Teaching Opinion

Engineering Challenges Promote 21st-Century Skills and Engage Youth

By Natacha Meyer & Tania Tauer — April 24, 2015 6 min read
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The 21st century skills of critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication are necessary to prepare youth for the global workplace. Natacha Meyer, Senior Curriculum Developer, and Tania Tauer, Senior Curriculum Developer, from the Museum of Science Boston share how engaging in engineering activities offer a meaningful way for youth to develop these vital skills. Included is a list of useful resources that you can implement in your program.

Today’s unprecedented push to train students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) has been primarily motivated by the need to produce a workforce capable of addressing the global challenges of the 21st century. Besides preparing students to enter into these careers, research suggests that engaging youth in interactive STEM activities offers additional benefits. For example, hands-on, open-ended engineering challenges provide youth with a fun and meaningful way to develop the 21st century skills that are critical to their competency in today’s interconnected global community. Below, we outline the top four 21st century skills you can promote in youth by facilitating engineering activities in your program.

Critical Thinking

Since there is not a predetermined answer to any engineering challenge, youth must use essential problem-solving and critical-thinking skills to develop new designs. By working through these challenges, youth engage in a series of steps known as the engineering design process (EDP). This process guides youth to identify the problem, brainstorm possible solutions, plan, create, and test a design, and then improve upon it. Each step of the process requires youth to think critically about the criteria and constraints of their challenges. Furthermore, the engineering design process is iterative and requires youth to continually assess their designs’ ability to solve the problem. As one educator noted upon facilitating a water filtration engineering challenge, “I had one student that was so determined to make the filter work that he kept trying it over and over, even after class ended. It was great to see such interest in solving a problem.” In addition to promoting critical-thinking skills, the engineering design process is a powerful tool youth can implement to solve not only engineering challenges, but also challenges in their everyday lives.

By their very nature, engineering challenges have more than one solution. The realization that there is more than one right answer can be liberating to youth and can activate their creativity as they develop their designs. As one educator commented, “I was amazed at some girls who started out each week looking helpless, hopeless, and lost, but quickly shook off their ‘can’t do’ attitude and began to experiment creatively. The experimentation was open-ended so these girls did not have to worry about being wrong.” As they work through the engineering design process, youth are encouraged to imagine multiple solutions to the challenge. By invoking this creativity early in the process, they are less likely to become overly focused on one particular solution and tend to remain open to the possibility of alternative designs. This produces a variety of unique design solutions, demonstrating to youth that there is always more than one way to solve a challenge, engineering or otherwise.

Effective collaboration skills are critical for success in the 21st century workplace, and are especially imperative in a world that demands global cooperation. Nevertheless, working in teams can often be a source of tension for youth. Engineering activities provide an opportunity for youth to practice these necessary cooperative skills as they work within diverse engineering teams. Members of the team must negotiate as they engineer their designs and identify areas for improvement. One educator described the collaboration that occurred during the engineering challenge she facilitated: “I was extremely impressed by the way the boys were engaged in the activities and how well they cooperated with one another...The boys were respectful of each other’s feelings and were excellent about accepting and testing everyone’s ideas in order to prevent anyone from having their feelings hurt. I think the activities in this unit helped the boys grasp the importance and benefit of teamwork.” The collaborative experiences that are fostered during engineering challenges contribute to youth’s ability to work with their peers in a respectful and productive manner. These are skills they can continue to utilize throughout their professional and personal lives.

When youth are engaged in authentic engineering challenges, they often have ideas that they’re really excited about. This provides great intrinsic motivation for them to communicate clearly with their group members. They want their ideas to be heard, and they want to solve the engineering problem in an effective way. Once groups have tested their prototypes, they need to communicate ways in which their designs failed and identify targeted ways to improve them. Finally, an essential step of engineering is presenting work to others, empowering youth to take ownership of their designs and identify themselves as engineers. An educator recounted this transformation in a youth during a presentation, "[I overheard] one of our more quiet and seemingly often un-engaged youth clearly explaining the EDP process to a guest. When the guest moved on, one of the staff went up to her and gave her a spontaneous hug and said, ‘Wow! That was perfect! You really ARE an engineer!’ And she just beamed.” The ability to coherently communicate their work is a critical skill for youth to master regardless of their projected career path.

The ability to think critically, be creative, collaborate with peers, and communicate effectively are fundamental to youth’s engagement in our global society. Engineering challenges that are open-ended, globally relevant, and engaging provide compelling experiences for promoting these 21st century skills in youth. Below is a list of STEM resources that you can use in your program to foster these skills.


  • Engineering Everywhere is a free, out-of-school time engineering curriculum from the Museum of Science Boston that engages middle school youth in relevant, real-world challenges. Each unit contains seven to eight activities and focuses on a specific engineering challenge.

  • Engineering Adventures is a free engineering curriculum designed at the Museum of Science Boston for elementary school kids in out-of-school time programs. Each unit contains six to nine adventures and focuses on a specific field of engineering.

  • PBS’s Design Squad ZOOM! website offers numerous free, hands-on design challenges based on the popular kids’ TV series.

  • AfterSchool KidzScience is an inquiry-based, out-of-school time science program for youth in grades three through five. Choose to purchase one of 15 available kits to engage kids in a variety of science-based activities.

  • Boston Children’s Museum’s STEM Sprouts program offers a free STEM guidebook for teachers and parents, as well as STEM-based activities for young learners.

  • Click2Science is a free online STEM professional development resource for out-of-school providers. Find tips and tricks for leading engineering challenges as well as sample STEM activities.

  • Afterschool Alliance offers a database of numerous STEM-based curricula you can implement in your out-of-school time program.

Follow Engineering is Everywhere, the Museum of Science, Heather and Asia Society on Twitter.

Photo: Students test their helmet designs during the Engineering Everywhere unit Put a Lid on It. Credit: Engineering is Elementary.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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