How STEM Can Support Social Emotional Learning

As an educator and STEM advocate, I have always believed that it is important for young people to develop as thinkers, makers, and problem solvers.Those skills are developed quite well in classrooms that support the integration of science, technology, engineering, and math. That same type of learning also develops skills that foster the growth and development of learners. Not only can students develop skills in collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity, but through those experiences also develop an awareness of themselves and others. STEM and SEL align in ways that can effectively advance both skill sets working towards a common goal of overall student growth and development.

Consider the types of learning that occur within a stem classroom space. Upon entering a 4th grade classroom, you see small groups of students gathered in different locations in the room. They are working collaboratively on a design challenge, using a variety of materials to solve a problem. The groups are engaging in conversation, asking one another questions, and even struggling at times. They are navigating the dynamics of the group through their communication and relationship building skills. They are analyzing information from the challenge presented by their teacher, and determining plausible solutions. In turn, they are making decisions about their learning throughout the activity.

Within this brief example, you can see glimpses of both STEM development through critical thinking and problem-solving, as well as SEL development through the cooperative nature of the task. Both STEM and SEL require communication skills and the ability to work with others. As we prepare for a new school year, there are a variety of ways that we can incorporate both stem skills and SEL skills into our classrooms. This work can happen through the literature that we share with our students, the hands-on opportunities we provide, and facilitate meaningful dialogue with the students we serve.

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Literature Connections

Children’s literature can be a great springboard into meaningful discussion around social emotional learning. We can add another layer to that learning when we align our read aloud selections with books that also lend themselves to hands-on STEM learning

Great stories like Ben’s Adventure present topics like individuals with special needs. Not only does the book develop empathy and understanding within our students but also fosters critical STEM thinking as your students design and build inventions that might help others. Coding to Kindness is a meaningful story of friendship that uses directional thinking in coding as a map for students to navigate disagreements and relationships with others. The book prompts discussion about student awareness of themselves and others, as well as building helpful skills to get along with others. The coding component provides an added bonus, as students begin to understand basic skills of directionality as a foundation to STEM.

Choosing books that focus on relationships, decision-making, and social awareness can open up the conversation in your classroom. As you explore SEL topics through literature, you can also incorporate books that reinforce STEM skills like creativity, design, and innovation.

Hands-On Learning

Design challenges are one hands-on way to foster SEL along with STEM.We can pair SEL learning with STEM content when we offer students the chance to build, invent, and problem solve. As students engage in activities that activate the engineering design process, they are utilizing critical thinking skills and skills like self-regulation and relationship building.

Design challenges can be simple or complex, completed as individuals or groups. Educators can craft challenges for students that require STEM skills like brainstorming, measuring, prototyping, and testing. These skills help to build a STEM mindset in students, but also enables communication and collaboration when students are encouraged to work together. 

Meaningful Dialogue

Conversations are happening in our classrooms each day. The social connections that students make in school are critical to their development as individuals. We can connect personally with our students through conversations, but also facilitate meaningful dialogue among students in the questions that we ask. STEM learning is a great opportunity to foster these connections as students are working collaboratively. 

We can develop meaningful dialogue through STEM and SEL when we ask questions:

  • How are you feeling about today’s design challenge?
  • What are your goals for today?
  • What is your team doing well? What do you need to work on a little more?
  • What strategies are you trying to solve this problem?
  • How are you using the available resources in class?
  • Is your team having any disagreements? How are you navigating them?
  • What aspect of this STEM project are you really proud of?

Not only do the questions open up the conversation about how students are feeling and thinking, but it also models the language that we want students to use when discussing their own social emotional development.

There are many ways that we can support the social emotional development of our students. STEM is one subject area that aligns well with the goals of SEL. Through STEM-related children’s literature, hands-on learning experiences, and meaningful dialogue in the STEM classroom, we can engage students in learning strategies that will build both STEM and SEL skills. 


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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