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How to engage learners with a combination of STEM and SEL

Students need to be emotionally connected to what they are learning in any subject, including STEM. Find out how to engage your students with both STEM and SEL.
How to engage learners with a combination of STEM and SEL
How to engage learners with a combination of STEM and SEL

Blog series: Spotlighting SEL in the Hāpara-supported classroom

This blog series is designed to provide educators with examples from the classroom of how the Hāpara Instructional Suite can be used to support social and emotional learning (SEL). We will explore themes from Supporting Child and Student Social, Emotional, Behavioral, and Mental Health Needs as well as the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) framework for applying evidence-based SEL strategies to your classroom.

In December, I had the privilege of hanging out with a group of grade five students who were working on a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) activity. Their objective was to save a hippopotamus. They had to build a way to move the hippo without touching the floor a distance of 1.5 meters. The group was enjoying visiting the supply table and problem solving how to move the hippo. While they were appreciative of the opportunity to be creative, they didn’t seem to be able to intellectually break down the situation and consider ways to solve the problem. Plus, they tried to solve the problem with very unorganized trial and error. One learner shared that they were just trying things and hoping for the best. What their teacher and I later realized was that we needed to engage them with both STEM and SEL (social and emotional learning).

Why learners weren’t initially emotionally motivated 

How the learners were approaching the problem was really interesting to observe and talk to the teacher about since the class regularly engaged in STEM or STEAM (addition of arts) activities. As a class and in teams, they have developed strategies for problem solving as they also compete in STEM events against other schools, online for the past two years due to COVID-19 protocols. This group has been successful in the past with reimagining how you might use different supplies in new ways. Not this day.

It was then that the teacher and I noticed that the learners didn’t seem to be intellectually engaged or emotionally motivated to “save the hippo.” The teacher played the popular song, “All I Want for Christmas Is a Hippopotamus” and invited her learners to save the hippo in time for the class holiday party. It seemed to ignite some interest, but it was quickly outlived. 

We gathered the students together and asked them why they weren’t motivated to “save the hippo.”  What we quickly learned from the students was that the scenario was not familiar and they didn’t have an emotional connection to the scenario. The idea of saving a hippo was so unrealistic to the group that they didn’t take the task as a serious learning opportunity. We asked what was familiar to them that they might connect to differently. Learners reminded us that the area had experienced floods, forest fires and other natural disasters. They connected with animals native to the area: moose, dear, elk, farm stock, pets and many birds.

Reworking the STEM activity with SEL

The learners took a short break, and we reworked the scenario and supplies available to them. When students returned to class, they were invited to save a barn of cows from a grassfire or to save a moose from a quickly flooding landscape. We immediately noticed a different response from the learners. They:

  • carefully considered the scenario in groups
  • applied problem-solving skills to break down the problem and find a suitable solution
  • creatively used and reimagined how to use common household items in their rescue missions
  • were successful in their mission

You, like me, might be saying to yourself, really? REALLY? An animal and scenario made all the difference? Yes. Why? We incorporated SEL into the STEM activity.

Benefits of integrating STEM and SEL

STEM education and SEL have many common elements that align. When taught in alignment, students can reap the benefits of an integrated learning experience. Before writing my blog, I connected with a few very successful STEM teams in the area. I shared our experience and asked for their perspective. They all shared that the more accurate the STEM activity is and the more learners can feel empathy for the situation, the more they are able to be creative and problem solve with compassion. COVID-19 has changed the STEM landscape in the schools that I connected with here in Canada. Teachers are really seeing the benefits of integrating STEM and SEL.

SEL and STEM Venn Diagram

Integrating STEM and SEL through Hāpara Workspace

As you work to create this experience with your learners in your Hāpara Workspace, consider this STEAM Workspace that Heather Rentz and I collaborated to make a few years ago.

Pinball Wizard - Design Thinking STEAM Activity Workspace

The Workspace centers around design thinking and a pinball machine design STEAM challenge. There is also an extension activity where learners can explore electricity and magnetism. We invite you to take this Workspace and personalize it for your context and group of learners. 

Consider ways to incorporate SEL into this Workspace:

  • How can you connect this activity to the concepts that you are working on with your learners? Students who are struggling with their social emotional development are not ready to learn. How are you creating connections that help them be ready?
  • Learners that are more engaged are able to more readily develop understanding of key concepts and ideas. Hands-on opportunities to learn tend to support intellectual engagement. As you work to provide SEL strategies embedded into your classwork, learners will be able to develop academic rigor and connect to their social emotional development. 
  • Do your classroom activities provide learners with the opportunities to develop skills to communicate, collaborate and make responsible decisions?  
  • How do your learners practice being able to connect with others in a positive way, communicating and building relationships with the people around them?
  • STEM activities are not just a means of preparing students to learn social emotional skills. They are also activities that prepare students for potential careers. Learning how to prepare for daily actions with others, alongside skills that prepare them for life beyond the classroom, is our goal every day. STEM and SEL together provide that medium for us to use and expand with our learners.

Just remember that SEL isn’t an extra thing we need to teach. It is the foundation we use to plan our learning experiences.

Explore how an educator uses Hāpara Highlights as a coaching tool for social and emotional learning in her classroom.

Developing a classroom culture of resilience with Hāpara Highlights mockup small

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