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Strengthening our core: '21st Century' themes

Reading, writing and 'rithmetic have been the educational benchmarks for as long as anyone can remember,  but as we move out K-12 students towards Knowledge Age jobs, the core subjects -- language arts, mathematics, science, foreign languages,  civics, government, economics, arts, history, and geography — need to be taught in integrated ways that stress compelling, real-world themes.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills explains these in great detail, but today the focus is on STEM applications.

One candidate is Health Literacy: obtaining, interpreting and understanding basic health information. How to use that information to make health-based decisions helps students understand national and global public health and safety issues.  

An excellent example of a STEM project in this vein (pun intended) is "The SARS Project," the product of a ThinkQuest challenge, completed by six teenagers living thousands of miles apart. Combining original videos, interactive charts, media galleries and online activities, the students built an engaging website that serves as a virtual classroom and scientific resource on a global epidemic, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)..  

Another straightforward STEM application is Environmental Literacy, which asks students to demonstrate an understanding of the environment, the conditions affecting it, and society's impact on the natural world. Students should also be able to investigate and analyze environmental issues and take action to address environmental challenges. There is a wide variety of problem-based engineering projects based on renewable energy, for example, that could provide a challenge for students. Appropriate lesson plans abound at Classroom EarthDiscovery Education and National Geographic Education

Perhaps the most interesting area for STEM work is that of Financial, Economic, Business and Entrepreneurial Literacy. Here students must understand the role of economy in society and use their skills to enhance workplace productivity and career options. This is a chance to discuss the (increasingly complex) business of science and the skills needed to make any venture successful — marketing,  public relations,  sales and business planning.  

Many of these concepts are explored in programs such as TREP$, an entrepreneurship education program for middle school students, and can be applied in innovative ways in the classroom. Adding a component to a project that develops a market and budget for an invention would allow students to explore finance and business in the context of science and engineering, while building those good old math and communications skills too.  

Next I examine the core theme of Learning and Innovation Skills, specifically critical thinking, communication,  collaboration and creativity.

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