“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” -- Aristotle
When you think about the skills developed by computer science and STEM, what kinds of skills come to mind? Certainly technical skills, but also skills like problem-solving, critical thinking, perseverance, and project management! These are examples of social-emotional learning (SEL) skills that support students to make confident choices in academics and beyond.
Social-Emotional Learning and Computer Science: What’s the Link?
First, it may help to define SEL. SEL represents the process used to teach children the skills, attitudes, and knowledge they need to manage and process emotions. Critically important, this process enables kids to act with empathy, to build positive relationships, and much more.
So how does SEL relate to computer science? When kids learn about computers, robotics, and other STEM subjects, they work on computational thinking. This type of thinking not only cultivates skills needed for recognizing patterns and solving coding problems but also creates opportunities for navigating emotional and social situations. When kids use hands-on methods to learn math and science (the preferred method for children) — they interact with others and work on sharing and expressing themselves — key factors of SEL.
Overall, when kids learn both computer science and SEL, it’s a win-win. Research shows that having greater social and emotional competence increases the likelihood of graduating from high school, being ready for college, having better mental health, and even maintaining better family and work relationships.
Key Skills Developed by Effective Social-Emotional Learning
Social-emotional learning can help children develop in five key areas. With these skills, they’ll become more qualified job candidates — as those with strong SEL skills have an average achievement of eleven percentile points higher than average.
Self-aware kids can understand and process their thoughts and emotions. They also come to learn about their identity through their strengths, interests, and values. Computer science can help students as they develop their self-awareness. Coding includes lots of trial and error and debugging, and we can encourage our students to develop their self-awareness through reinforcing a growth mindset, providing ample opportunities for reflection, identifying emotions and thoughts about successes and challenges with coding, and tying students' interests and identities into their coding projects.
As kids work toward developing their self-awareness, we can also support them in actively regulating their behaviors, thoughts, and feelings through self-management. Self-management means that kids use skills and mindsets to create and persevere toward their goals, such as debugging a coding project, programming a robot to navigate an obstacle course, or solving a puzzle. In each of these example activities, students practice self-management by taking initiative, planning and organizing the steps needed to achieve the goal, and using a variety of strategies to manage stress and challenges that may arise along the way.
Social awareness proves especially important for kids in STEM fields, as students often develop processes and projects to meet a variety of needs for users from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, and contexts. With social awareness, kids are supported to empathize with those who come from differing backgrounds through strategies like pair programming, user interviews, beta testing, peer feedback, and observations. The CSTA Standards and K12 CS Framework provide helpful guidance on ways that kids in all age groups can help to foster an inclusive computing culture, such as including others’ perspectives and considering user preferences when developing and planning a program, brainstorming ways to improve the accessibility and usability of technology products for the diverse needs and wants of users, and evaluating the ways computing impacts personal, ethical, social, economic, and cultural practices.
Computer scientists and people working in STEM fields often work on a variety of teams, as well as interacting with clients, colleagues, and even the community at different points through the program development, testing, and launch process. Relationship skills are important for all of us for successful work and social lives. We can support kids to develop their relationship skills through computer science by providing regular opportunities for students to share and discuss topics like projects, current events, and debugging. We can structure and support pair programming, small group work, and peer feedback opportunities so that kids practice and develop teamwork, collaborative problem-solving, and constructive ways to resolve conflicts and differences of opinion or approach. When paired with social awareness, relationship skills also provide further practice with empathy and identifying ways that computational artifacts can help to reduce bias and increase equity and access on small and large scales.
Responsible Decision Making
Making good decisions often requires considering the interests of one’s self and others. Responsible decision making is an essential part of computer science because of the wider implications of many computational artifacts, such as AI and machine learning. We can support kids to develop their responsible decision-making skills through data gathering, representation, and analysis, thinking through positive and negative impacts of technologies (including specific conversations around bias and representation), using human-centered design to develop computational solutions to personal and social issues, discussing a variety of problem-solving approaches, and recognizing that all of us play important roles in evaluating computational artifacts and their impacts on society
How Computer Science, Coding, and SEL Will Prepare Kids for the Careers of Tomorrow
As you can see, SEL and computer science pair together well to help kids to learn and practice essential skills. But how do we teach them? One effective method is to use the SAFE acronym — sequenced, active, focused, and explicit. This means lessons should be connected, coordinated, and hands-on — focusing on developing personal and social skills alongside computer science and technical skills. Doing so can help shape children and prepare them for the STEM careers of tomorrow, where they’ll need both technical and social-emotional skills to be successful. When we think about preparing kids for their future, hopefully, we can see areas like computer science as the perfect platform for real-world, real-time social-emotional, and technical learning development.
Andrea Wilson Vazquez is the Director of Educator Training with Code Savvy, a Minnesota non-profit that seeks to empower kids and educators with the knowledge, skills, and support to create new things with technology, all while working to interrupt and counteract gender and racial gaps in computing. Andrea founded the MNCodes Educator Training program and facilitates training sessions at local, state and national ed tech, STEM, and maker-related conferences on various topics, including computational thinking and computer science for all, design thinking, entrepreneurship, project and passion-based learning, and equitable teaching practices. Andrea is also a teacher and innovation coach at an alternative high school, where she specializes in engaging students with a variety of unique learning needs through creative problem-solving with technology. Andrea is passionate about the role of equity in computer science and maker education and the ways that those fields empower all learners to develop a growth mindset in which they see themselves as confident, creative, critical thinkers. Find her on Twitter @wilsandrea.
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