STEM and SEL in Tandem, at Home

By Eric Iversen 

For a long time, advocates of STEM education have worked to bring STEM learning closer to students’ lives outside of school. This year, though, COVID has made STEM learning a part of students’ lives in ways nobody ever imagined or wanted. As schools were forced to close, educators have been managing the switch to emergency remote learning to the greatest of their abilities, and the resources and strategies that have been shared across the K-12 world are voluminous. Even so, there is no doubt that uprooting STEM education from the school building comes with many kinds of loss, including carefully designed classroom and lab spaces set up with technical equipment and materials that are impossible to replicate in the home.

Much of the job of sustaining STEM learning—like all of K-12 learning—has by default fallen to families. The necessity for students to learn from home has changed many previously defined features of home life for parents and children, casting them in a new teacher-student relationship with little guidance in how to make it all work.

Though stressful and disruptive, this shift in roles can also open parents and children to new possibilities for growth and learning in both academic and personal realms. At-home STEM education can become a vehicle for promoting connectedness and resilience among family members, a boon for all in a time when tragedy and hardship have touched everyone.

In fact, many current models of STEM learning and social-emotional learning (SEL) mutually reinforce lessons drawn from both realms. The Partnerships in Education and Resilience (PEAR) Institute at the McLean Hospital in suburban Boston supports diverse research programs in social-emotional learning. One thread of the research agenda addresses STEM learning through a multifaceted assessment framework that blends both STEM and SEL principles and practices. A “whole-child” model of psychological balance, the PEAR framework rests on four pillars of learning that can serve as a de facto checklist for families to use in their own at-home STEM learning activities. They can be summarized as follows, per a presentation by PEAR Director Gil Noam:

  • Active engagement – hands-on, kinetic experience with learning that moves students’ bodies.
  • Assertiveness – expression of individual experiences and thoughts in students’ own, authentic voices.
  • Belonging – learning and activity undertaken in collaboration and informed by interdependence and shared purpose.
  • Reflection – space and time dedicated to making meaning of experience and integrating it into a student’s identity.

All four of these items describe features of effective STEM as well as social-emotional learning programs. Parents who can incorporate these components into at-home STEM activities will be fostering both academic and social-emotional learning; the shared learning experience can be enriching and strengthen connectedness between parent and child along the way.

Various STEM education efforts have responded to COVID conditions by working to assimilate SEL principles into learning activities. Vivify STEM offers granular, point-by-point guidance for particular STEM activities that support SEL competencies such as self-awareness and responsible decision-making. They illustrate how Sphero robots, Ping Pong-ball design challenges, and model sailboat construction exercises can be used to boost SEL. The Indiana Department of Education has laid out specific examples of how educators and families can encourage SEL growth through STEM-based learning activities. Opportunities for students to connect STEM and SEL include programs and activities that range from the local to the global.

As vehicles of learning adjacent to at-home schooling, out-of-school programs are uniquely positioned to relieve some of the burdens thrust onto parents. Learn Fresh manages NBA Math Hoops, for example, and Girlstart has amplified training for college-age mentors who lead their STEM programs in ways to connect with younger participants.

Through these examples and others, families can find inspiration or even specific guidance for how to make STEM and SEL work together in the home. In whatever way the combination takes shape, the synergy of learning across STEM and SEL modalities can feed reservoirs of resilience in children. Experiencing learning and growth within an emotional landscape of balance and connectedness can inoculate children against damage in social, academic, and developmental realms that could otherwise result from the loss of in-school time during the pandemic. To be sure, daily life during COVID has often been a bewildering blur. But there are opportunities that have arisen from the challenges of remote learning that teachers and parents can run with, including the incorporation of SEL principles into STEM learning, and vice versa.

Eric Iversen is Vice President for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering, a print and digital media company that develops materials and services to help educators integrate STEM education and career learning into K-12 education. He has worked in education for over 25 years, as a teacher, writer, publisher, and administrator, and he has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. By coincidence, his first job out of college was at W. W. Norton.

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