Rapid changes in technology continue to affect how and what we learn – as well as who can participate in that learning. Without opportunities to develop adaptable skills, more and more people risk being left behind by digital transformation. Siegel Family Endowment is committed to supporting organizations that are on the frontlines of building an equitable future by helping to nurture enduring skills and frontier skills.
We seek to foster “enduring skills”, or the competencies and mindsets needed to thrive both in the present and in a changing world. These include both technical capabilities, as well as a variety of attitudes and mindsets. Examples of “enduring skills” include computational thinking, problem solving, collaboration, creativity, resilience, and the ability to learn, to name a few.
At the same time, we want to ensure that emergent fields, such as biotechnology and generative AI, are equitable for all. Thus, we also support the development of “frontier skills, that is the abilities, literacies, and pathways necessary to participate in and drive emergent industries – acknowledging that these skills also apply across many areas of life today.
As we enter into another school year, we once again have an opportunity to ask ourselves: what skills, mindsets, and competencies are most important at this moment for both individual and our collective society wellbeing? How can society develop and leverage those skills in equitable and inclusive ways? How can philanthropy help to support and accelerate innovative, equitable models for promoting those skills, particularly within the most vulnerable communities?
Our Evolving Understanding of Skills
Our focus on enduring and frontier skills has evolved significantly. It’s been a year-and-a-half since we announced new grants within our Learning interest area. These grants aimed to strengthen “uniquely human skills” that could not be replaced by technology, and to prepare students with “frontier skills” for emerging industries.
Since that announcement, we’ve learned more about what makes these programs successful, what challenges them, and what it means for the field at large. Engagement with the grantees doing this work has also forced us to reflect on our own framing for how we think about the skills needed to uplift both individuals and entire communities in ways that are equitable and sustainable.
Here is how our thinking has shifted:
- It’s important to recognize the ways that humans can cultivate and shape technology, not to position human skills against technology. By using the label “uniquely human skills” to describe mindsets and competencies such as creativity, problem-solving, and inventiveness, we originally positioned these skills as skills that technology couldn’t reproduce and positioned humans on the defensive.
- The skills that we described as “uniquely human” and “frontier” are not mutually exclusive, and often span categories. Furthermore, they may include a host of mindsets and competencies that are not always recognized as “skills.” Uplifting individuals and communities in equitable ways requires that we create and embed opportunities for the development of both sets of skills.
- While we support fostering more equitable participation and contribution to emerging industries, we underline that these “frontier skills” and literacies are not just applicable for the future; they are also critical for the industries of today, as well as applicable outside of the context of work. Our new framing aims to demonstrate the applicability of enduring and frontier skills in a variety of contexts and during an era of rapid digital transformation.
- The power of skills-building organizations lies not just in supporting individuals to develop particular skills, but in the net positive effects that those skills can have on entire communities. Our previous framing missed an opportunity to explain the value of these skills across entire communities. Our current thinking reflects the positive impact that communities can realize when they invest in and leverage enduring and frontier skills among their community members. This is a frame we articulated in our Schools as Community Infrastructure whitepaper, and a guiding star for our evolving way of thinking.
As we reframe our thinking around enduring and frontier skills, we are sharing case studies for four grantee organizations that are working at this nexus, and uplifting both individuals and communities in the process.
Through invention, students can both make a difference and become fearless, compassionate problem solvers. That’s the philosophy of Project Invent, a national educational program that offers design thinking, engineering, and entrepreneurship professional development opportunities to middle and high school educators across subject areas. Through its work with educators and through its free, downloadable curriculum, Project Invent empowers students with 21st-century skills to succeed individually and impact globally, through invention.
With this training, educators lead their students to identify a real problem in their community and invent a technology solution. That process places the student as the leader and is grounded in partnership with community stakeholders. This model exemplifies how to simultaneously lift up both individuals and communities, and contribute to the long-term health and wellbeing of both.
Read the case study on Project Invent here.
The global biotechnology market size was estimated at $1.37 trillion in 2022 and is expected to grow substantially by 2030, making it one of today’s most rapidly expanding industries. However, biotech as a career pathway is narrow and biology labs are expensive enterprises – typically housed within academic institutions or companies that can bankroll research from grants, investments, or profits.
Genspace exists to fill these voids. Founded in 2009, Genspace is the world’s first community biology lab. It aims to foster a safe and inclusive community where all people – including those from non-traditional and historically marginalized backgrounds – can learn, create, and grow with the life sciences. Genspace hosts classes, lab training, mentorship opportunities, youth programs, and community-building events. Together, Genspace’s programs encourage all people ‘to science’ – to ask questions, imagine, tinker, build, learn, design, and grow – as individuals and as a community. Their long-term goal is shared by Siegel – to ensure that more fields (in this case biotech) reflect the vibrant diversity of people and perspectives needed to drive equitable development.
Read the case study on Genspace here.
High school students don’t generally have the opportunity to imagine and create new applications for the latest advances in biotechnology as part of their standard coursework. Biodesign Challenge is an international education program and competition that partners high school and college students with scientists, artists, and designers to create projects that envision, create, and/or critique transformational applications in biotechnology. Biodesign Challenge’s After-School (BDC After-School) initiative works with high school instructors from underserved communities to prepare students to compete in the Biodesign Challenge.
Through these activities, Biodesign Challenge encourages students to explore ways that biotechnology and biodesign principles and processes can be leveraged to address some of the world’s most pressing problems. In doing so, Biodesign Challenge is equipping a new generation of leaders with the skillsets and mindsets that they will need in order to contribute substantially to emerging and frontier industries.
Read the case study on Biodesign Challenge After-School here.
HYPOTHEkids is a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Design, Math) education and youth talent development initiative with a mission to provide underserved students with hands-on science and engineering education and mentorship experiences to thrive in the high-tech economy of tomorrow. HYPOTHEkids offers afterschool Science Clubs for elementary school students; robust science kits; a science educator training program for high schoolers; an intensive science research and applied engineering training and internship programs for high school students; and a host of other activities throughout New York City. Together, these programs spark their curiosity, help them see themselves as scientists, and go on to engineer a better future.
Founding Executive Director Christine Kovich explains that HYPOTHEkids’ constellation of programs is not just moving the needle on scientific knowledge among students. “It’s changing their science identity,” Kovich says. “They can see themselves as scientists.” This blend of both skills and mindsets is representative of the types of programs we seek to support at Siegel.
Read the case study on HYPOTHEkids here.
Our thinking remains fluid and we seek to be transparent about what we’re learning. We invite you to share stories from your own work. In your community, what nonprofit organizations are supporting the skills, mindsets, competencies, and commitments that we’ve described in this vision? How are these organizations involving local communities and drawing on the unique assets within those communities? Which organizations are positioned to benefit from a philanthropic investment? We are eager to hear from you as we consider new investments, partners, and ideas in this space. You can contact us here.