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Extension > Youth Development Insight > November 2013

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Turning STEM skills into STEM capabilities

Joanna-Tzenis.jpgWhat real opportunities do youth have to pursue STEM-related professions? Learning engineering skills is one thing, but knowing how to become an engineer is something else.

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) has emerged has an educational buzzword over the last few years. K-12 schools, higher education and non-formal educational programs alike have all increased their efforts to improve STEM learning and outcomes.

This effort comes in direct response to President Obama's "Educate to Innovate" campaign, launched in 2009. The national problem this campaign addresses is twofold: American students are lagging behind other countries in achievement measures in these subjects. Further, U.S. Department of Labor data show that of the 20 fastest growing occupations projected for 2014, 15 of them require significant mathematics or science preparation, but our young people lack the skills and training to fill these jobs.

Most STEM educational initiatives take a human capital approach. This approach says that an investment in young people's skills and knowledge will yield an economic return because young people gain the skills to participate in the labor market.

This approach doesn't go far enough. It does not address the less obvious social conditions that address how young people can actually translate the skills they learn in STEM education into a profession. Youth programs need to address this gap, too.

stem-youth.JPGIn contrast to the human capital approach, the Amartya Sen capabilities approach provides a framework for looking at the role that social, material or institutional conditions play in enabling (or restricting) young people to perform well in in their educationally pursuits and more importantly, to make the choice to pursue STEM-related professions. In other words, the capabilities approach does not just look at the skills young people have, but at the set of opportunities they have available to them to actually use these skills in a way that they value.

For example, imagine if a young person masters engineering skills and dreams of becoming an engineer, but doesn't know how to apply to college. What if she sees no female role models in the field, and believes it's not a real option for her because she's a girl? In order for STEM education to be of value to young people, we cannot solely train them with knowledge and skills. We must look at and address the set of opportunities they have to put these skills to use in a way that is meaningful to them.

Minnesota 4-H youth development is working to expand young people's opportunities to pursue STEM fields. We recently received a round of CYFAR funding to develop STEM youth programs designed for lower-income, middle-school aged youth living in Minneapolis and St. Paul who are part of the lower end of the achievement gap and not involved with youth programs. This program model is designed to work with youth across their many social settings -- connecting their education to their family and community contexts.

The hallmark of these programs will be working with youth to develop an educational plan connecting their learning to higher education. We'll take young people to university campuses where they can connect with mentors in the field and experience campus life.

Do you take a capabilities approach? How else might we expand young people's set of opportunities to pursue STEM related professions through education? What program inputs might shape young people's opportunities to pursue STEM?

-- Joanna Tzenis, assistant Extension professor, Children, Youth and Families at Risk (CYFAR)

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Bringing the social and emotional learning to after-school programs

Jennifer-Skuza.jpgWhy is social and emotional learning important to youth development? I thought about this recently when I attended our symposium on this subject.

The symposium was a wonderful opportunity for more than 400 people who work with and on behalf of children, youth and families to learn about social and emotional learning (SEL) and identify ways to help young people thrive. Our keynote speaker, Dr. Roger Weissberg, defined social and emotional learning as a process through which children, youth, and adults learn to recognize and manage emotions, demonstrate care and concern for others, develop positive relationships, make good decisions, and behave ethically, respectfully, and responsibility.

As I reflected on his definition, I thought about why social and emotional learning is important to youth development. I see SEL as a foundation in which a strong sense of self can be built. With that stability, young people are better able to thrive in everyday life, while standing up to social pressures that sometimes knock people down or at diminish their quality of life. SEL can also chart youth on a path of discovering the world in relation to others - by this I mean, where young people learn to cultivate healthy relationships while personally investing in the people around them.
As I reflected on the event, some other insights also resonated with me as a thought about the relationship between SEL and youth development.

Social and emotional skills can be learned

To demonstrate this, Dr. Weissberg showed a video on how math could be taught as a social activity. In the video, the math teacher facilitated a process with students to identify classroom norms that reinforced social and emotional skill building. Those norms were then threaded through every activity in the classroom session.
This teacher was an excellent model. Youth workers could have similar effects in their practice - and probably many do. But what types of professional development are needed for youth workers bolster their skills even more?

Social and emotional learning can improve students' education outcomes

Data from a CASEL meta-analysis reviewed 213 rigorous studies of social and emotional programs in schools nationwide. Findings show that academic achievement and pro-social behavior significantly increase in schools that have such programs while behavioral problems and emotional distress decrease.

After-school programs can play critical roles promoting educational outcomes among students and creating positive school climates. What would be the impact if school and after-school personnel in any given school building operated from complementary educational philosophies that fostered SEL?

Coordinated family, school, and community networks are needed

This multilayered network is needed to both craft and implement social and emotional learning programs so that rings of support surround children and youth throughout the daily life. For instance, without a strong family, it can be very difficult to nurture a solid foundation for development in children and youth because family is the earliest, most basic environment in which we learn. So family is an important part of the network. Coordinating efforts among all the places and peoples that surround children and youth is a tall order but worth it. What would it take in the community you live or work in?

Learning environments are everywhere

They are all around us - homes, farms, schools, recreation centers, sports facilities, clubs, campgrounds, after-school programs, faith-based centers, libraries, parks, playgrounds, fields and forests. The list could go on. Each environment has the potential to build and reinforce emotional health and social skills. What can you do to improve the learning environments within your circle of influence?

Jennifer A. Skuza, PhD, assistant dean

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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A map through the jungle of social and emotional learning

elizabeth-hagen.jpgHow do we navigate through the SEL jungle? Having agreed that now is the time to make this journey I can recommend these valuable resources from Strive Together and its Minnesota network partner, Generation Next.

Strive Together

Strive is fostering a network of communities building the civic infrastructure necessary to support the success of every child from cradle to career. It has developed a Student Roadmap to Success -- a framework to guide communities in supporting the development of young people from cradle to career to improve youth outcomes and eliminate the achievement gap.

The upper half of the visual representation of this roadmap is focused on academic benchmarks, and the lower half on student and family support benchmarks - including the development of social and emotional competence.

The problem for many communities using the road map, however, was getting a better sense of how to more explicitly name social and emotional competencies and effectively move them to the level of the other goals that focus on academic proficiency.

clear-path.jpgRecognizing the need for greater clarity on how social emotional competencies affect achievement and how these competencies can be measured and improved, Strive recently released a three-volume report, Beyond Content: Incorporating Social and Emotional Learning into the Strive Framework. It is a good entry point for anyone taking on social and emotional learning. It focuses on five competencies:
  1. Academic self-efficacy
  2. Growth mindset/mastery orientation
  3. Grit/perseverance
  4. Emotional competence
  5. Self-regulated learning/study skills.

The first volume describes these competencies and summarizes the evidence of their malleability and their relationship to academic achievement. The second volume provides a summary of different measures of social and emotional skills across the Cradle to Career continuum, and the third volume includes the actual surveys used to measure these skills.

Together these reports serve as resources for cross-sector education partners as they select which competencies to focus on and how to measure the effects of their efforts. This focus on measurement acknowledges the reality that the development of social and emotional competencies is much more likely to be prioritized if data show both the need for such focus and that such focus leads to measurable improvement.

Generation Next

Here in the Twin Cities, Generation Next, our local member of the nationwide Strive Network, recognizes the importance of developing social and emotional competencies. Their Noncognitive Task Force has recommended a sixth goal be added: "All seventh graders are socially and emotionally equipped to learn". This proposed goal refers to learning in and out of the classroom, and to persistence in learning. Like the others, this goal names a skill and names a grade for assessment.
While ambitious, this level of clarity gives our schools, out-of-school programs, community leaders, and families a clear goal for bridging the achievement gap. Reaching it may lead to better understanding of which skills to focus on and how to improve these critical outcomes for youth.

What is your reaction to this proposed goal? If it were accepted, would it help your work? How could you make it a visible part of your community's commitment to young people?

How would measuring social and emotional development enhance your work with youth? Is this a path through the jungle that makes sense to you?

-- Elizabeth Hagen, Graduate research assistant for the Howland Social and Emotional Learning Initiative, doctoral candidate in school psychology

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
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