne Aguilar at Atwater, Third Space planned a three-day agenda for the students that included training on social media and planning a final video project, but also involved practicing soft skills. 

For example, Amara Aguilar, an associate professor of professional practice in digital journalism at USC, sent the teens out across the campus to interview strangers and create Instagram stories with themes such as naming an inspirational person for Black History Month or giving advice to the next president. 

“I was sweating,” Perez said about his experience of interviewing people on campus. “How am I going to do this?”

In another lesson, Aguilar explained traditional news organizations are beginning to use TikTok, the video-sharing social media app, to create awareness of their brands and connect with younger audiences, showing a video of President Donald Trump reading The Washington Post as an example. She added people respond to “music set to powerful images” and played an original video tribute to Kobe Bryant and his daughter, created using the platform.

Amara Aguilar, an associate professor at USC, tells students how the social media app TikTok can be used to create “powerful” messages.

Linda Jacobson/Education Dive


Kirby said she has two types of students — those who “want to be on stage every minute” but “fumble” with technology, and those who are comfortable with tech but experience anxiety when trying to connect with people.

In Merced, she has struggled to make connections with local news stations to give her students exposure to the communications field. “It’s really hard to make these industries relevant for kids when we’re so far removed,” she said. “Sports and ag are championed in our community. The arts fall to the side.”

She noted parents are often skeptical their children could make a living designing something like a movie poster.

Jaime Carias, a fellow at the center who also oversees school and community partnerships for the Annenberg School, added many parents from Mexico and other Latin American countries tend to keep up with Spanish TV and radio stations and don’t “value” what they see on U.S. news media outlets. But increasing diversity in the media industry, he said, means identifying students in K-12 who are interested in the field.

To drive home his comments on adaptability, Swain gives the students a “marshmallow challenge” in which they have to build towers from dry spaghetti, tape, string and a marshmallow. The tallest tower wins, and the students make several attempts before the 18-minute timer runs out.

Noah Peer, a junior at Golden Valley High, is interested in filmmaking and scriptwriting, and is both the school’s news station manager as well as the stage manager for theater productions. He said he hopes to take back some film techniques to others at his school, but added he also relates to the messages about being flexible.

“You can’t go into something with a set mindset,” he said.

Noah Peer, right, works with other students to keep their tower standing.

Linda Jacobson/Education Dive



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