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Opinion: Students Need Soft Skills — Digital Educators Can Teach Them

Many employers are reporting their youngest hires lack essential “soft” skills such as communication, leadership and adaptability. Robotics clubs and other digital education environments can help teach these skills.

illustrated graphic of a man with soft skills icons, lightbulb, heart, plant, hourglass, puzzle pieces
Soft skills are a hot topic in the business world, and educators are discovering their importance. I will call them soft skills for ease of understanding, but I agree with others who call them vital, durable or essential skills — necessary for success in the workplace and life.

Employers report that many high school (and even college) graduates don’t have these skills. Typical high school curricula provide mostly sit-and-get classroom offerings and few group activities where these skills can be learned. Students in athletics, music and drama activities may gain some of these skills, but the opportunity is limited in many schools.

The typical “sit-and-get” classroom doesn’t teach them, but digital ed environments such as robotics teams, game jams, video creation, and team programming provide the perfect environment. I recently judged a high school science and high-tech fair where only teams were involved, and I saw how each team had to develop and utilize these skills. I will draw from a recent piece from Forbes Advisor — “11 Essential Soft Skills In 2024 (With Examples)” — to make the case that digital education activities provide opportunities to gain these skills. Game jam students must learn them to survive as team members, as do robotics and science project team members.


Forbes lists communication as the most vital soft skill. This means effectively sending and receiving communication and achieving full understanding by all involved. When students write programs, apps, games and movies, they must communicate clearly to the user at every screen and in every message. When students team up on high-tech projects, communication skills are vital to achieve the desired outcome. When using digital tools to achieve results, they must fully understand and meet the user’s needs whether it is a CAD drawing, a poster or a 3D printout.

Forbes’ No. 2 skill is leadership. Again, teams on projects have to discuss and implement leadership that works. Lessons about the elements of successful leadership can be taken on as discussion topics. The skill can be successfully taught and developed when groups need to get things done, such as in our high-tech classrooms and labs.

Teamwork is third, and I couldn’t agree more, based on my visits to many businesses. They need to get viable products and services to market quickly, and this requires coordination and communication — the vital elements of teamwork. Projects and activities in our digital ed classes provide the perfect environment to learn how to work as a team.

Creativity is fourth. It is the key to success. We think of major creative initiatives by companies such as Disney, Apple, Google and Amazon, but all successful companies rely on creativity, which includes finding simple solutions to day-to-day challenges. Our digital ed environments are where creativity and unique approaches and viewpoints are valued, allowing us to discuss the value of creativity with our students.

I would combine creativity with Forbes’ seventh item, problem-solving and the ability to look at alternatives. In my business seminars, I teach that all businesses do is solve problems. The ability to think creatively to solve real problems is a vital skill for them to learn. Businesses are successful to the extent that they solve problems with their products or services. To survive, they must also solve problems within their own operations. Again, all design steps of any project in a digital ed course include solving problems, from major challenges to minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour problems that arise.

Time management is No. 5. While this is a skill all successful students learn to some degree, it mostly focuses on assignments and test prep. Much more is learned when students do high-tech or other real-world projects. We would all agree when Forbes says, “[I]t requires discipline and a willingness to avoid distractions and low-priority tasks.”

Adaptability is listed as item six. Experts tell us that high school grads will have three to seven different careers in their lifetime. Change is a constant, this speed of change is a new normal, and adaptability is the skill that helps us deal with change. Students need the ability to look for trends and stay ahead of changes. Forbes says adaptability includes “flexibility, resilience, a growth mindset and analysis.” Again, working on high-tech projects for science fairs or the real world helps develop all of these far better than developing note-taking skills (now being done very well by AI) and paper test-taking skills.

Forbes lists work ethic as the No. 8 most vital soft skill and says it includes “arriving on time for meetings, meeting deadlines consistently and being accountable for your actions.” We need to broaden the topic to ethical behavior generally. Without learning to behave ethically and maintain one’s integrity, nothing else matters. We often hear that we need to teach students to count, and we need to teach them what counts! They will make mistakes, and we can help them learn from those mistakes and make more ethical decisions. Ethics is always a hot topic in robotics competitions, game jams and programming sprints, so it’s one we can take up.

The ninth important skill is critical thinking. I’ve taken many field trips to high-tech wonderlands like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. There you see people making informed decisions when they “weigh available options and consider potential outcomes.” This is a real-world life skill learned and tested in digital ed classes and related projects. Problem-solving requires students to “identify the root cause of a problem and generate multiple solutions,” and then test them in real-world settings and applications.

Conflict management is the 10th soft skill, and if you’ve ever watched a team trying to solve a robotics or programming challenge, you see how important this skill is. I’ve read that some straight-A students aren’t good team members in the business environment because they’ve never had their solutions criticized, and they can’t handle conflict or have other solutions chosen over their own. Forbes notes “[n]ot every employee can get along with colleagues every time.” This skill requires other soft skills such as communication and critical thinking to ensure all viewpoints are heard and concerns are addressed.

Last on Forbes’ list is emotional intelligence. My students aren’t always familiar with this concept, so we talk about the need to find out why someone is crying before trying to address their crying or get them to stop! Equally important is for students to realize that their own emotions can get stirred up, and to recognize what needs to be addressed. This skill is important because this generation is so glued to their screens that they aren’t developing the ability to work with others and recognize their emotions, much less recognize when they’ve lost control of their own emotions. While collaboration rarely occurs in the lecture hall, it happens often in the robotics lab. This topic includes the ability to praise when things are going well and to recognize hard work and contribution.


A more systematic approach is needed to teach these life skills and abilities, and as digital and science educators, we can do this. Many of us are doing it to some degree, but let’s up our game by talking about it with our students, sharing stories like the aforementioned Forbes article, including this topic in our lessons, and increasing student awareness of and desire to gain these skills. In our unique environments where students do things together, we can help them achieve these skills so they can be more successful in life.

In our ever-evolving world, the value of technical skills in many jobs is increasing, but teamwork and the soft skills discussed here are just as vital to success in the workplace and life. The modern workplace is constantly changing, and these soft skills allow leaders to keep their organizations operational and efficient. They must be taught and embedded into the high school program just like math and grammar. Mastery of these skills is not only vital for career success, but for this generation to tackle the many big societal challenges we face. Often skipped in our sit-and-get classes, such skills in our high-tech classes will help ensure students are prepared for the real world and the leadership it needs at all levels.
Mark Siegel is assistant head at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore.