1. SEL and computer science have a unique relationship.

  2. In STEM education, the collaborative nature of learning opens up SEL opportunities.

  3. Robotics is one area of STEM in which SEL is particularly viable.

  4. Teachers should serve as facilitators and give kids opportunities to collaborate.

  5. With or without technology, SEL experiences are valuable and necessary.

It’s no secret that computer science is one of the most fruitful industries today, which has resulted in an increased demand for teaching students the skills they’ll need if they’re planning to enter that world. One of the other areas of education it collides with, however, is social and emotional learning. You might think this connection is a bit off, but there actually are a lot of ways in which computer science and SEL are related. Starting with teaching skills like creative problem solving and persistence, merging these two elements of learning can greatly help students learn to enjoy the productive struggle they’ll face on a regular basis in a computer science world. So, this week, we’re discussing some of the ways educators can combine SEL and CS to help students grow into well-rounded problem solvers. 

Combining SEL and Computer Science

Since there is such a large focus on technology in today’s world, students tend to use it essentially from the time they are born. This use continues through school because educators want to make sure they’re equipped with the tech skills they’ll need for the future, but spending so much time on devices often comes at a cost. We know it can -- in rare cases -- be detrimental for health, including causing vision issues, headaches, and other ailments, but constantly being immersed in devices also hurts the social and emotional development of children. They’re often less proficient when it comes to some of the most important soft skills, like communication, recognizing and interpreting emotions, and resolving conflicts. So, even though they might be learning some tech skills, they’re not always fully developing if the soft skill development is not there.

In order to correct this deficiency if it persists, educators can start by giving students the right tools with which to learn. Some technologies, including those students can use to learn computer science skills, are actually designed to help them boost social-emotional development at the same time. This includes encouraging collaboration and helping students learn how to rework problem solving approaches as often as they need to do so. Working with computer science software also gives students the opportunity to manage the process. From the time they start writing a program to the moment they see it executed successfully, they are in control and that’s something that a lot of students benefit from. Coding also helps them communicate their emotions at times, illustrate what they’re thinking, and even improve behavior. 

Computer science tools help students learn about and practice logical progressions, loops, if-then statements, and more. While these are all computer science concepts, they have ties to social-emotional learning as well. When students successfully program something, they connect with their work and they’re able to express the satisfaction they achieve through success. When focused on coding tasks, students can also direct their attention to the challenge at hand and, if they ever have trouble focusing, this can help them a great deal. In teaching students about loops, specifically, they can start to learn about how their own actions can continue affecting others in a positive or negative way -- continuing without end just like a loop does in coding. By relating these two concepts, students may be able to better grasp this correlation and enhance their SEL development through computer science. 


Integrating SEL and STEM Education

The amount of STEM jobs already in and being created as a part of the workforce requires that students develop a great deal of technical skills. As it continues to evolve, however, more of us are realizing that it’s not only the technical skills that will help today’s students advance. Far too often, there is a gap that is created when students focus on bolstering their technical skills, which results in a lack of development in the soft skills area -- particularly their social and emotional skills. Since the two are related, however, teachers have found plenty of creative ways to merge them, including the use of robotics. They’re also two of the fastest growing sections of education as teachers and professionals alike are agreeing on the vital importance both hold. And, although they’re each important on their own, they’re drawing closer together and really starting to complement each other.

In order for STEM and SEL to become second nature for students, it’s important that they get started with experiences that involve them both from an early age. Studies show that, the earlier a child is introduced to something, the more profound its effects become on them throughout the course of their development. It’s the youngest of students -- those in Pre-K, kindergarten, first, and second grade -- who are in the position to be most positively impacted by the introduction of STEM and SEL experiences. By giving them hands-on experiences, teachers can take advantage of the large amounts of curiosity these students have and help them learn that they can, in fact, build things, design solutions, and work together despite their age. The hands-on experimentation simultaneously helps children develop morally by providing opportunities to work together and build a sense of community as they go. 

Not only does the teaching of STEM skills and concepts and the teaching of SEL skills and concepts each provide value for students, that value is increased when the two are paired. In pairing them, this presents a major opportunity for educators to introduce a new kind of innovation into their instruction -- one that benefits students in a number of different ways. Educators can weave elements of SEL development into lessons within almost any curricular subject and use these learning experiences to promote the development of character traits. Plus, since STEM learning is largely hands-on, they can have students focus on what it means to develop skills like collaboration, creativity, curiosity, and community as they work. Separate, these two branches of education are valuable for kids, but, when paired, they take things up another notch. 


Using Robotics to Grow SEL Skills

So, we know that robotics tools can help students at any grade level learn computer science skills and utilizing a robotics progression model is an effective way of meeting students where they are. We also know that a strong computer science foundation is more than likely going to be key for them in the future. When using robotics in education, however, (specifically in early education), teachers are able to instruct on more than just coding. Since robotics tools often include a collaborative side, students are able to build teamwork skills as they cooperatively learn and grow together, also boosting their social-emotional profiles and problem-solving skills simultaneously. While we don’t know exactly what the future workforce will be like, we do know that technology will have a big impact and exposing students to tech is certainly one piece of the puzzle, but robotics education allows for SEL development as well. 

Learning with robotics (or any piece of technology) is more about what students are able to do with that technology to show their understanding of key concepts rather than just about the device itself. Tech tools help students recognize patterns, work together, communicate thoughts, and creatively problem solve -- all of which make up the computational thinking process, which is so valuable in today’s world. Essentially, the soft skills side translates into the development of the key foundational skill -- albeit in a bit of a roundabout way. As for social-emotional skills, robotics tools help students learn together starting at a young age. Educators can use robotics kits to teach the importance of sharing, turn taking, selflessness, and group work -- just like they would with other tools. Since students are typically working in groups of 2-4 when using robotics, it opens up a fine opportunity to teach the importance of a team environment. 

Learning with robotics helps students test out various problem-solving approaches, which contributes to their social-emotional intelligence. Why is that? When students get frustrated with a project or assignment, their natural reaction is to show frustration and give up. Using robotics to show them that there are many ways to achieve their goal, however, plays a role in boosting both their social-emotional and academic development. When students struggle with the coding aspect, in particular, they’re required to communicate with each other, working on their team-building skills in the process. Teaching with robotics helps students develop both the soft skills and the computer science skills they need and, since they will ultimately be combining them if they enter a future computer science career, what better place to start?


Beginner Tips for Bringing STEM and SEL Together

As we know, STEM covers some of the most exciting and important academic subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) and SEL is an approach to learning that is designed to help teachers and students focus on emotional development. While SEL skills can still be learned in a hands-on way, it’s more common for those in the education world to think of STEM as the hands-on portion and SEL as the minds-on portion. Social-emotional learning places a focus on the softer side of student development and, as we already know, much of that focus is on building relationships, communicating feelings, and working collaboratively. There are those educators who see STEM and SEL as always being compatible no matter what the situation is since both provide students with important development and, perhaps more importantly, due to the fact that they can practice soft skills in a safe, friendly, and hands-on environment. 

On one hand, STEM experiences help students develop some of the hard skills and mindsets they need to navigate the daily professional problems they’ll encounter. It helps them to see that perseverance is often the key to problem solving since their initial approaches might not work out as they hope. And, what is perseverance? An important soft skill that ties into social-emotional strength. When students understand that we all fail at times, but that we’re able to learn from mistakes and understand how to do things better, they’re building up their character. And, that’s another nod to SEL. Completing STEM assignments also helps students build confidence, which is crucial in STEM professions. Feeling like they’re equal and that they belong (SEL) will help a lot of today’s students pursue interests in STEM. 

The modern workforce is built, in large part, on how employees utilize a combination of STEM and SEL skills and strategies. This fact can be used by educators to help students develop competencies in both areas and there are some simple strategies they can use to get there in the classroom. The first is to focus on being a facilitator of learning rather than a reciter of information. This will give students the opportunity to be more active and put STEM and SEL concepts into play. Next is to reward the efforts of students by providing positive reinforcements and regular feedback -- opening up conversational doors for guiding discussions. And, finally, working in small groups can greatly help students foster collaboration skills. So, nothing too out of the ordinary, but these simple tips can help students stay on the right track in their development of STEM and SEL skills. 

With Technology Or Not, SEL is Important

Academic achievement and technical skills are no longer necessarily indicative of a successful employee in today’s world. Employers constantly look for candidates with strong sets of soft skills, including the ability to collaborate, think critically, demonstrate ethical responsibility, and communicate effectively. These skills -- these crucially important soft skills and their ties to a successful career -- are one reason why educational leaders are now putting so much effort into social and emotional learning. They also want students to keep their mental health high and know how to ask for help. In any case, SEL skills are paramount in today’s world and, oftentimes, the best way for students to develop them and learn about their importance is when they’re explicitly taught. 

Putting a focus on teaching social-emotional skills actually increases academic engagement a lot of the time. It also helps decrease bullying and school suspensions, research shows. With a solid SEL foundation that starts in the early grades, students also often grow up to be more even keeled adults, including experiencing greater mental health and even greater success in higher education and higher income levels. Teaching SEL to children helps in a number of ways, including those outlined in the image above. SEL experiences can make students more motivated, teach them persistence, help them learn how to foster relationships, and, ultimately, better prepare them for different aspects of the workforce. It can also set them up for success. 

Though it’s becoming more common, SEL programs aren’t always formal due to a lack of resources and no clear way to measure success. This has led to students receiving basic SEL instruction in the form of anti-bullying classes of afterschool workshops, which isn’t necessarily ideal since SEL covers a lot more than that. Technology, however, can help close this gap and empower educators to include SEL as part of the regular school day. It can be used to supplement SEL instruction and as a tool to address some of the delivery obstacles. Online platforms, including game-based solutions, can be used to promote some of the core elements of SEL, including communication, decision-making, positive collaboration, and more. When accessible and incorporated effectively, technology can help SEL growth by boosting engagement, confidence, and personalization, which is why the relationship between tech and SEL has grown. 


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