Tools for Promoting Social and Emotional Learning Through PBL and STEM

It has been an interesting start to the school year. We are all working in different learning environments, some of which may be changing each week. Unlike when schools closed in the spring, we now have more experience and ideas that we can have in place to keep learning going during these transitions. Beyond the content that we teach, we need to create opportunities for students to be more independent in learning and also create experiences and spaces that help us with transitions we may need to make. 

Finding areas to focus on that we know will be beneficial to students regardless of where learning is happening is important. An area that I have worked on learning more about and creating more opportunities for in my classroom is social emotional learning (SEL). A great resource is the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), which shows that by providing opportunities where we can address the five competencies of SEL, we can positively impact and see an increase in student academic performance. 

The five SEL competencies are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision making, and relationship skills. When we are together in the physical classroom space, there are many options for building these skills. Through PBL and STEM related activities, we have opportunities to build SEL skills whether in our classrooms or working remotely. With these methods, I believe that we can focus on each of the competencies and specifically,  self-management self-awareness. 


Self-awareness relates to our abilities to recognize emotions and thoughts and assessing our strengths. Self-management is our ability to regulate our emotions and thoughts, to manage stress, to motivate ourselves and to set academic and personal goals. Helping students to learn to manage their time, especially when working on individual projects or collaboratively, is a vital skill for dealing with transitions now and in preparation for their future. We also want our students to engage in self-directed learning and be able to understand their needs and manage emotions and stress. Competency in SEL can positively impact the future success of students whether in college or in the workplace. Where can we begin?


By embedding activities into the curriculum through PBL and STEM and leveraging different technologies we can address these skills. All educators can build in activities to help students to build SEL skills, as it is not specific to any grade level or content area. When it comes to student agency, social emotional learning helps students to work through challenges, develop their workflow and be better able to understand their skills and the steps they need to take to grow. They develop their independence in learning and self-advocacy skills. 


PBL and STEM: Tools for empowering learners and building SEL


In a remote or virtual environment, we can leverage some of the different tools to help students develop social emotional learning skills and also to provide enrichment opportunities through PBL for our students. These ideas and tools are helpful for creating a sense of belonging which is important for students. These resources provide additional materials for students to explore for PBL or STEM and create innovative ways for students to show learning. 

  1. Collaboration. It is important to find ways for students to collaborate that work both in and out of our classrooms. With options like Padlet or Wakelet, students can engage in discussions and share resources for their projects. These tools enable students to post and include different media formats or simply to add comments. Another good choice is Whiteboard fi, a free whiteboard space that can be created for students to have their own whiteboard and for their work to be shared with the teacher.  Creating a space for students to collaborate that will be available regardless of the type of learning environment is important. An added benefit is that students build their communication skills as well as digital citizenship skills while working in these virtual spaces together. 
  2. Group Check-ins. There are a lot of tools to use that can help students check in with each other when being together in the classroom is not possible. Options such Google or Microsoft forms, or using other digital tools like SurveyMonkey or even Quizizz. Teachers can include short responses, fill-in-the-blank, polls for example, which helps us to get feedback from students and for them to provide feedback and check in with each other. When working collaboratively on PBL or on STEM related projects, it is a good idea to have options in place for students to reflect on their progress and provide valuable feedback to each other. 
  3. Engaging peers in lessons. There are a lot of possibilities for getting students involved by providing more interactive lessons through options like HyperDocs, where students set the pace of their learning and have choices. It is also beneficial to use tools like Nearpod or Pear Deck for presenting PBL to classmates. As a teacher, we can use these tools to teach students about PBL or topics related to STEM and make it more interactive for them. Students can also create their own, depending on their age, and use these tools to share their learning with classmates.  
  4. Sparking curiosity. With a tool like Flipgrid, there are many topics available in the Discovery library for students to explore ideas or to use it as a way to express their ideas on a topic, to collaborate for PBL or even to use it as a space to involve classmates in a discussion. Through tools like Flipgrid or Synth, we provide students with a space to just talk about what they are learning. It also offers a space for teachers to hear directly from students and be able to provide direct, authentic feedback to each student while building vital relationships throughout the year.
  5. Promote creativity. In my STEAM course, we look at a lot of different technologies and styles of learning. Students engage in PBL and genius hour activities and we can explore entrepreneurship by using Buncee to have students create business cards, newsletters and participate in Global Maker Day.  I did this recently and it was a great experience for students and for me to learn about their interests.


These are just a few of the many ideas for engaging students more in what they are learning, for providing spaces to explore PBL or STEM related topics and to do so regardless of where learning is happening. Defined Learning also offers resources for teachers to explore ideas for e-learning projects for different grade levels that are beneficial for helping students to develop future ready skills including Entrepreneurship and Architecture. An added benefit is that these options also promote the development of SEL in a remote learning environment. PBL and STEM promote the development of core competencies of SEL  because they learn to collaborate, problem solve, think critically, and develop empathy. 

About the Author: 

Rachelle Dene is a Spanish and STEAM: What’s nExT in Emerging Technology Teacher at Riverview Junior Senior High School in Oakmont, PA. Rachelle is also an attorney with a Juris Doctor degree from Duquesne University School of Law and a Master’s in Instructional Technology. She serves as the President of the ISTE Teacher Education Network. Author of ‘In Other Words: Quotes That Push Our Thinking,” “Unconventional Ways to Thrive in EDU” and “The Future is Now: Looking Back to Move Ahead,” Rachelle Dene’s latest book is with ISTE “Chart A New Course: A Guide to Teaching Essential Skills for Tomorrow’s World  is now available. Follow Rachelle on Twitter @Rdene915 and on Instagram @Rdene915. Rachelle has a podcast, ThriveinEDU available at


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