Build More Than Just A Resume: Seven Ways STEM Builds Character

10/08/2014 04:12 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2014

Hardly a week passes without a news story that touts the benefits of studying a STEM field. There is little doubt that majoring in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics discipline can lead to a cushy gig at a buzz worthy tech company with great perks. In the next decade, President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology predicts that there will be one million technical job openings in the United States. Amazon itself had 1,500 technical positions open in 2013 alone.

But beyond getting a high-paying tech job, what else is STEM good for? The answers might surprise you.

In the 19th century, Sir William Curtis of the London Parliament declared the "3 Rs" - reading, writing, and arithmetic - the foundational skills of modern Western education. While the importance of these skills remains indisputable, recent research has pointed to four additional abilities that enable life success: "the 4 Cs of 21st century learning." Did you know that early involvement in STEM could support the development of the following four skills?

1) Collaboration
In some group projects, working well with teammates might be a greater challenge
than the actual task itself. In fields like science or engineering, individuals with diverse
backgrounds often must work in teams to innovate and solve difficult problems. Small, interdisciplinary teams require collaboration, empathy, and quick thinking to make progress towards their ultimate goals.

2) Communication
Regardless of one's career path, being a tactful, yet assertive communicator can help
contribute to productive teamwork and strong leadership. Training in the STEM fields
provides ample opportunity to communicate one-on-one and one-to-many. Findings are often presented to some audiences who may be unfamiliar with your field, and others who may be composed of mostly experts.

3) Creativity
Creativity and innovation go hand-in-hand. Contributing creative suggestions to a science or technology project might lead to a cool new feature or perspective that can have great impact on the way the project turns out. Moreover, those who are able to take their technical skills and think outside the box might find themselves inventing something completely new in other fields as well.

4) Critical Thinking
Critical thinking is defined by the ability to conceptualize, analyze, and apply
knowledge thoughtfully and reasonably. Being able to ask pertinent questions and
provide evidence for one's conclusions are useful skills on any team, and can go a
long way when deadlines are tight and important decisions need to be made.

In addition to the 4 Cs, researchers have also been exploring the types of personal attitudes and social skills that contribute to achievement in academics and careers. In a 2013 report, the U.S. Department of Education identified the following core set of non-cognitive skills as critical factors for 21st century success:

5) Grit
Grit is defined by an individual's passion and motivation to achieve a long-term
goal, and involves concerted effort to overcome obstacles or challenges. There were times during my dissertation research where I literally had to grit my teeth and work through difficult issues, like a research assistant not stepping up to the task, or a former advisor who dropped the ball. In the end, the hard times made me more focused and appreciative of reaching my end goal.

6) Tenacity
Tenacity involves determination to succeed and persistence through hard times, with
self-control of one's behaviors and emotions in the face of challenges. It's natural to be frustrated when a project doesn't go smoothly. In science, many outcomes are unexpected. I was rejected seven times before getting my most successful paper (so far) published.

7) Perseverance
Anyone (including myself) who has been through both successes and failures in their
career can tell you that pushing through some of the most difficult hurdles can lead to a breakthrough that can lead to your next victory. Recently, I have been testing out a new programming interface for kids ages 5 and up. While they might struggle a bit at first, there is so much joy and satisfaction once they reach that "a-ha! I got it!" moment.

Grit, tenacity, and perseverance are characteristics that can support one's goals regardless of career path, but can be especially helpful in the fast-paced, ever-changing world of technology. Whether a middle school robotics team is choreographing an intricate dance routine for a competition, or a hot startup is developing a new innovative product, it often takes many tries, and perhaps a few failures before the process is complete. While this can be stressful, those who can work through obstacles might find themselves to be the most productive and successful.

When it comes to studying the STEM fields, it's not just about learning to code or making the big bucks - today's children are tomorrow's innovators, and they just might be tenacious, creative, and great teammates too.