Social Emotional Learning: Why and how does it fit with STEM?

Women working on laptops Social Emotional Learning STEM Coding Robotics

This series of Social-Emotional articles is written by Victoria Kirgesner. Read the previous one here!

Many years ago now, while sitting in precalculus working on some homework at the end of class, I happened to overhear one of my classmates proclaim “I’m going to be an engineer, so I don’t need to worry about proper spelling or English.” And I remember my 17-year-old brain kind of bristled at this peer’s assumption. It didn’t make sense to me why he felt that spelling or even the ability to communicate effectively and efficiently was rendered irrelevant once he left high school and joined the ranks of engineers. I knew even at that age that certain skills were interdisciplinary, and that a grounding in a number of different areas was imperative.

Communication is Key

I assumed in his career as an engineer, he’d need to share his projects with clients or provide updates to colleagues or any number of things in which written communication would be essential. But, not wanting to get into an argument (and really, just wanting to get my homework done so I didn’t have to worry about it later), I kept my mouth shut. Although the misguided nature of his comment served to give me some insight into how people like to categorize knowledge and its use, and how this relates to what we think is important as educators and educate consumers. (And as a side note, I’ve had it confirmed by my partner – a mechanical/polymer engineer – that communication skills are essential for advancement and success in his day-to-day world). 

Social-Emotional Learning and STEM! Finally!

So why am I telling this story? I’ve been touting the importance of social-emotional learning, and have teased endlessly that we’ll talk about how it can fit with STEM. A cute little anecdote about engineers and English prowess just seems…extraneous. But it’s not. Trust me. It illustrates how we often like to put knowledge in little boxes. “I don’t need to be good at English because I’m going into STEM” or “I want to go into a humanities field, so I’m probably not good at science and math.”

We like to think that we can either be super in tune with our emotions – and for some of the more “old school” types among us, that that’s very “feminine” – or that we can be good at math and science and thus devoid of anything complicated or sticky like English class or emotional intelligence. But the cold, hard truth of the matter is that we need both. Both have to coexist and be developed so that a student can reach their full potential. 

It Takes All Kinds to Make a World

As I mentioned, my partner is a mechanical engineer. He lives every day in the STEM world. Me, as a Latin teacher and an academic linguist, I’m more in the emotional, humanist world. And we’ve spent many evenings chatting with each other about what the corporate world wants from students when they graduate and become members of the working world. He says it best: STEM helps us solve the problems in our world, but in order to pinpoint what those problems are, we need the arts and humanities. Social-emotional learning is a large part of that. If you’ll recall, social awareness is one of the key competencies of SEL. If you can understand the problems that your community, as well as others, face, you can use that knowledge to discover solutions to all sorts of problems, both large and small. Thus, SEL is a necessary part of STEM education.

No One Exists in a Vaccuum

If we turn to historical examples, some of the most groundbreaking scientists, and well-known, were also uniquely aware of the impacts of their knowledge on society and the self. Marie Curie sought to use her discovery of X-rays to help wounded soldiers in World War I, and in turn, saved countless lives. She was a pacifist and disagreed with the war on her own moral grounds, but still felt a social responsibility to help in the war effort, imparting this knowledge to her daughter, as well. Additionally, she donated money to numerous medical research centers in Poland and elsewhere, seeking to advance community knowledge. While this might not seem tied to SEL, it is, as her social awareness and understanding of the importance of scientific advancement for community health fall distinctly in line with the core competencies of SEL. 

A Sense of Duty

Similarly, Jonas Salk, the more famous mind behind the polio vaccine (although in the 1960s Sabin developed a more accessible oral polio vaccine), saw a need in the community, with his understanding of social responsibility and belonging, and turned his mind towards discovering a way to prevent one of the most harmful diseases of the 20th century. Many more examples of scientists who combined their sense of social awareness with scientific prowess exist, but are beyond the scope of this section.  

Components of Successful STEM Education

Even beyond this, SEL is a natural fit within the STEM classroom. If we look at the elements involved in successful STEM education, this becomes even more apparent. According to Discovery Education, these essential components are:

  1. Problem-based Learning
  2. Rigorous Learning
  3. School Community and Belonging
  4. Career, Technology, and Life Skills
  5. Personalization of Learning
  6. Connection to the Broader and External Community
  7. Staff Foundations
  8. Essential Factors

So many of these are huge components in SEL education, and you can see the core competencies shining through most of them. Arguably, all STEM education is based around solving some sort of problem. We’ve already touched on how knowing what problems are crucial to solving can be aided by a grounding in social awareness, but even beyond that, it requires a level of responsible decision making to knowing what is most pressing to solve and what the best courses of action are to solving those problems. 

A Sense of Belonging

SEL goes part and parcel with the school community, and belonging, connection to the broader community, and career, technology, and life skills. Understanding how we are all connected to each other, and how we react to different stimuli will help students advance their knowledge of STEM. We don’t exist in a vacuum, and neither do subjects in school. Being able to understand differing viewpoints and different cultures allows one to be a much more successful scientist, engineer, mathematician, computer programmer, not to mention the importance of SEL to the field of robotics.

As an academically-trained linguist, I know the significance of the human element in creating robots that speak in such a way that humans want to interact with them and trust them. You cannot focus simply on the tech aspect of robotics and hope that you create something that will market successfully. Think about how little Siri or the Google Assistant would be used if they struggled to talk to us in a manner that was remotely human. 

We Have to Work Together

In STEM education, collaboration is crucial. Students are continually engaged in solving some problem, and usually in the group setting. In order for a group to be successful, teamwork skills, and by extension, SEL skills are indispensable. Students need to be able to utilize all five competencies in order to work together, and thus to solve whatever problem has been set before the group. 

I’m sure at some level you’re thinking about the implications of adding SEL to your curriculum. As educators, we have so many different responsibilities in the day, between regular lesson planning, communicating with parents, grading, and just generally guiding students through a successful transition from preschool to graduation at 18. And if your experience has been anything like mine, more and more expectations keep being added – especially after the 2020-2021 school year.

Understanding the Human Element

The beautiful part of SEL is that you don’t need to plan anything extra or special. It can appear in your curriculum as a well-placed question or going one question beyond where you might normally have stopped. Maybe inverting yesterday’s activity (I’ll explain this more in a later section) or just asking students to relate to something. Asking them to share their experiences and their knowledge. That’s part of the beauty of SEL. It doesn’t take any additional grandiose effort on your part, but it does take effort. And a space such as STEM is an ideal place because the human element is so crucial for workable, healthy solutions and understanding. 

Implementing in STEM

While SEL can be fairly easily implemented in the STEM classroom, there are some considerations to be aware of, as they are potential pitfalls that might keep your fledgling social-emotional learning program from being successful. It is important to communicate with parents what you’re doing and why. Most adults outside of education haven’t heard of social-emotional learning, much less what it is or why it’s important. But if you start to tell your parents why you’re having them do certain projects or even preview some of the questions and inquiries they’ll be exploring, you’ll naturally get buy-in from most of them (because let’s be real, you can win them over all the time). 

Social:Emotional Learning- It’s Organic

The other big consideration for making SEL successful is to pepper it in organically throughout your curriculum. It’s not just a set of independent lessons that aren’t tied to anything. If you try to create lessons over each of the competencies, you might just be setting yourself up for failure. Students won’t necessarily be able to transfer this classroom knowledge to real-world applications – not just in their adult lives, but also in their daily lives as children. Peppering in SEL competencies into different units, circling back to them regularly, and using them in a variety of contexts will help to solidify this knowledge in your students and create an SEL program that has lasting effects. 

Ownership and Focus

Finally, student focus and ownership are also crucial for successful SEL implementation. This goes hand in hand with student-centered learning. We know the importance of student-centered learning, as active learning helps to create lasting, meaningful connections and learning that means something to students. With SEL it is no different, just that you are allowing students the space to talk from their perspectives, displaying and sharing their unique understanding of a given situation or their interpretation of events or concepts. When students feel respected and heard in a classroom, they feel connected and empowered, driven to succeed because someone cares. In any of the STEM fields, empowerment and the ability to take risks are imperative. Our students will encounter failures in their lives, but the drive to succeed can overcome any minor setbacks. 

Remember, however, that effective SEL cannot be done in isolation. Coordination with teachers across the subjects, across the grade bands, and across buildings can help reinforce the SEL principles, and, as has been noted, all of this can be done within the STEM classroom.

Natural Partners

Over the last few sections, we’ve looked at what social-emotional learning is and why it’s important. Hopefully, now you’re convinced that it’s what can take your classroom from good to great, and suitable for students of all abilities, ages, and levels. Preschoolers can benefit from SEL instruction just as much as seniors in high school. And both ages will need SEL skills to be successful in peer interactions in preschool, the K-12 classroom, and beyond. We’ve discussed in length how SEL is a natural partner for the STEM classroom because an understanding of the problems humanity faces is essential for advancing our knowledge and advancements in the field of STEM.

I’ve mentioned that you don’t need to plan any special lessons – in fact, don’t plan any special SEL-only lessons because learning it in isolation is actually detrimental to being successful. Instead, you can add it into existing lessons that you’ve already got. As educators, we are constantly reviving our lessons to be more effective and engaging to students. Adding in SEL is just part of that process. But that being said, over the next several sections, we’ll look at each of the five competencies and how you can incorporate each of these into STEM lessons as well as providing sample lessons that you can use that may just spark your own creativity and give you a springboard from which you can make your STEM lessons shine with SEL. 

Victoria Kirgesner Social Emotional Learning Coding and Robotics

Georgetown University graduate, Victoria Kirgesner, has been a Latin educator since 2015, teaching both in traditional settings and more. She is a passionate educator, and forever linguist. Her academic background informs her research and exploration and became finding the best EdTech tools to reach all of her students based on their interests, passions, and backgrounds. She spends many hours giving life advice to her students, while also teaching them. Her favorite part about her career has been helping her students navigate the journey from childhood to adulthood. All of these hats culminate in her ability to connect with colleagues nationwide, improving education for all.