It’s natural to think the top skills for STEM students are hard skills. After all, hard skills are what make up the STEM name: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. It’s true that students must demonstrate technical mastery in their respective fields to find success after graduation.
However, successful STEM careers are not built upon hard skills alone. In fact, “soft skills” continue to emerge as priorities in today’s STEM world. Consider, for example, this statement that “S.T.E.M. curriculum incorporates the ‘four C’s’ of 21st-century skills: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication.” More and more, we see efforts to identify 21st-century skills and incorporate them into academic majors, including those of STEM.
Activities like peer tutoring enable STEM students to develop these kinds of 21st-century skills. This “outside the classroom” experience allows students to sharpen their subject knowledge through tutoring others, and the social, relationship-building aspect of peer tutoring gives STEM students the chance to hone people skills that will help them advance in their careers. We’ve identified five STEM skills in particular and explored how serving as a peer tutor puts students ahead of the game in these areas.
In a field marked by hard numbers and facts, it may come as a surprise that creative thinking is highly prized. However, many STEM sources frame this as the ability to be innovative, which also ranks high in desired skills.
STEMconnector, for example, describes employability skills as “behaviors above and beyond technical skills that enable STEM employees to create stakeholder momentum to commercialize ideas. . .” Creative thinking and the ability to be innovative certainly fall within this. In fact, this same source speaks to “innovation excellence” in STEM related to a study noting that increased technology in the field leaves more time for innovation.
Creative abilities are defined by Minnesota State CAREERWise as the ability to “solve problems and develop new ideas.” It’s also noted as a “human” skill that’s still essential as automation and artificial intelligence (AI) continue to increase across different fields. Creative thinking and innovation are included as top STEM skills by Verizon and US News while the ability to “create connection among ideas” is important to Google executives.
Peer tutors hone their creative thinking skills in their work, especially if tutoring in STEM courses. They must think creatively to find different ways to help students understand challenging STEM concepts. Their ability to be innovative in tutoring and help students create connections among ideas gives them additional experience in skills valued by STEM, not to mention the competency it shows to know your STEM subjects well enough to successfully tutors others in these areas.
While the focus of STEM courses may be the “hard” skills these fields require, it’s clear “soft” skills are important as well since they are consistently featured as a top skill for a successful STEM career.
The STEMconnector notes that teamwork extends into the “interdisciplinary collaboration” needed to create the innovation excellence these fields require. The increased demand for teamwork means that workers with different skill sets are working simultaneously on different components of the same project. Consequently, collaboration is a “soft” skill that STEM workers need.
STEM workers cannot be successful on teams without another soft skill: good communication skills. In fact, many top STEM skills lists feature communication skills along with being a team player. These are mentioned by CareersWithStem, which includes cooperation and empathy among their STEM employability skills while Cengage frames this as empathetic communication. Shorelight notes that listening and reflecting are key skills related to teamwork in STEM. Lastly, Google pairs communicating and listening well, possessing insights into others, and empathy of one’s peers (which all relate to teamwork) as three of their most important STEM skills.
Serving as a peer tutor helps students build the teamwork skills sought after by STEM fields. As they collaborate with and support their peers in achieving academic success, peer tutors gain experience working with others while practicing empathetic communication and strong listening skills. The opportunity to build teamwork skills through peer tutoring can help students stand out in future job interviews, since this may be a unique addition to other teamwork experiences many students may have, such as group projects or being a part of a club or organization.
Careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics require perseverance. The academic rigor of these programs can challenge even the most dedicated student. Consider, for example, that Harvey Mudd College, known for its high-ranking academic rigor, has its own health and wellness initiative for their STEM students. The effort, which “promotes balanced lifestyles and student success,” reminds us that an emphasis on health and wellness in a STEM community can be part of what helps these students persevere.
This piece notes that supportive academic relationships can help STEM students build the perseverance to keep trying and learn the self-discipline it takes to succeed. Encouragement and mentorship are especially important for marginalized students in STEM, such as women. In addition, institutional changes can facilitate more perseverance for underrepresented minority students in STEM. Lastly, taking a page from the growth mindset approach, STEM consultant Beth Murphy explains why a “STEM mindset” is critical for success and how perseverance plays a part. Growth mindset in STEM faculty can close achievement gaps and inspire students to persevere as well.
When peer tutoring is relationship-driven instead of transactional, these relationships provide a source of support, encouragement, and mentorship. Since these peer tutors have charted their own path in resilience to be academically successful, they are able to help other students do the same. The ability to persevere in STEM as well as help others persevere means peer tutors are better poised for career longevity and success, since perseverance is an attractive trait to STEM employers.
Managers, leaders, and supervisors exist in all fields, including STEM. While coursework focuses on academically preparing STEM students for the demands of their career, co-curricular leadership experiences help prepare them to lead others.
Minnesota State CAREERWise notes that many workers in STEM fields use “soft” skills like leadership and organizational skills at work as much as they use math and science. The ability to lead projects, help customers, and keep track of lots of different information are part of the people skills and administrative know-how STEM leaders need to advance in their field. Leadership can also be grouped with influence and persuasion skills, so the opportunities STEM students have to hone these are important if they want to build the confidence to be leaders.
Google frames leadership in STEM as being a good coach, reminding us it’s not simply about holding a higher position but about encouraging and motivating your team. Leadership is also about leading by example. As such, leadership in STEM is modeling a commitment to balance that inspires others to follow suit. Indeed, although STEM work supports healthcare, medicine, and other fields that work towards advancements in well-being, it’s easy for those in demanding STEM careers to let their own self-care fall to the wayside in pursuit of excellence. Employees who exercise authority with their own well-being through balance can become assets as leaders in STEM, especially when they can show in interviews how their outside interests help develop qualities STEM employers are looking for, like teamwork, leadership, or perseverance.
Peer tutors develop the leadership skills, and hone their ability to help other students become leaders as well. Like any good leader, peer tutors must develop a level of influence with the students they help and become a good coach who can motivate and encourage their students to persevere. They also set an example for the students they tutor in how they stay organized, balance life and school for overall wellness, and value experiences inside and outside the classroom.
With the other skills featured in this post, it’s clear the concept that “no man is an island” is as true in STEM as it is in any other field. While students may picture STEM careers as scientists working in the lab alone or tech entrepreneurs dreaming up the next big app and turning it into a business, the reality is that success in STEM doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
Problem-solving is indeed a top skill in the STEM field, but while this seems like simply a “hard skill,” it has a human component. For example, collaboration and consultation are key practices in STEM careers. Thus, problem-solving is often a group effort and, since creativity and problem-solving usually go hand-in-hand, it’s easy to see why these two skills are often highly valued by STEM leaders.
Students going into STEM fields can shine when it comes to problem-solving skills by working as a peer tutor. In this role, they demonstrate not only the problem-solving skills needed to do well in their own STEM courses, but that they have the ability to help peers develop problem-solving skills as well. They also get additional experience in this area by working to identify and solve for learning obstacles their students encounter as they try to learn STEM concepts. In these ways, peer tutoring work can help STEM students further develop the problem-solving skills that employers value.
How can Knack superpower your STEM program with peer tutoring opportunities that make them career ready? Find out more at joinknack.com/partner.
Written by Priya Thomas
Priya Thomas helps campuses enrich peer learning experiences and improve student outcomes as a Campus Success Lead for Knack. She has 15 years of experience in higher education and student affairs, including work with wellness, mental health, student leadership and involvement, and fraternity and sorority life. She enjoys discovering local restaurants, travel, and learning new things. Connect with her on Twitter.