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Research to Examine Just Where Entry-Level Workers Gain 21st Century Skills

A study is underway to figure out just how people gain their skills in collaboration, communication, problem solving and self-regulated learning. Researchers from the Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Wisconsin-Madison will try to understand how these "21st century competencies" are being "cultivated" in college classrooms and workplace training. They'll also be looking at what factors help or hinder development of those skills, especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The project, which is being supported by a $330,000 National Science Foundation grant, will involve interviews with people that use the skills — both employees and employers — as well as workplace trainers, students and faculty.

Principal investigator Ben Zwickl, an assistant professor in Rochester's school of physics and astronomy, and Kelly Martin, assistant professor in Rochester's school of communication, will be working with a U Wisconsin education-research team led by Matt Hora, professor of adult teaching and learning. They'll specifically target the photonics, IT, advanced manufacturing and energy industries in four regions with large technical workforces: Denver, Houston, Seattle and Raleigh.

This initiative is a continuation of an earlier project run by Zwickl and Martin that looked at the skills gap between higher education and the workplace in Rochester industries — optics, photonics and imaging.

"In the 21st century," said Zwickl in an article on the project, "the main asset is using technology and knowledge to generate designs and solutions rather than the physical strength to build and manufacture." On top of that, he noted, employees need to be able to continuously learn and adapt as new innovations surface in their fields.

The four competencies the research will focus on, added Martin, include both soft skills and technical skills. They tend to show up "routinely in workforce reports, alumni surveys and academic research as vital for employees' success."

The study will assess student and employee experiences with education and training and the transition between school and work, as well as cross-sector partnerships that bridge gaps between higher ed and STEM industries. The goal is to understand how training practices are affected by regional labor markets, the global economy, state support of education and region-specific sociocultural issues.

Both of the Rochester professors are members of the institute's Science and Mathematics Education Research Collaborative in the Center for Advancing STEM Teaching, Learning and Evaluation and the Future Photon Initiative.

The research team said that as results are made available, it would hold day-long workshops for local participants in each region as well as a national conference to present regional field data, provide training on how to integrate 21st century competencies into existing instruction and workplace training programs, and to foster communication among people in education, industry and government.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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