Marilyn Barger, Executive Director, Florida Advanced Technological Education Center (FLATE) (

Employers rate communication "soft skills" as highly desirable traits in employees and as critical skills for effective interaction with co-workers. Soft skills such as the ability to work well on teams, clear communication, conflict resolution, negotiation, how to offer and receive feedback, and creative problem solving are a few of the many interpersonal skills that are considered important attributes for successful employees. Technical professions have determined that soft skills are a necessary compliment to "hard skills" on the job, but soft skills have traditionally taken a back seat to hard skills such as those found in the high-technology work environment. Unfortunately, technical programs in high school or Associate of Science (A.S.) degree programs in many Florida colleges do not require comprehensive speech or communication courses where these skills can be learned. At the same time, an emphasis on teamwork, globalization, and diversity for careers has put the acquisition of soft skills on the educational radar.

The Toothpick Factory Simulation Game for Soft Skills® was developed with technician education in mind. This hands-on, interactive "simulation game" is set in a manufacturing context and has provided a unique way to look at soft skills. The game stimulates discussion and awareness around a wide range of soft skills that are essential in today's work and personal relationships. High school and community college teachers have used the kits to improve student communication skills, and teach the soft skills of listening, speaking, adapting, and leading, which are so important in today's teamwork-oriented environment. "It's a good way to start a pattern for cooperative learning," shares a secondary school educator.

The Toothpick Factory is one of FLATE's industry-connected curriculum tools, which associate problem-based learning with the real world of Florida advanced manufacturing. These lesson plans, learning objects, career explorations, and videos maintain a needed focus on the technology and engineering aspects of STEM curriculum. Supplementing the "hard" technical skills by providing a versatile "hands on" way to teach the often overlooked "soft" skills provides a holistic approach for technical education. Engaging students in a game while addressing core STEM concepts makes for a fun, yet strategic learning experience. Courses and activities that encourage effective communication soft skills in technical education may not be widely available in today's curriculum, but support of the softer side of STEM is critical in preparing the workforce of tomorrow.


Toothpick Factory Simulation Game for Soft Skills (

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Kumar, S., and Hsiao, J. (2007). "Engineers learn 'soft skills the hard way': Planting a seed of leadership in engineering classes." Leadership and Management in Engineering, 7(1), 18–23.

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