by LA Fellow Courtney Guidry

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I did not realize on my first day of teaching Introduction to Engineering Design that my outlook on 21st century skills would forever be changed by a fourteen year old boy named Eric.

His voice would arrive in class before his actual physical body, with his louder than life laughs entering from the hallway. He loved building and working with his hands. He stated he wanted to be an engineer but hated math, reading, and group projects. He often had to be reminded to stay seated because he would wander around the classroom like a politician works a room. Between the two of us, we had an inside joke that he needed a seatbelt while in class in order to focus. While Eric was able to make people laugh and was extremely personable, he struggled academically, with reading and math levels well below the fourth grade. His boisterous personality was to compensate for the fact that he did not really dislike any subjects, he had just never really been taught and undergone true remediation. The system had failed him.

Once the coursework kicked in, Eric quickly realized that becoming an engineer would be extremely difficult given his deficiencies. He revealed that he did not really want to pursue college but it was the only option teachers ever talked about. We started talking about all the other options out there: vocational/technical schools as well as certifications he could earn while in high school that could lead to a job and, furthermore, a career.

We came up with a plan: to focus on what he was good at, what he enjoyed, and devise a course of action for future career success. For the remainder of the school year, Eric concentrated on 3D modeling, a skill he discovered he excelled at and one in which he could have a career in the field without attending a four-year university.

By the end of that year, he earned his certification in 3D modeling software.

While technical skills are important for success in a 21st century world, they are only half of the puzzle. I knew our plan had to concentrate just as much on practicing and mastering soft skills.  We practiced collaborating with others, writing professional emails, and presentation skills just to name a few. I worked with him to become literate in terms of the digital world and incorporated aspects of global awareness into his final project assignment.

By the end of the school year, Eric became one of the superstar students at our school in terms of technical and soft skills growth. He was asked by numerous teachers and by administrators to present to other students about the importance of soft skills. Eric was able to articulate how these skills had helped him during his freshman year in addition to how integral they will be for his future.

It was through Eric that I realized how important career readiness skills are for every student, not just the ones that plan to attend college or know exactly what career path they will choose. Each and every other student deserve to have access to a high quality curriculum to help them navigate and be successful in a 21st century world.