Teaching about Societal Issues in Science Classrooms.
by McCann, Wendy Sherman
Current reform movements in science education call for all students
to be "scientifically literate." One aspect of literacy includes an understanding
of the various roles of science in society, from both local and global
perspectives. One way to examine the roles of science in society is through
study of community issues, matters that evoke diverse viewpoints, present
competing interpretations of data, and offer choices among possible actions.
On a global scale, consideration of societal issues can lead to questions
*Is overpopulation a problem in this society? In the world?
*How do new diseases (like AIDS, Ebola, Hantavirus) emerge? How will
we keep them under control?
*Do we have an obligation to "help" developing countries? How do we
ensure the use of "culturally appropriate" technology?
*What does the mentality of a "throw-away society" mean for local ecology?
*Would a nuclear power plant be a wise investment for my community?
*How will work on the Human Genome Project affect our individual privacy
These are possible topics for today's science classrooms, but should
teachers include them? How can this be done?
INCLUDING SOCIAL ISSUES IN SCIENCE CLASSROOMS
In summarizing the Project Synthesis report in 1981, Harms and Yager
called for "a major redefinition and reformulation of the goals for science
education...[taking] into account the fact that students today will soon
be operating as adults in a society which is even more technologically-oriented
than at present; they will be participating as citizens in important science-related
The National Science Teachers' Association followed up on this recommendation
by issuing guidelines for school science classes that emphasize connections
between science and society (1982, 1990). More recently, Project 2061's
"Benchmarks for Science Literacy" (1993) and the "National Science Education
Standards" (1996) each call for an approach to school science that includes
discussion of the nature of the scientific enterprise and its interplay
with local, national and global communities.
For traditional, discipline-based programs, these ideas represent a
radical shift in thinking from the science- career preparation mode of
school curricula that have dominated since the 1960s. But the idea of using
social issues to facilitate learning and critical thinking in the classroom
is not new to the environmental education or the science, technology, society
(STS) curricular movements. Research and recommendations from these literatures
will be important in reshaping more traditional science courses to correspond
with reform efforts.
Yager and Lutz (1995) give some specific reasons for including societal
issues in school science courses: (1) it justifies information included
in science courses; (2) it allows students to find science classes relevant
to their daily lives; (3) it enables teachers to evaluate student success
at application and synthesis of ideas; (4) it redefines the teacher's role
to be "facilitator," and relegates the textbook's status to "information
source; (5) it may allow for increased scientific understanding of concepts,
based on cognitive theories of learning; and (6) it provides a vehicle
for tying the whole school program together.
Practicing scientists also recognize the importance of the interplay
between science and society. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists
(UCS) has been working for nearly three decades to "advance responsible
public policies in areas where science and technology play a critical role."
In 1992, the UCS-sponsored "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity" was
signed by some 1700 scientists, including a majority of Nobel laureates
in science. Also, Hurd (1991) has pointed out that research in the sciences
is increasingly focused on solving societal problems, and that recent philosophies
of science knowledge stress its societal context.
Given these compelling reasons to include discussion of societal issues
in science classrooms, what are the best instructional approaches to take?
This question becomes particularly important in light of a study by Mitchener
and Anderson (1989) where findings indicated that some teachers may avoid
covering science-related social issues because of concerns about teaching
Aikenhead (1992) has developed a model of the interface between science,
technology, and society that may help in the sequencing of instructional
topics (see Figure 1). He attaches a ring of "technology" around a circle
of "science content," and places this on a backdrop of "society." Imagining
a vector passing through the diagram, we can follow his idea of sequence.
The instruction could start with a discussion of the societal aspects of
an issue, then cover technological aspects of the problem, followed by
science concept information. Once the science concepts are understood,
the students reconsider the technological and societal issues, and attempt
to make informed decisions or predictions about the issue. Or, the discussion
could begin with technology or science, as long as it proceeds along the
arrow in Aikenhead's diagram to end up in "society." The idea, in essence,
is to start with a fundamentally interesting issue (either about society,
technology, or science), and then always follow a discussion of science
concepts with treatment of relevant topics in technology and society.
Heath (1992) has outlined several possible instructional techniques
for science teachers to employ when study is centered around a social issue.
He asserts that simulations, cooperative or collaborative action projects,
debates, independent projects, small group discussions, case studies, surveys,
oral presentations and written reports are all useful strategies for the
classroom teacher. Others have described successful classroom treatment
of societal issues which may serve as exemplars for practicing teachers:
Ramsey and Kronholm (1991) have described the use of the extended case
study (ECS) approach to teaching environmental issues in elementary school;
Geddis (1991) has illustrated how a high school science teacher covered
the acid rain controversy in his classroom; and Cross (1993) has shown
how teachers may use risk assessment and analysis to help students confront
complex societal issues.
Mitchener and Anderson's study also indicates that science teachers
are uncertain about evaluation tools to use when covering social issues.
Cheek (1992) has described the use of essay examinations, performance-based
assessments, and portfolios as methods of assessment in STS units.
Finally, Heath points out that many teachers who have decided to teach
about science and society would benefit from a support system (1992). He
identifies electronic networks, multidisciplinary and multigrade teams
within the school system, and partnerships with colleges or universities
as important sources of professional development. Such support would allow
teachers to share ideas about successful classroom strategies, and to uncover
current information about issues and topics that may not be found in traditional
science textbooks. Some World Wide Web sites that may be of help in examining
societal issues are provided below.
The increasingly complex interplay between the scientific enterprise
and modern society mandates classroom treatment of societal issues in contemporary
science education. Perspectives and strategies that have been successful
in the science, technology, and society curricular movement, as well as
the environmental education movement, will prove to be invaluable resources
for traditionally-trained science teachers who are beginning to delve into
Aikenhead, G. S. (1992). The integration of STS into science education.
"Theory into Practice," 31 (1), 27-35. [ED 350 154]
American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1993). "Project
2061: Benchmarks for science literacy." New York: Oxford University Press.
Cheek, D. W.(1992). Evaluating learning in STS education. "Theory Into
Practice," 31(1), 64-72. [ED 350 154]
Cross, R. T. (1993). The risk of risks: a challenge and a dilemma for
science and technological education. "Research in Science & Technological
Information," 11(2), 171-183. [EJ 476 601]
Geddis, A. N. (1991). Improving the quality of science classroom discourse
on controversial issues. "Science Education," 75(2), 169-183. [EJ 466 074]
Harms, N. and Yager, R. (1981). "What research says to the science teacher"
(Volume 3). Washington, DC: National Science Teachers' Association.
Heath, P.A. (1992). Organizing for STS teaching and learning: The doing
of STS. "Theory into Practice," 31 (1), 52-58. [ED 350 154]
Mitchener, C. P. and Anderson, R.D. (1989). Teachers' perspective: Developing
and implementing an STS curriculum. "Journal of Research in Science Teaching,"
26 (4), 351-369.
National Research Council. (1996). "National Science Education Standards."
Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
National Science Teachers' Association. (1982). "Science-technology-society:
Science education for the 1980s." Washington, DC: Author.
National Science Teachers' Association. (1990). "Science-technology-society:
A new effort for providing appropriate science for all- Final draft." Washington,
Ramsey, J. M. and Kronholm, M. (1991). Science related social issues
in the elementary school: The extended case study approach. "Journal of
Elementary Science Education," 3(2), 3-13. [EJ 438 330]
Yager, R. E. and Lutz, M. V. (1995). STS to enhance total curriculum.
"School Science and Mathematics," 95 (1), 28-35. [EJ 504 082]
Issues in Science and Technology http://www.utdallas.edu/research/issues/
Science Education Professional Organizations http://science.coe.uwf.edu/
Science, Technology & Society Links http://gpu2.srv.ualberta.ca/~slis/guides/scitech/kmc.htm/
Union of Concerned Scientists http://www.ucsusa.org/