SEL and Project-Based Learning

By: Amy Hoffmaster, Citizen Schools 

For nearly 25 years, Citizen Schools has built partnerships with schools, communities and industry mentors to bring real-world project-based learning to middle school students to close opportunity and achievement gaps. Building on our evidence-based afterschool programming, Citizen Schools has developed a new model, Catalyst, to provide science teachers in 6th – 9th grade with the curricular tools and additional supports necessary to integrate high-quality project-based learning experiences for students that include exposure to STEM professionals from their local communities.

Catalyst pairs educators with trained STEM industry experts who volunteer in their classrooms and support teachers in leading high quality, hands-on learning experiences. These projects help adolescents develop the skills, mindsets, and networks they need to thrive and addresses the needs of schools to provide science instruction that is aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and focused on the integration of crosscutting concepts, science, and engineering practices, and core ideas — precisely the integrated skills and mindsets that students need for success in the 21st century workforce. The emphasis on “doing science” in the NGSS also creates an unprecedented opportunity to meaningfully engage STEM volunteers in classrooms and schools.

When students have access to relevant, rigorous deeper learning experiences, with opportunities to practice and build critical social-emotional and problem-solving skills in authentic contexts, they learn better, are more engaged in their learning, and are better able to apply their learning to future settings (Noguera, 2018; Aspen Institute, 2017). Further research indicates that “exposure to innovation,” specifically mentoring relationships with inventors and other STEM experts, is a primary determinant of whether a child grows up to become an inventor, and notes that creating equitable opportunity for students traditionally underrepresented in STEM could as much as quadruple the rate of innovation nationally (Chetty et. al 2017).

These powerful learning experiences should be accessible to all students, and all students should have the opportunity to engage with mentors and content experts from across professions who can help them translate their learning to future careers – including those who look like them, or share similar life experiences – so that students of all backgrounds can see a place for themselves at the table of our country’s greatest and most innovative workplaces.

Before Catalyst projects even begin, students engage in a pre-survey using Panorama and a game-based, collaborative problem-solving assessment (ACTNext) which gives teachers actionable information about students’ strengths and areas to grow during the project. Based on the results from these assessments, teachers are able to facilitate students’ self-reflection about areas for growth, individual and group goal-setting and action planning, and ultimately reflection on individual and group successes. Students share their progress towards their goals at several milestones along the course of the 4-6 week project. 

As a result of this preparation and the meaningful project topics, teachers see the ownership students take in their own learning, by participating in tangible, real-world applications alongside industry mentors. “These projects offer students agency in their own learning and opportunities to think critically and actively work through real world challenges collaboratively. For example, one of the volunteers in my class supported students who were preparing to share their science projects in the community science fair. Those students needed some extra support customizing the designs of their projects and preparing to share their work using effective communication. They practiced answering audience questions about their investigation with the volunteer and received specific, contextualized feedback on what they could do to improve their presentations and responses as they prepared to share their work with the community.”

Catalyst projects kick off with strategies for making the project a safe context for academic risk-taking and focus on social-emotional development. One of our teachers described a strength of the program is that “In the first Catalyst class session the volunteers did a team-building activity and that really helped my students feel comfortable with them and they then felt like they could ask questions during the lesson. It helped with the students’ social-emotional development.”

Projects are designed to allow students to engage in multiple ways, giving them an opportunity to take part in a variety of ways toward the same outcomes:

“There are various ways for students to participate in projects based on their strengths and to support their growth, including verbal, visual, and experiential methods; offering students agency and choice in selecting their projects; and offering topics that are relevant to their interests and values.”

Developing SEL competencies is focused on using a series of flexible, relatively easy to implement strategies within the context of a meaningful, complex project-based learning experience within their core curriculum in science (rather than a stand-alone time dedicated to SEL development or coaching).  

As one teacher said, “These projects offer students agency in their own learning, opportunities to think critically and actively work through real-world challenges collaboratively. This approach to teaching reflects the culture of our school, our strengths, and the high bar we know students in our school can meet and exceed. For my students, it starts with building self-awareness and the ability to think of themselves as scientists (not just kids sitting in a classroom).  It sets up a pattern of the students having their own voice and making key decisions about the direction of the project.” Students have an authentic opportunity to build skills in managing complex work and collaboration because they are invested in the outcome of the project and that is largely because it hat has meaning and relevance in their community outside of their classroom or school.

We are most interested in the aspects of measuring SEL that will provide us with feedback about how adults are implementing the strategies to support social and emotional learning outlined in our program materials and professional development, how students are developing social and emotional competencies including self-efficacy and social awareness.

We know that in early adolescence self-efficacy usually decreases, however, in pre and post- surveys Catalyst students demonstrated a 4% increase in both overall self-efficacy and self-efficacy about science.

Although we’ve found survey results very helpful in understanding the overall impact our program may be driving, we know there is much more to do in terms of supporting teachers to use the SEL assessments to their full potential over the course of this year. Based on feedback from our pilot teachers, we anticipate developing additional resources that support teachers to:

  • Make meaning of and plan action based on pre-surveys within the context of their 6-week unit
  • Use data from pre-surveys to work with students to set their goals more effectively
  • Interpret class level post-project results with confidence and clarity
  • Discuss growth in SEL with students in a developmentally appropriate way
  • Use insights from SEL data to reflect on their own practice and select professional development opportunities in the areas they most hope to grow

Interpreting and using our assessment results for program improvement has been challenging at times. We continue to wonder what student-level data teachers may want or need in the context of our projects and where we should instead offer aggregate, class-level data to protect student anonymity and enable students to answer freely. In order to minimize the time students spend completing assessments, we are balancing the use of surveys for student growth and teacher action and our interest in continuous learning and program improvement in this early stage of the Catalyst program. 

A major challenge in providing opportunities for project-based learning experiences in the classroom is the ability to determine whether the programs being implemented to engage and improve students’ SEL skills are, in fact, achieving those outcomes. We continue to look to this collaborative for strategies to ensure our program is truly engaging and improving students’ skills in critical college and career readiness areas like collaborative problem solving, critical thinking, and building the SEL competencies that will ensure their success in future endeavors.



Disclaimer: The Assessment Work Group is committed to enabling a rich dialogue on key issues in the field and seeking out diverse perspectives. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Assessment Work Group, CASEL or any of the organizations involved with the work group.

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One Comment

  1. Skills-based health education also provides authentic assessment through the use of performance tasks. Students are challenged with a prompt then demonstrate their proficiency of the content, skill, and SEL competency through a demonstration.

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