Developing Social Awareness Through STEM

The social emotional development of our students is more important as ever. We have navigated challenges and adjustments in education and may continue to do so in the coming year. In turn, we need to access strategies that can support our students as they return to our classrooms this fall. 

Social emotional learning (SEL) encompasses a set of skills and abilities that promotes positive well-being for both kids and adults. It is our ability to build healthy relationships with others, make responsible decisions, and develop a positive self of self. In schools, SEL helps students to demonstrate positive attitudes, connect with peers, and engage in positive behaviors. When SEL is developed with care in schools and through the curriculum, there are many benefits for students.

We can develop SEL skills through learning experiences in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The collaborative nature of STEM learning aligns well with the components of SEL with a goal to foster self-awareness, self-regulation, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness. All of these components can be incorporated in design challenges and collaborative projects that are a part of many STEM classrooms. 

Social awareness is one component that may seem more challenging to address within the classroom, especially with elementary students. Students may not have the background knowledge or vocabulary skills to develop this level of awareness, but we can build opportunities to strengthen these through STEM. Social awareness can include:

  • Using appropriate strategies to handle conflicts
  • Showing empathy for others
  • Understanding the perspectives of those from different backgrounds and cultures
  • Reading social situations and responding appropriately
  • Thriving within a local and global community

Pushing students to think beyond themselves, developing empathy and understanding for others can be difficult to do.  We can implement different instructional strategies to help students to build social awareness through STEM learning experiences like human-centered design thinking, creating for social good, and global awareness projects.

Human-Centered Design

A group of 5th graders are working on a design project in their STEM space. They are constructing wallets out of cardboard and duct tape. The project may sound easy since they are using simple materials for their designs, but the students have gone through a detailed process to develop their plan. They interviewed their partner to find out their specific needs and interests, asking questions and building rapport. They discussed their likes and dislikes to better understand their partner, developing perspective and gaining empathy.

Human-centered design means just that—designing for people. It means that designers, engineers, and architects need to understand the needs of the humans that they are working with. Students can develop these skills in the classroom when we present them with challenges that push their thinking and require them to gain the perspectives of others. 

Creating for Social Good 

It’s recess time, but a group of 2nd graders aren’t out on the playground today. They are working on a STEM community service project. The students have been learning about the important of re-purposing, re-using, and recycling. They have connected with a local organization who is involved with providing items to individuals who are homeless in the area. The organization provides food, clothing, and other supplies to people in need. 

One item that the organization often provides are sleeping mats. The mats are created by individuals who weave the mats out of recycled plastic grocery bags. The students are in charge of getting bag donations at their school. Each week, they go through the donations and sort them by color. Then, they go through the process of measuring and cutting the bags. (They need to be in 2 inch thick strips.) The students do the cutting and sorting before taking their donation to their local organization where the plastic is constructed into something useful for people in the community.

Develop Global Awareness

A third grade class is having breakfast together in the classroom. As they eat, they are talking about their favorite cereals, juices, and breakfast bar flavors. The teacher planned this special breakfast conversation as a springboard into a lesson on food insecurity and the inequity of food access both locally and global. This initial conversation started a class project around on of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Students learned about different eating habits and the similarities and differences between their habits and children their age in other countries. They began to understand that not all children have equal access to food which prompted them to explore possible reasons for this.

As we develop social awareness for the needs of others and the ways that we can create a social impact locally, it is also important to build a sense of global awareness in our students. As a connected educator, you may already have connections to colleagues across the globe. You may have the ability to collaborate on projects and create curricular connections to the content in your STEM classroom. 

Depending on the interests of your students, there are plenty of existing global projects to get involved in. Whether creating public service announcements about clean water or homelessness, students can get involved on a global scale. The United Nations offers a great starting place to learn about the SDGS and the projects that are happening across the globe to make a difference!


Author: Dr. Jacie Maslyk is an Assistant Superintendent focusing on curriculum, instruction, and professional learning. She has served in public school as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, elementary principal, and Director of Elementary Education over the last 22 years. She is passionate about STEM education and is the author of STEAM Makers: Fostering Creativity and Innovation in the Elementary Classroom. You can contact Jacie through her website at steam-makers.com.


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