Teaching Science Literacy About Socioscientific Issues

June 21, 2022

Do socioscientific issues such as food, energy, water and landscape systems have a place in the microbiology classroom?

Jenny Dauer, Ph.D. is an associate director for undergraduate education and associate professor in science literacy at the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She focuses on supporting student learning for science literacy. Specifically, she researches what knowledge, skills and values students use when deciding what society "should do" about these complex and sometimes controversial issues.

Defining Socioscientific Issues

Socioscientific issues are open-ended and have no single “right answer.” While scientific concepts or procedures can inform how society addresses the issues, solutions can’t be generated with science alone. Economics, culture, ethics, policy and politics, among other factors, play a key role in considering possible solutions. 

Why Is Teaching Socioscientific Issues Beneficial? 

Incorporating socioscientific issues into classroom materials is a great way to apply scientific concepts to real world scenarios. Dauer said, “not only do students learn the nature of science and its value to society, it also provides students a chance to practice evidence evaluation, decision making and navigating controversial issues with their peers.”

Using a socioscientific issue framework helps connect science content to issues students care about. This may promote the persistence of students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by motivating them to give back to their communities. Additionally, some socioscientific issues, for example climate change, provide an opportunity to integrate equity and social justice into decisions, including who is most impacted, who must change and how.  

How to Incorporate Socioscientific Issues in the Classroom 

Dauer said, “there are not hard and fast rules on how to incorporate socioscientific issues in the classroom, as each socioscientific issue has a unique context that challenges students in different ways and has diverse affordances for content, skills and character development.” Dauer found that students approach each issue with different interests, understandings and perceptions, so when selecting a particular issue to use in the classroom, carefully consider the issue from all angles, and incorporate revisions based on student feedback.

For STEM students, it can be difficult to navigate complex socioscientific issues, particularly when science alone does not provide a solution to the problem. Dauer and her colleagues have found that it’s important to reduce the cognitive complexity of these issues and honor individual students’ values and interests. In Dauer’s class, she uses structured decision-making to help students compare multiple alternative solutions to socioscientific issues and systematically compare tradeoffs for each solution. The structured decision-making framework also separates the roles of science and values, which form the basis of our objectives for a solution. This separation reduces uncertainty about socioscientific issues systems and makes it clear that science doesn’t have “one side.” 

As an instructor, Dauer recommends having a set of best practices for talking about controversial issues in the classroom. Her best practices for the classroom are similar to what is recommended for inclusive teaching. "Some of these best practices include developing self-awareness as an instructor, fostering an open and engaging classroom and leveraging networks and connections within the community." 
Jenny Dauer, Ph.D., is a plenary speaker at 2022 ASM Conference for Undergraduate Educators (ASMCUE), which has a theme of “Empowering Students with Science Literacy.” Dauer will speak about “Teaching Using Socioscientific Issues to Support Students’ Science Literacy Skills” on Wednesday, July 13, 12 p.m. ET at the conference. 
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Author: Rachel Horak, Ph.D.

Rachel Horak, Ph.D.
Rachel Horak, Ph.D. is a senior education specialist at ASM and is interested in helping educators design significant and effective learning experiences for all undergraduate biology students.