From coding robots to 3D printing, STEM subjects can be challenging, exciting, and intellectually stimulating. They can also prepare students for various career paths, equipping them with concrete technical skills. But can these technical subjects benefit from the incorporation of social and emotional learning strategies? And if so, how?

In this article, we look at how Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) — an educational method that promotes the development of students’ social and emotional skills within school curricula — can support the STEM learning experience. We’ll go through core SEL principles, some key benefits of using SEL in STEM, and strategies for bringing SEL into the classroom.

Social Emotional Learning

Social-emotional learning is an educational method that promotes the development of social and emotional skills at school. CASEL, an organization dedicated to the spread of SEL principles in education, defines it as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions, and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

SEL covers five core components, all of which are inherently valuable but can also help unlock a student’s full academic potential:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-management
  3. Social awareness
  4. Relationship skills
  5. Responsible decision-making

Benefits of Incorporating SEL into STEM

SEL helps students build character through the development of emotional skills, making them mature, responsible young people in and outside of the classroom. Recent research shows that SEL can “significantly improve skills, attitudes, behaviors, school climate and safety, peer relationships, school functioning, and academic achievement.”

SEL can also have specific benefits in STEM subjects like math or computer science, such as improved problem-solving abilities to better self-motivation.

Problem Solving and Critical Thinking

Some of the toughest challenges in STEM subjects require students to think outside the box to find a solution to a problem. In math, for example, sometimes you might tell your class to apply a certain mathematical principle to work out an answer, but other times the students must decide which principle will best lead them to the solution. These more complex challenges require problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

SEL can help students with problem solving and critical thinking by helping them develop self-management skills. Self-management teaches students to develop their self-motivating ability and reach a level of emotional maturity that allows them to manage frustration. This can reduce the chance of students giving up on difficult tasks and promote perseverance.

One way educators can improve problem-solving and critical thinking is by teaching the growth mindset theory. Coined by psychologist Carol Dweck, a growth mindset is the belief that ability is something attainable through work and effort, rather than something innate. Students who accept that struggle and failure are part of the learning process are more likely to persevere to grasp difficult concepts.

Collaboration and Teamwork

A big part of SEL is helping students develop positive behaviors during interactions with their peers. This can lead to a more enjoyable learning environment in which students feel comfortable with one another and positively impact students’ collaborative abilities during group projects.

Incorporating SEL into a curriculum involves teaching social awareness and relationship skills. When students can recognize and empathize with the feelings of others during classroom tasks, they are better equipped to work positively with one another, reducing the chances of conflict or exclusion. Students with good social awareness may be better equipped to handle delegation of tasks, collaborative brainstorming, and constructive criticism of others’ ideas.

Educators can consider implementing SEL principles during a collaborative STEM activity such as programming a Sphero BOLT robot. In addition to technical instruction such as how to input commands, educators can offer guidance for students to work successfully as a team by offering conflict resolution strategies.

Motivation and Self-Awareness

All work can be challenging, but students looking to pursue STEM subjects in higher education or the workplace must be prepared to deal with complex projects and challenges. Because of this, STEM students require a high level of motivation that can help them overcome these challenges.

SEL has a heavy focus on self-awareness and self-management. Giving a student time to reflect on their strengths, weaknesses, and personal qualities can help them better understand how their mind works and how they can best use their strengths to achieve personal goals and targets.

Educators can use various strategies to build motivation. One possible method is to ask students to set themselves a personal academic goal — something specific, relevant, and realistic — at the beginning of the week or semester. This could be anything from learning math formulas to building a robot. At the end of the designated period, educators can check back in with each student to measure their success or progress.

Strategies for Implementing SEL in STEM

Educators can devote specific hours to Social-Emotional Learning, but they can also incorporate elements of it into their science, technology, engineering, and math classes. Here we look at seven possible strategies for introducing key SEL ideas into STEM education.

Intentional project design: A STEM educator can structure their teaching strategy in a way that touches on SEL components such as relationship skills and self-management. Projects that require collaboration and problem solving will naturally involve SEL.

Goal setting: Students can learn to self-manage and self-motivate by setting personal targets that don’t have to align strictly with their academic objectives.

Breaking down tasks: Long or complex STEM projects can require a greater level of emotional maturity and determination than short or simple ones. Students may be better able to persevere through difficult tasks if the assignment is broken down into manageable steps.

Reflective practices: Ask students to reflect on the emotional experience of a learning assignment. This could involve writing down reflections in a journal or simply taking a quiet moment to reflect.

Assessment and feedback: Let students know how they performed from an SEL perspective, rather than simply whether they achieved the designated task. Did the students listen to their project partners? Did they demonstrate self-management skills? Did they hold themselves accountable for successes and failures?

Community building: STEM subjects often require teamwork (think lab experiments, investigations, and large-scale engineering projects). If students will be working with other students with whom they do not have an existing relationship, try introducing ice-breaking activities before the start of the project.

Grounding techniques: Hands-on STEM activities can be engaging, but they can also be more stressful than book-based learning. To keep students calm and engaged with the material, educators can introduce grounding techniques such as periodic timeouts or meditation. When taught well, SEL can introduce vital stress management skills.

About the author

Amanda Vaden is Sphero’s Marketing Content and Communications Manager who oversees all aspects of external communications, including the blog, social media, public relations, and other forms of content marketing in the PK-12 education space. Brand storytelling and sharing insightful articles like this one is her professional passion.