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Social Emotional Learning and STEM

Connected Science Learning May–June 2023 (Volume 5, Issue 3)

By Beth Murphy

According to Navigating Social and Emotional Learning from the Inside Out, “social and emotional learning (SEL) refers to the process through which individuals learn and apply a set of social, emotional, and related skills, attitudes, behaviors, and values that help direct their thoughts, feelings, and actions in ways that enable them to succeed in school, work, and life.” The importance of purposefully incorporating opportunities for young people to develop these skills, attitudes, behaviors, and values has never been more apparent than it has been in the past few years.

What does SEL have to do with STEM? The roots of how we talk about and implement SEL today go back to ancient Greece. They are central to John Dewey’s approach to education that has been influencing how we teach and how students learn for over 100 years. This rich history has certainly influenced how we teach and learn science and STEM, even if this influence is subtle or perhaps even unwitting. Therefore, now that SEL has taken prominence in education, we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that it is synergistic with and embedded in STEM learning experiences as we know them.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning’s (CASEL) identifies five areas of competence in its framework for SEL:

  • self-awareness
  • self-management
  • social awareness
  • positive relationships
  • responsible decision making

All of these elements are synergistic with skills, attitudes, behaviors, and values that are central to STEM learning. For example, we know that designing learning experiences that help young people develop a STEM-related identity, sense of self-efficacy, confidence, and growth mindset is important—this is a STEM-specific way to think about self-awareness. Self-management comes into play in STEM every time a learner decides how to respond to failure—students need to see failure as a learning opportunity and a springboard for coming up with new possible solutions for an engineering problem or new experimental designs to answer a scientific question. Many STEM learning experiences also strive to forge strong connections with students’ lives and the world around them and incorporate the practice of empathy into the engineering design process—that’s social awareness. We also know that STEM is all about teamwork, cooperation, and collaboration. Learning how to truly listen to the ideas of others and present your ideas so that they are heard is all part of building the skills and behaviors that are essential for positive relationships. And, last but certainly not least, we are reminded that responsible decision making is a core science and engineering practice every time we ask students to support their claims with evidence and reasoning.

Social-emotional skills, attitudes, behaviors, and values are most effectively developed in context, embedded in learning goals that are also historical, literary, artistic, or scientific. Figuring out how to prioritize SEL in STEM isn’t “jumping on the bandwagon.” Rather, it is taking something that truly is fundamental to what STEM learning is, but perhaps has been too implicit or subtle in how STEM learning experiences are traditionally implemented. I hope that you will find the articles in this issue of Connected Science Learning informative and inspirational to your work.

Beth Murphy, PhD (, is field editor for Connected Science Learning and an independent STEM education consultant with expertise in fostering collaboration between organizations and schools, providing professional learning experiences for educators, and implementing program evaluation that supports practitioners to do their best work. 

citation: Murphy, B. 2023. Social emotional learning and STEM. Connected Science Learning 5 (3). 

Informal Education

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