The Story Behind Social Emotional Learning

By Qing Hua, CEO

At Build a Robot K12, we incorporate Social Emotional Learning (SEL) into everything we do. In every course we lead, we share a social emotional theme with students, ranging from growth mindset and empathy to resilience and persistence. Many people ask why SEL is a key part of our pedagogy and how long we have been doing it. Well here’s the story, let me take you back to 2015.  
 
First Stop – Hands-on Learning Camps in Beijing, China
 
While planning a vacation to Beijing during the summer of 2015, a college friend and I started comparing notes about our kids’ “modern day” education: hers in Beijing, China and mine in Colorado, US. We both felt that while our kids worked hard at school, they seemed to be doing the same academic work we did decades ago. For example, they still spend a lot of time listening to long lectures, doing worksheets, and memorizing things by rote learning. Working in the telecom industry and witnessing how fast the world had been changing, we both felt a strong need to let our kids spend as much time as possible in areas of creativity, hands-on learning, communication, and problem solving to adapt to the fast-changing world. 
 
“What if we start a summer camp with an emphasis on creativity, hands-on learning, and problem solving?” I asked. That curiosity led me to google words like “problem solving and education”, “cutting edge teaching,” and “fun learning,” until I landed on an intriguing school: STEM Lab Magnet School. After attending a STEM Lab open house, listening to the STEM coordinator share a model called Problem-Based Learning, sitting in the students’ self-designed classroom, and touring the garden that they had built at the entrance of the school, I was hooked! 
 
The urge to create a camp for students outside of this lucky school propelled me to write to the school and ask if any teacher would be interested in teaching STEM in China that summer. It was already April, but we quickly assembled a team of four passionate teachers to embark on the journey. That summer, along with my college friend and her long-time colleague, we led 4 weeks of STEM summer camps for more than 200 students in Beijing. 
 
As with any group of students, we observed a wide range of behaviors, but one common theme emerged: the students were very competitive! When we played a simple game, in order to win, some students would withhold resources from the other groups. Some students had reservations about trying new things as they were afraid to make mistakes. Brainstorming sessions often started with a long silence as few students volunteered to share ideas for fear of being judged. When we put kids in groups, they had a challenging time acknowledging each other’s ideas and collaborating with each other.  
Second Stop: Fostering a Socially and Emotionally Safe Learning Community

When we reflected on that summer’s experience, we realized that although we were successful in conventional terms, we were missing a key component for innovation—a safe, emotionally and socially connected community. When we returned to China for a second summer, we expanded to four cities with 15 teachers teaching 400 students, and we added Social Emotional Learning modules to our programs. 

Every day, our camp shared a theme such as risk-taking, collaboration, growth mindset, communication, and gratitude. Besides building a community for students, another reason behind adding social emotional learning was to help teachers grow resilience. Traveling to a foreign country to teach for a few weeks sounds fun, but it is not for the faint of heart, as there is always something unexpected to deal with. For all of us to take the ride together, everyone involved in the camp had to embrace growth mindsets as learners, innovators, collaborators and parents. 

The additional time spent on building Social Emotional skills proved extremely valuable. Our campers were less anxious and uptight and became more collaborative, relaxed, and creative. I can’t remember how many hugs I witnessed among teachers, students, and parents at the closing ceremony. I often “blamed” my co-founders Tracey and Andrea for giving their hearts, sweat, and wisdom to all the international camps we have organized since 2015. If it weren’t for their remarkable work and being moved by the impact we made, I probably wouldn’t have dived into making a positive difference in the world through education. Now, that has become my mission.    

Next Stop: SEL is a Must Have for Build a Robot K12
 

The Build A Robot K12 vision is to empower all kids to imagine, build, and create solutions for a diverse, inclusive, and thriving society. This means we are raising kids to be courageous and innovative. By definition, innovators will stumble and fail. For kids to innovate, it is critical that we create a safe and supportive environment for them to step out of their comfort zone, share their ideas, and work through multiple iterations of improvements. In our immersion programs, we lead kids to engage in various social emotional activities to help them build self-confidence, courage, and compassion for others. 

Building social emotional skills is a lifelong journey. Over the years, we have embraced principles from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to grow students’ skills in Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship, and Responsible Decision Making. We have also used evidence-based curricula such as the Big Ideas developed by Stanford and Harvard implemented by Classdojo, Character Lab developed by Angela Duckworth. 

It is encouraging to see so many schools and school districts incorporate social emotional learning into students’ learning during the pandemic. While sharing a co-working space with my 9-yr old daughter in our basement in the Fall of 2020, I overheard an exchange that made my heart sing. On Zoom her teacher said, “Today, we are going to discuss the Growth Mindset. Does anyone know what a growth mindset is?” My daughter (also a Build A Robot K12 student) replied, ”You say, ‘not yet,’ and you don’t easily give up, because your brain always grows when you try.”

Maya Angelou said:”We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” Just when the caterpillar thought she was going to die, she discovered her wings. We will fly in 2021 and onward. 

If you are curious about what courses cover which social emotional topics, click here!

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- Author -

QING HUA

Founder & CEO

Qing is passionate about fusing education, technology, industry, diversity, and human empathy to make this world a better place through education. Before starting Build a Robot K12, Qing worked in the telecommunication industry for 15 years as a senior engineer, engineering manager, and a product manager. Qing holds a MBA and a MS in Telecommunication from University of Colorado at Boulder, a MA in Communications from University of Delaware, and a BS in Electronics Engineering from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. She currently serves on the Colorado Department of Education Gifted Education State Advisory Committee. Outside of work, Qing enjoys books, new tech, music, the outdoors, and exploring new places and cultures.

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