The Role of Informal Science Education in Addressing 21st Century Skills

January 1st, 2016

This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


Informal science education organizations can play a key role in addressing the development and strengthening of 21st century skills with their wide variety of audiences, particularly youth.

Findings from Research and Evaluation

What are 21st Century Skills?

Twenty-first century skills constitute a wide range of skills vital for preparing today’s young people to enter the 21st century STEM workforce and important for all people to engage in a 21st century world. Various organizations have worked to outline and define what constitute 21st century skills. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills’ Framework for 21st Century Learning outlines major categories of 21st skills and skills that can be found under each (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2009). See the Framework for detailed definitions of these skills.


Learning and Innovation Skills

  1. Creativity and innovation
  2. Critical thinking and problem solving
  3. Communication and collaboration


Information, Media, and Technology Skills

  1. Information literacy
  2. Media literacy
  3. Information and communication technology (ICT) literacy


Life and Career Skills

  1. Flexibility and adaptability
  2. Initiative and self-direction
  3. Social and cross-cultural skills
  4. Productivity and accountability
  5. Leadership and responsibility


The National Research Council has released a number of publications resulting from the convening of national experts to address various topics around 21st century skills.  These publications further define 21st century skills, how to teach them, how the skills relate to adult outcomes, and how to address the skills.


Exploring the intersection of science education and 21st century skills: A workshop summary

Assessing 21st century skills: Summary of a workshop

Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century


The international STEM community has also endorsed the importance of 21st century skills and provided additional definitions. Three computing technology companies, Intel, Cisco, and Microsoft, sponsor the international research project Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills (Binkley et al., 2012). This project categorizes and defines 21st century skills in the following way, intersecting some with the Partnership for 21st Century Skills’ definitions.


Ways of Thinking

  1. Creativity and innovation
  2. Critical thinking, problem-solving, decision making
  3. Learning to learn/metacognition (knowledge about cognitive processes)


Ways of Working

  1. Communication
  2. Collaboration (teamwork)


Tools for Working

  1. Information literacy
  2. Information and communication (ICT) literacy


Ways of Living in the World

  1. Citizenship – local and global
  2. Life and career
  3. Personal and social responsibility – including cultural awareness and competence


Although much work has been done nationally and internationally to define 21st century skills, the National Research Council (2012, p.4) stressed the need for continued work and support around research of 21st century skills, “foundations and federal agencies should support research aimed at establishing agreed-upon definitions of 21st century competencies and ways to measure and assess them”

21st Century Skills and Informal Learning Environments

The informal science education community can play a key role in helping to define these skills within an informal science education context, how they are addressed in informal learning experiences, and how to best measure them in a way that aligns with these experiences. The Institute for Museum & Library Services’ Museums, Libraries, and 21st Century Skills project resulted in a publication that outlines, “a vision for the role of libraries and museums in the national dialogue around learning and 21st century skills” (Institute for Museum & Library Services, 2009, p.1). The project used the Framework for 21st Century Learning and added the skills of visual literacy, scientific and numerical literacy, cross-disciplinary thinking, and basic literacy under the category of Learning & Innovation Skills. The publication also includes case studies of how museums and libraries have engaged audiences in 21st century skills and a self-assessment tool for museums and library to understand where their operations and programming align with 21st century skill development.


STEM afterschool programs are especially rich environments for developing 21st century skills. The journal New Directions for Youth Development devoted an entire issue to the case for 21st century learning (Schwarz & Kay, 2006). As noted in the wiki post Common outcomes and potential impacts of STEM afterschool programs many of the 21st century skills also show up in national publications of common outcomes and indicators for OST youth programs, including STEM-focused programs (Afterschool Alliance, 2013; Partnership for After School Education, 2013; The Forum for Youth Investment & National Collaboration for Youth Research Group, 2012; Wilson-Ahlstrom, Yohalem, DuBois, & Ji, 2011).

Directions for Future Research

Research and Evaluation Around 21st Century Skills

Research around 21st century skills in informal science education environments:


Connecting out-of-school learning to home: Digital postcards from summer camp


STEM Related After-School Program Activities and Associated Outcomes on Student Learning


Examples of how projects have evaluated 21st century skills:


Formative Evaluation of the Places of Invention Exhibition


Great Lakes Teacher Badging Program: Evaluation Report


The Accidental STEM Librarian: An Exploratory Interview Study with Eight Librarians


Youth Astronomy Apprenticeship – An Initiative to Promote Science Learning Among Urban Youth and Their Communities: Summative Evaluation Report


21st Century Skills, Museum Literacy, and Enjoyment in Museums: An Exploratory Summative Evaluation of PHEON at the Smithsonian American Art Museum


Afterschool Alliance. (2013). Defining youth outcomes for STEM learning in afterschool. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from


Binkley, M., Erstad, O., Herman, J., Raizen, S., Ripley, M., Miller-Ricci, M., & Rumble, M. (2012). Defining twenty-first century skills. In P. Griffin, B. McGaw & E. Care (Eds.), Assessment and teaching of 21st century skills. (pp. 17-66). New York, NY: Springer.


Institute of Museum and Library Services. (2009). Museums, libraries, and 21st century skills. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from


National Research Council. (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Retrieved from


Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2009). P21 framework definitions. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from


Partnership for After School Education. (2013). Afterschool youth outcomes inventory. New York, NY: Author. Retrieved from


Schwarz, E., & Kay, K. (2006). The case for 21st century learning [Special issue]. New Directions for Youth Development, 2006(110).


The Forum for Youth Investment, & National Collaboration for Youth Research Group. (2012). A shared vision for youth: Common outcomes and indicators. Washington, DC: Authors. Retrieved from


Wilson-Ahlstrom, A., DuBois, D., Ji, P., & Hillaker, B. (2014). From soft skills to hard data: Measuring youth program outcomes. Washington, DC: The Forum for Youth Investment. Retrieved from


Xanthoudaki, M. (2015). Museums, innovative pedagogies and the twenty-first century learner: a question of methodology.  Museums & Society, 13(2), 253-271.  Retrieved from