SEL, Design Thinking, and Virtual Exchanges

Learn about the design thinking process as a critical intersection of STEM and SEL education.

Intentional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education can be a powerful tool to foster empathetic problem solvers who are prepared to tackle the issues that our society faces (from environmental sustainability to structural inequities, for instance).

Let's explore the intersection of STEM and SEL (social-emotional learning), primarily through the design thinking process.

Fostering Empathetic Problem Solvers

STEM is much more than Science, Technology, Engineering and Math; STEM is a culture of problem solving in which all disciplines are used in conjunction to make the world better. An empathetic problem solver first and foremost recognizes our shared humanity.

They seek to understand problems from different points of view. They not only consider how the problem affects them, but also reflect on how their own background and experiences might limit or bias their understanding of an issue and question how others' unique perspectives and circumstances might result in a different experience. Moreover, empathetic problem solvers are motivated to design solutions together with those affected by the problem.

This is why any effort to cultivate critical problem solving skills through STEM goes hand-in-hand with social-emotional learning.

The best way for us to think about STEM is to imagine a learning environment in which students use all the resources at their disposal to solve problems across the curriculum. This means that while reading, writing, and history are not specifically included in the STEM acronym, they can still be used in the STEM learning process. STEM education aims to (Bybee):

The engineering design process is actually a great way to integrate STEM instruction with SEL. Let’s take a deeper look.

Design Thinking Explained

The design thinking process is a solution-based approach that guides engineers (and all problem solvers!) as they work to find solutions to challenges. At its core, the design process helps people to understand challenges faced by communities (using empathy and collaboration) and to find solutions through an iterative process or series of steps. These steps don’t have to be followed linearly-- problem solvers can always re-do or revisit steps as needed. While there are various versions of the design process, the following steps summarize a version that is more appropriate for elementary students.

Step 1: Empathize and ask questions

Students connect with people who face a particular challenge to understand their individual perspective and experience. They ask respectful questions and invite them into the process of taking action and creating solutions! They also consider how their own experiences could bias or limit their understanding of a challenge and others’ experiences.

Step 2: Define the problem

Students use what they learned from practicing empathy to define and state the specific problem they want to find a solution for! It’s super important to collaborate with people who actually experience the challenge throughout the process-- not only do they have invaluable insights given their experience, but they will be the ones to actually use the solution.

Step 3: Think of possible solutions

Students think of as many ideas as possible to address the problem using their imagination and also get ideas from those who face the challenge directly. The goal is to be as creative as possible and dream big!

Step 4: Create a model of the solution

Students rank their ideas and select their best one-- that is, the idea that would best meet the needs of those who face the challenge. They can do this in collaboration with those involved in solving the problem, and most importantly, those who actually experience it! Then, they pare it down to create a simple version or model of it! They can use any materials available to create the design or prototype. The goal is to be able to have something to test the idea and improve further in the next stage.

Step 5: Test your solution

Students share their solution or design with the people who would be using it in order to get further insight on how to improve their idea! It is important to seek feedback from those who would actually be using the solution they have designed and focus on their experience. The goal of this step is to learn what can make your idea better, and they can go back to any of the previous steps, if necessary.

The Intersection of SEL & Design Thinking

Design thinking can be used to foster students' STEM, problem solving, and social-emotional skills. Here are a few social-emotional skills that are key to the design thinking process:

1) Empathy refers to our ability to relate to the feelings and take the perspectives of others, as well as our desire to take compassionate action to help others (more on empathy here). Empathy is key to both understanding the problems we are trying to solve, as well as to creating feasible solutions that best address the problem. In essence, it helps us connect with people who are affected by the problem, better understand the issues from their perspective, and to more deeply understand the impact and implications of potential solutions.

2) Self Awareness involves the ability to recognize our strengths and limitations and to understand how our feelings, thoughts, and values influence our actions (CASEL). To be compassionate problem solvers, we must be aware of how our backgrounds influence (and perhaps limit) our interpretation of the challenge. Being self-aware enables us to notice blindspots and biases, and to seek different perspectives to arrive at the best possible solutions.

3) Growth mindset is the understanding that intelligence and abilities can be developed over time through hard work, good strategies, and input from others (Dweck). In the simplest terms, it is the belief that we can improve. Through an experimental and iterative process, design thinking supports the idea that there are valuable lessons in making mistakes and improving on your design throughout the process.

4) Relationship Skills refer to the ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups (CASEL). As problem solvers, we cannot pursue solutions alone without collaborating with those who actually experience those problems. Relationship skills are what allow us to meaningfully engage with others and collaborate with them to creatively design solutions.

5) Respectful Communication is the ability to (a) actively listen and (b) respond with kindness to others, even if we disagree with what they are saying (Bruno). When problem solving, we must listen to understand others’ perspectives, and be open to changing our minds. In general (but especially when we are not the ones who are directly impacted by a problem), it is critical that we actively listen to those who are impacted. This means we should be proactive about incorporating their perspective in the process instead of just sticking to our own ideas.

In brief, integrating socioemotional skills in the design thinking process promotes inclusivity and collaboration, as well as a safe environment where problem solvers can feel safe to fail and experiment with creative ideas. While this is certainly not an exhaustive list of the ways in which SEL supports design thinking, it makes it evident that the two go hand-in-hand.

Can you think of other SEL skills that support STEM and Design Thinking?

Using Virtual Exchanges in the Design Thinking Process

Incorporating virtual exchanges into our design thinking projects is a powerful way to help students explore the world, collaborate to tackle global issues alongside global peers, and appreciate different perspectives. They enable students to experience the exchange of ideas and feedback in a way that expands their horizons and improves their design solutions. There is no set-in-stone process for integrating virtual exchanges into your design thinking projects -- you could even use the design thinking process to test when and where it works best with your students! That said, here are a few ideas:

1) Have students collaborate on projects together and use virtual exchanges to brainstorm ideas and share feedback. In this case, the 2 classrooms would be trying to solve a similar problem and you and your partner teacher can help coordinate what work should be done together or separately. Note: for younger students, consider sharing feedback asynchronously so they have time to prepare their responses.

2) Each classroom could tackle challenges faced by their partner classroom. For instance, young students could use the design thinking process to design school uniforms for each other based on their partners’ preferences, school rules, local climate, etc.

3) Each classroom tackles problems in their own communities, but use the virtual exchanges as a way to share ideas and feedback, and learn about the design thinking process together.

However you decide to incorporate virtual exchanges into your STEM instruction, here are some important actions to take:

1) Make sure students collaborating perceive each other as equal. Any time students use language that indicates they might perceive (and accept) a power imbalance between the groups, be intentional about disrupting it and reinforcing concepts of respect and equality.

2) Protect against feelings of superiority and pity that could develop in students (instead of empathy). Students should see each other as individuals who have much to learn from each other. [Here’s a resource on how to respond to student biases.]

3) Support relationship-building among students through repeated virtual exchanges, which is key to developing a true appreciation for each other’s perspectives.

4) Encourage experiences where students share personal stories and emotions. When we feel together, we become closer. In the context of design thinking, encourage students to share what they feel throughout the process, from talking to people who experience the challenge to testing their ideas. They can also share learnings and reflections together -- this is a great way to share knowledge and spark meaningful conversations.

If this all seems overwhelming, do not worry! Just like the design thinking process, integrating virtual exchanges into your STEM curriculum requires a growth mindset and is an iterative process that you’ll figure out step-by-step and improve along the way.

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