Academic Competitions Help Student’s Gain the Soft-Skills Needed for Success.

Posted February 17, 2018 by Kayla Prochnow

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math! This is what everyone in the education field hears over and over again. STEM is critical for students looking for the best jobs in today’s economy and we need to measure how students are learning these skills in every way possible. A May 2016 jobs report indicated that there were 5.8 million job openings, which is a symptom of a growing problem in the US: employers can’t find skilled workers for jobs in a number of sectors. Much of this can be attributed to increasing disparity known as the job skills gap.

When we look at Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) jobs, economic projections point to a need for 1 million more STEM professionals than the US will produce at the current rate over the next decade, according to the Obama Administration’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. STEM jobs alone grew by 17 percent year over year, which is much faster than the nearly 10 percent growth rate in all other areas.

It is absolutely true that STEM skills are becoming increasingly important for students looking to gain access to these high-wage, high-technology jobs. However, there is also another skills-gap that is becoming an increasing problem for our companies - the “Soft-Skills” gap. In fact, according to a survey by, 77% of employers say that soft skills are just as important as STEM skills in preparing students for the jobs available.

Soft-Skills aren’t as tangible as science, technology, engineering, and math skills. They include things like communications, managing relationships, organization, ethics, handling subjectivity, teamwork, handling failure, and many others. Often-times the term “Soft-Skills” is used interchangeably with what is considered “Social and Emotional Learning” or SEL in the education industry. The P21 framework for 21st-century learning provides a good list of many soft-skills that students need in addition to STEM-skills for career success.

As the focus on STEM has increased, the focus on teaching soft-skills has waned and it’s becoming increasingly rare to find soft-skills taught directly in the curriculum of a formal schooling environment. According to Bill Sutton from the University of South Florida, who studies soft-skills development through sports, “Soft skills, primarily in the communication areas, have deteriorated as we have become increasingly dependent on technology and social media.”


Soft-Skills and Academic Competitions

So where do students go to learn these critical soft-skills as our schools increasingly focus on teaching to the test and hitting STEM requirements? Some skills they learn from humanities classes, but more and more these are being cut from school time for students. Another area where students can learn soft-skills is in the realm of sports. In sports students learn teamwork, how to cope with failure, they learn organizational skills in practice, and how to make and keep commitments to the team.

But sports aren’t for everyone. Not every child is going to find the physicality of the main sports played in high school suitable for them. Luckily, it’s not just sports where students can pick up their soft-skills. Academic Competitions help students learn soft-skills while also gaining valuable STEM skills at the same time, and they have much more versatility and diversity in the types of programs students can get involved with.

We know from many studies that there are a wide variety of benefits from academic or educational student competitions. However, simply competing in a science fair does not mean a student will increase their collaboration or team work skills. The competitions must have a structure to help students experience situations in which soft-skills are practiced and learned to win the competition.

If you want to help your students learn STEM skills and Soft-Skills at the same time, look for these two things in a STEM Competition:

  • Team-Based it’s no secret that working in a team requires students to communicate and learn how to deal with various personality types. There is even scientific research that shows students learn the best when they are on a team competing against another team for a competition.
  • Performance-Based – look for competitions where the students have to perform against another team, rather than just submit something on their own. Performing in real-time (whether it be in a robotics program, debate-tournament, or science-bowl), helps them practice soft-skills like time-management, pressure-management, anxiety, and a range of other topics.

Educators or parents coaching students in these competitions can also do a few things themselves to help students pick up on soft-skills, particularly:

  • Let the Students Manage The Project – make sure that the students are the ones organizing their time, and commitments. Guide them in the management, but let them put the requirements in place.
  • Provide Feedback & review sessions – even if your team loses a tournament, or doesn’t make it to the final round of a competition, they can still learn valuable skills. Providing feedback and having active review sessions is key to making sure students learn from their failures and pick up valuable soft-skills along the way. Have planned review sessions after every tournament, practice, or competitive event to make sure they learn from their experience. But don’t just focus the review on the STEM skills, focus on what happened with their team communication, their leadership, or time management skills. Check out org for more information on important soft-skills you might want to review in your feedback sessions.

If you focus on these few things, you’ll have a great system in place to help your students pickup critical soft-skills while also learning the STEM content. So if you’re working with students and you’re worried that they aren’t getting enough soft-skills training along with their STEM skills, don’t fret! Check out any of the hundreds of STEM competitions available to students and use these programs to help students pick up both skills sets to be well prepared for their future careers! Check out the academic competitions on our database and use the filters to find the programs best suited for you and your students: