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6 ways SEL can open new doors to STEM

Expanding the view of STEM to incorporate the fields’ crucial soft skills has the potential to welcome a better diversity of students.

4 min read


6 ways SEL can open new doors to STEM

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Social and emotional learning not only has a place in STEM; it is inextricably intertwined, according to the husband-and-wife keynote speakers at SmartBrief’s eighth STEM Pathways Summit on Oct. 28. Rosemary Anderson, a licensed clinical therapist, and Christian Anderson, an associate professor in the Morgan State University’s School of Education and Urban Studies, said SEL is vital to expanding and diversifying the K-12 view of STEM — as well as diversifying STEM’s sometimes-narrow view of the world.

Soft-skills view brings more students into STEM

For too long, STEM’s traditional traits of objectivity and pragmatism have overshadowed equally important elements such as curiosity, empathy, integrity and teamwork, the Andersons said. Recognizing these and other soft skills’ important role in STEM is the perfect pathway for attracting more students into the courses. By building up students’ social and emotional skills, we may help them see they are, in fact, equipped to succeed in STEM courses. 

The Andersons recommended several ways to merge STEM and SEL in your school or classroom: 

  • Develop your own awareness. Name your own emotions and explore different ways of handling them to better equip yourself to aid students with their SEL. Rather than making assumptions about students, learn to build personal relationships with each one to find out what they do and don’t know about the world around them, what really interests them and what their stumbling blocks are. Then evaluate your own willingness to give people what they need to help them feel competent. 
  • Build confidence in students. Praise and rewards are the key levers for creating grit. But many students have already decided — on their own or with the unfortunate help of a parent or teacher — that they’ll never succeed in math or science. Teachers can offer a different view by finding ways to scaffold a student’s strengths into the area of weakness — such as offering a poor reader a hands-on lesson to achieve the same standard. That starts to generate a student’s confidence in the weak subject, enhances it in the strong subject and models the emotion management and problem-solving that lead to resiliency.
  • Demystify math and science. Show students clear examples of ways their daily lives already involve STEM subjects. Team up with other teachers on interdisciplinary lessons that frame how the subjects build off one another. Turn several lessons into collaborative, project-based learning with roots in real-life examples rather than the apples, oranges and train routes of yore. Fashion problems around topics that matter to your students so you can spark their curiosity and eagerness to collaborate with classmates to solve problems. 
  • Create opportunities. Many students have no idea what an engineer or an urban planner or surveyor does — and may not even be aware that the jobs exist. Teachers can use any number of ways to explain a variety of STEM professions to students. 
  • Bring parents on board. Most parents today remember the stress on “hard” science and math in school, but teachers can help them see that STEM has evolved and now is more about applications than calculations. Parents also tend to want to shield their children from failure and hesitate to enroll them in STEM classes, but teachers can explain that a little struggling — as long as it doesn’t create trauma — is how students grow. 
  • Get excited via professional development in STEM. Many teachers also may need to hop on board with what today’s STEM fields look like, and training opportunities are great ways to generate excitement and fresh ideas as well as get new tools to help. Don’t forget to have fun and authentically share your passion. “Let [students] see it and get excited about it,” Christian Anderson said. “They’ll get excited about it because you’re excited about it.”

Ultimately, “teachers must engage in the process of self-awareness and reflection of how you yourself can really impact this conversation on SEL and STEM,” Rosemary Anderson said. “Just go out and do it. … It’s so immense, but if you focus on what YOU can do, and take it and run with it, we can move this work forward.”


Diane Benson Harrington is an education/leadership writer at SmartBrief. Reach out to her at [email protected].


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