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Skills development should not be our primary goal

Joanna-Tzenis.jpgTo what extent does skill development matter for youth and their futures? What else do they need to follow their dreams in education?

In a past blog entry, I used the capabilities approach as a framework to understand the various conditions that may influence whether or not a youth may translate his or her STEM knowledge into a STEM career. I offered that scenario as an example, but this doesn't mean we expect all youth in STEM clubs to pursue STEM professions. If we measured the effectiveness of STEM programs by the number of engineers we produced, we'd be painting an incomplete picture.

When I talk about capabilities, I'm referring to the freedom young people have to make choices to achieve their goals and accomplish something that's important to them. I think it's more important for them to be able to address and overcome obstacles than it is to learn marketable job skills. This is particularly so for youth who face additional constraints on their freedom on account of their race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, etc.

Research shows that there are various constraints that keep young people from being able to choose a positive educational trajectory:

Material and physical constraints
Adequate food, access to
youth-working-on-stem-project.jpgpublic transportation, a quiet place to study at home

Sociocultural constraints
Norms about gender and racial equality, lack of support, language barriers

Psychological constraints
Issues of mental health, trauma, feelings of safety and belonging

STEM skills are important academically, but are they truly the primary goal of non-formal STEM programs? I would argue that they are not. For instance, in this case of the Urban 4-H STEM program design, the practice of goal-setting and reflection may or may not lead youth to become engineers. More importantly, it promotes them to reflection and awareness of their capabilities.

My colleague Kate Walker wrote about the importance of developing social and emotional skills, which I believe play a critical role in developing youth capabilities. For example, a youth learning to effectively handle emotions that arise in her STEM projects may help her handle emotions at home. This might be just the skill she needs to be happier in a non-academic context and in present time. It might also free her to pursue opportunities in sports, the arts, or yes, STEM. The capabilities approach allows young people to be full participants in the improvement of their current social life, while also allowing them to aspire to achieve future valued outcomes.

What do you think? To what extent might non-formal STEM education programs create conditions that influence youth's freedoms to choose to follow their dreams? Do they need skills to succeed?

-- Joanna Tzenis, assistant Extension professor, Children, Youth and Families at Risk (CYFAR)

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  1. Hi Joanna -
    Thanks for your blog and for highlighting the CYFAR program model. Discovering one's capabilities can be a life time quest that calls a continuous supply of
    intrinsic motivation and an improvement-oriented mindset. It is great to help young people tap that motivation and curiosity at an early age.
    You mentioned a positive educational trajectory. What are your thoughts on the growing body of literature
    on what it takes to be first-generation college student and the challenges a young person may need to overcome?

  2. Thank you for your comment.
    I appreciate your point about motivation and curiosity- as I see these as key factors youth will need to start building a plan for their futures. Studies on motivations and aspiration have commanded my interest of late, but I am never quite satisfied after reading them. For instance, Hart (2012) did an empirical study using CA to highlight how marginalized youth’s aspirations of higher education were left unmet because of unrecognized constraints in their lives. This is an important way of looking at capabilities, but I think the research using CA needs to be extended by bringing forth a new understanding how youth aspirations might actually foster agency that can transform educational outcomes. Aspirations and motivations, unaccompanied by plans of action, will not help youth who experience extra barriers. But how aspirations and motivations mediate agency that leads to improved outcomes is a process that deserve more attention in the field.


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