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Deeper Learning: A Common Denominator for STEM Initiatives

Job openings are staying open because there are not enough qualified applicants to fill them.

The U.S. added 209,000 jobs in July, the Labor Department unveiled early this month. Coming as it did on the heels of a strong economic rebound in the April-June quarter, you’d think the announcement would be cause to celebrate. But don’t pop the champagne cork just yet.

Yes, job growth is up. But the unemployment rate (6.2 percent) remains stalled. Despite the availability of 4.7 million jobs (according to the June 2014 U.S. Job Openings and Labor Turnover report), 9.7 million people in America still can’t find work. In that gap lies the problem, and it’s a big one.

Job openings are staying open because there are not enough qualified applicants to fill them. If our nation is to stay on the leading edge of the global economy, the single greatest determining factor will be how quickly and effectively we close this skilled workforce gap.

Business and civic leaders rightly look to education for solutions. Technology companies in particular have poured resources into initiatives to drive students to the STE(A)M fields of science, technology, engineering, art and math. But beyond these and other subjects, we must find common-denominator skills that all employees should have, regardless of the industry. Otherwise, we will never translate our myriad corporate initiatives into a scalable solution. Focusing on core academic subjects and relying on assessments that primarily measure recall rather than understanding have yet to yield the caliber of graduates we need — and at the scale we require — to bring our workforce to 21st century standards.

This is why an increasing number of industry leaders are paying attention to a highly promising approach called Deeper Learning.

Deeper Learning focuses on a range of knowledge and skills that include mastery of core academic content, critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, effective communication, self-directed learning, and acquisition of an “academic mindset” or belief in oneself, that schoolwork is relevant, and that learning will pay off. These skills need to be developed across all subjects, from science and math to English and art. These are precisely the same skills that Fortune 500 companies say they value most highly in employees. What company wouldn’t want a cadre of problem-solving team players with strong interpersonal skills?

Students who are taught with the Deeper Learning approach master academic content — history, language arts, math and science — through hands-on experiences where they apply their learning to real-world situations. In this way, they also get an early lesson in transferring skills — another valuable asset in today’s workforce.

At Swanson Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, eighth graders are using professional, cloud-based design software donated by my company, Autodesk, to design and 3-D print an assistive device to enable a disabled member of their community to better communicate using a touchscreen computer. If these students are already designing devices like this in the eighth grade, imagine what they’ll be able to create down the road. Yet, if they aren’t learning how to collaborate, think critically, communicate effectively and work independently across all their subjects, even their advanced design experience may not be enough to make them successful and engaged employees.

Right now, schools like Swanson are the exception. What will it take to bring Deeper Learning to public schools nationwide?

Leaders across the education, business and civic sectors must work together to create policies that put the focus on how students learn, and on acquiring skills that will be relevant to the rigorous demands of the 21st century economy.

As Winston Churchill once observed, “The empires of the future will be empires of the mind.” These words ring as true today as they did when he spoke them 70 years ago. Our nation is facing a global battle for talent. It is a battle that, if lost, will lower our standing as an economic powerhouse and innovation leader. If we win, we will continue to be the country that builds game-changing industries around ideas that have yet to be imagined. Such empires spring from the cultivation of a child’s mind.

Tom Joseph is senior director of worldwide education at Autodesk Inc.
Reach him @Autodesk.

This article originally appeared on

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