21st Century Skills and Science Education in K-12 Environment: Investigating a Symbiotic Relationship

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INTRODUCTION

The need to prepare students for 21st Century Skills (21CS) is widely accepted among educators, researchers, policymakers, and employers alike (Ananiadou & Claro, 2009; Dede, 2007; National Research Council [NRC], 2010). A nationwide poll of registered voters in 2007 showed 99% said teaching 21CS is important for the future economic success of the United States. The same poll noted concern among Americans that the US educational system is not preparing students with the skills and competencies necessary to compete in a globalized knowledge economy (Partnerships for 21st Century Skills [P21], 2009b). In an apparent effort to meet this overwhelming demand, school districts, national advocacy groups and educational policymakers in developed countries have waged an extensive effort to develop plans and guidelines on how to teach 21CS alongside core academic subjects.

Notable efforts in this regard include national level initiatives such as the Partnership for 21CS (www.p21.org) and initiatives by major private companies such as Cisco, Intel, and Microsoft (www.atc21s.org) that articulated a vision and plan on how to teach and assess 21CS in the K-12 environment. At the National Research Council, a series of workshops were conducted in which leading experts across the U.S. gathered to discuss and explore the issue of assessment and the degree of overlap between science education and 21CS (NRC, 2010; NRC, 2012; Schunn, 2009).

Because of these various efforts, educators now know what 21st Century Skills entail. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) has developed standards for students (ISTE.NETS.S) and teachers (ISTE.NETS.T) that outline the skills and knowledge needed for both students and teachers to work successfully in a globalized digital world (International Society for Technology in Education [ISTE], 2007; ISTE, 2008). The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a national organization, provides a framework that integrates different types of literacies into the academic subject areas students are taught. These literacies are configured around three themes, namely: (1) life and career skills, (2) learning and innovation skills, and (3) information, media, and technology skills (P21, 2009b). For example, the learning and innovation skills category has four competency areas that include: (a) creativity and innovation, (b) critical thinking and problem solving, (c) communication, and (d) collaboration. Another study defines 21st Century Skills by student outcomes such as creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, personal responsibility, global awareness, social/ intercultural skills, team learning, and mastery of rigorous academic content (Duran, Yaussy, & Yaussy, 2011).

What is not so clear, however, is what it takes to teach 21CS alongside core academic subjects like science. What is the nature of the relationship between science content and 21CS? How do educators teach creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, etc, identified above as 21CS, while teaching science content such as biology, chemistry, and math?

Science education inherently involves formulating hypotheses, testing, experimentation, inquiry, systematic investigation, observation, problem solving, and communicating findings that, we are prepared to argue, are closely associated to what students are expected to master by way of 21st Century Skills. A recent book by the National Research Council discusses several practices for K-12 science classrooms in great detail (NRC, 2012, p. 42); however, we, the researchers, cannot help but ask whether these strategies are scientific content knowledge or methodological/pedagogical approaches to learning science by way of reasoning and problem solving. Some of the ideas include: asking questions and defining problems, developing and using models, and planning and carrying out investigations. …