Issue-oriented science: using socioscientific issues to engage biology students.
Abstract: In today's global society, with science and technology advancing at a rapid pace, issues about biological topics are common. A typical standards-based high school or general college-level biology classroom naturally lends itself to teaching issue-oriented science. In an issue-oriented classroom, students analyze and discuss personal, societal, and global issues that require an application of relevant scientific evidence. Learning in the context of issues can help engage students in higher-order thinking skills that will help them to become the scientifically literate citizens needed in the current global community.

Key Words: Inquiry; issue-oriented science; sustainability; trade-offs; scientific evidence.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Biology (Study and teaching)
Sciences education (Methods)
Education (Methods)
Education (Research)
Authors: Lenz, Laura
Willcox, Maia K.
Pub Date: 10/01/2012
Publication: Name: The American Biology Teacher Publisher: National Association of Biology Teachers Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Biological sciences; Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 National Association of Biology Teachers ISSN: 0002-7685
Issue: Date: Oct, 2012 Source Volume: 74 Source Issue: 8
Topic: Event Code: 310 Science & research
Product: Product Code: 8522100 Biology NAICS Code: 54171 Research and Development in the Physical, Engineering, and Life Sciences
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 303450258
Full Text: Should genetically modified foods be more tightly regulated? What should be done about the issue of antibiotic resistance? Where should environmental conservation efforts be focused? In today's global society with science and technology advancing at a rapid pace, issues about biological topics are prominent in the news. Teaching biology in the context of personal, societal, and global issues can help students become the scientifically literate citizens that are needed in today's global community, and the content of a typical high school or general college-level biology course naturally lends itself to teaching issue-oriented science (Zeidler et al., 2002; Zohar & Nemet, 2002). The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) recommends that science instruction incorporate personal and societal issues that are relevant to students in order to motivate and engage them to learn science concepts and processes, and to apply their understanding to their personal and social lives (NSTA, 2010). The National Academies' Next Generation Framework states that "in order for students to develop a sustained attraction to science and for them to appreciate the many ways in which it is pertinent to their daily lives, classroom learning experiences in science need to connect with their own interests and experiences" (National Research Council, 2011). Few published biology curricula incorporate issue-oriented science to the extent described below. The issue-oriented science pedagogy presented here illustrates how to choose and incorporate issues into a standards-based high school or general college-level biology course.

* What Is Issue-Oriented Science?

Socioscientific issues are at the core of an issue-oriented approach to teaching science. Studies suggest that students learn the concepts in a discipline when they are presented in a context that provides meaning for those concepts, such as a social or cultural context (Bransford et al., 1999). A socioscientific issue is a complex social issue with links to science concepts. One important aspect of issue-oriented pedagogy is that scientific evidence is used to draw a conclusion or make a decision about a socioscientific issue. The issue is examined from the perspective of multiple stakeholders, and the trade-offs associated with a decision or perspective are identified. Throughout an issue-oriented science course, students learn what it means to evaluate scientific evidence, how to base an argument on scientific evidence, and how science and society interact. Many of the socioscientific issues that lend themselves to teaching students methods for evaluating evidence and making evidence-based decisions have no obvious "correct" answer. Instead the use of complex issues allows students to examine the pros and cons of the issue and identify the tradeoffs involved.

* An Issue-Oriented Model

Figure 1 shows the iterative process of an issue-oriented instructional model. This model was developed by the Science Education for Public Understanding Program (SEPUP) at the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California at Berkeley SEPUP specializes in developing issue-oriented curricula and created this model from extensive work with schools across the country teaching issue-oriented science. The model of issue-oriented science described here is a form of inquiry science. In fact, inquiry and issues go hand-in-hand in an issue-oriented classroom. In an issue-oriented classroom, students can be introduced to a complex issue at the beginning of the unit or series of activities to elicit their ideas and provide a context for the science learning. Then they explore a series of challenge questions by gathering and evaluating evidence through a variety of activities, including investigations, modeling, discussions, and readings. With each new inquiry experience, students connect the learning to previous ideas. In a culminating activity, students apply the evidence that was gathered over the course of the unit or series of activities to make a decision or recommendation about the original issue (Figure 1).


Through work with teachers and students using issue-oriented science, SEPUP has identified five criteria that are essential components in an issue-oriented classroom that uses the model described above: discussion, student collaboration, application of evidence, identification of trade-offs, and assessment. Table 1 describes variation in the emphasis a teacher places on the five key components of the instruction and learning environment in an issue-oriented classroom.

The following is an example of a classroom environment in which more emphasis is placed on the essential components described in Table 1. Over the course of a cell biology unit focused on the issue of what to do about an emerging infectious disease, students

* work together to observe cells and microbes under the microscope,

* independently complete readings about leprosy and other microbial infections,

* work in groups to use models to learn about the structure and function of cells, and

* collaborate in a simulation of a bacterial infection that illustrates why it is important to take an antibiotic as prescribed.

At the end of the unit, students work through an epidemiological scenario of an emerging disease in a village. Students collaborate together to gather and discuss data as they work through the scenario, make a hypothesis about how the disease is spreading, and modify their hypothesis as more evidence is gathered. Once they have a model of transmission, students use evidence to make recommendations about what public health measures to take and identify the trade-offs of their decision. A trade-off is giving up something that is a benefit or advantage, in exchange for something that may be more desirable. For example, students might determine that mice are spreading the disease and recommend that a poison be used to kill all the mice in the village. The tradeoffs in this case are that people's safety is potentially compromised if they are exposed to the poison and that the targeted mouse population may have an important role in the ecosystem.

In order to foster discussion and collaboration, students could use a graphic organizer to summarize and discuss their ideas, and then participate in a walking debate to discuss various recommendations and tradeoffs from their own or others' perspectives. During and/or at the end of the walking debate, students could be asked whether the discussion changed their mind about their recommendation and why. Discussion and collaboration such as this can minimize the potential controversy that could arise with complex issues, and maximize the focus on using evidence to support a decision. The graphic organizers could serve as an assessment of students' use of evidence to make a recommendation about an issue and identify the trade-offs.

* Advantages to Issue-Oriented Science

There are many advantages to using an issue-oriented approach to teaching. One of the strengths of issue-oriented science is that it is engaging for all students in that it helps to make real-world connections and illustrates how science applies to everyday life (Zeidler et al., 2005; Tal & Kedmi, 2006). Sadler and Fowler (2006) and Bransford et al. (1999) advocate that issue-oriented science can contextualize the content, which serves as an effective vehicle for learning and understanding the science. In particular, Zohar and Dori (2003) found that low-achieving students showed greater improvement in learning when taught using science that incorporated societal, cultural, environmental, political, and ethical issues.

When properly implemented, an issue-oriented curriculum teaches science content while simultaneously improving students' reasoning and use of evidence to support a particular position or conclusion about socioscientific issues. Tal and Kedmi (2006) found that students studying an issue-based curriculum "improved their argumentation abilities, developed more complex patterns of reasoning based on scientific evidence, and even challenged the traditional perception of science as neutral."

In SEPUP's studies of the issue-based biology course Science and Global Issues: Biology, pre- and post-tests administered for each unit (Ecology, Cell Biology, Genetics, and Evolution) showed large and statistically significant educational gains for a variety of items, including multiple choice and constructed response. SEPUP's evaluation also found that underrepresented STEM students showed the same large educational gains that other groups showed. In addition, teachers reported increased student engagement, consistent with the research described earlier.

* Choosing an Issue

In order to incorporate an issue into a biology class, the first and perhaps most challenging step is to choose an effective issue that works well with the content being taught. To do this, it is helpful to first determine the specific content needs of the course and then choose an issue that integrates well with that content.

Socioscientific issues can range from personal to societal. Personal issues affect a person's everyday life. For example, should you choose to drink bottled water or tap water? Societal issues can be focused at the community and/or the global level. An example of an issue at the community level is how would the closing of a portion of a wildlife reserve to hunting affect the biodiversity of the reserve and surrounding areas? At the global level, the issue could be "How should research funds be distributed among groups studying infectious and noninfectious diseases?" Other examples are described in Table 2.

Issues are distinct from topics. Tuberculosis is a topic. Some issues that could be derived from it include "How should limited funding be allocated to address tuberculosis worldwide?" and "How should we deal with the developing drug resistance of the bacteria that cause tuberculosis?"

Issues can range from broad and overarching to more specific. For example, the issue of how to live in ways that will sustain our planet's systems and resources is a broad overarching issue with a number of more specific sub-issues. Table 2 outlines one way that the broad, overarching issue of sustainability and sub-issues of sustainability could be embedded across a 1-year high school or general college-level biology course. Other examples of overarching issues with many sub-issues include "How can we balance human needs and environmental protection?" and "What is the best way to use limited resources?" By choosing a broad issue with a number of content-specific and complex angles, there is more flexibility in how the issue relates to the content in each unit, while maintaining the overarching issue throughout the course.

A well-chosen issue will fit the following criteria:

* It will require an understanding of important scientific concepts and processes appropriate for the grade level and subject area being taught. Many issues address a number of content standards, and some cover content from multiple subject areas, which can provide a bridge between curricular units or courses.

* It will require an application of relevant, appropriate scientific evidence. Sometimes an issue that initially seems like a good fit with the topic is not the best choice because the science required to understand the issue is not at an appropriate level for the students or because it does not align well with the content standards being taught. Briefly mapping the content that is going to be taught alongside the science associated with an issue will help determine whether the level of scientific evidence is appropriate for the level of the course.

* It will engage a diverse group of learners in the science instruction.

* It will be complex enough to foster student debate and discussion frequently throughout the lessons or activities.

* Integrating the Chosen Issue

Thoughtful and thorough integration of the issue is important. If the issue is incorporated only at the culmination of a long series of lessons, students will likely not fully understand the connections between the issue and the content being taught. Students will also be unable to identify and incorporate a variety of evidence for and the trade-offs of a decision. Incorporating an issue into a full biology course can provide an excellent framework for deepening student interest and understanding, and allow for more critical discussion and in-depth debate about the issue. It is important that the issue provides the context and the incentive for learning the content that informs the conclusion or decision about the issue. It is ideal but not always possible for the issue to be embedded throughout the lessons, unit, or course, instead of being added on as an infrequent, more superficial point of interest or timely news reference. At the very least, students should be given frequent opportunities to develop strong connections between the content and the issue. When students are given the opportunity to revisit socioscientific issues, this often increases their interest and engagement.

* Techniques for Blending an Issue into a Unit

The issue-oriented instructional model detailed in Figure 1 naturally lends itself to embedding an issue throughout the lessons in a variety of ways. To fully incorporate an issue, several techniques can be used within a single unit. Although the individual techniques are applied to particular lessons, it is important in the overall planning of the unit or course to base decisions primarily on how the issue is integrated into the larger framework of the curriculum. Many times, a typical lesson can be modified into an issue-based lesson by integrating an issue-based scenario or practical problem into a hands-on activity, in which the scenario serves as the core of the activity. For example, in an ecology unit, the topics of population dynamics, food webs, ecosystems, and invasive species might be covered. The unit could be taught through the issue of ecosystem management and change. Lessons on population dynamics could incorporate fisheries management into the traditional predator-prey model, examining the effect of changes in birth, death, and migration rates on population levels, but use fishers as the predator, adding the concept of varying levels of fishing and its effect on population levels. This allows for the issue to be well incorporated while the required content is being taught. Another lesson in the same unit that teaches students about food webs might incorporate invasive species and their effect on an ecosystem that includes a commercially fished species. Both of these examples (fisheries and invasive species effects on population dynamics and food webs) could then be used in discussions about biodiversity, conservation, and other ecology topics throughout the unit. There are many techniques that can be used for blending an issue into a unit. Five are described below.

(1) Book-end a unit with a strong introductory and culminating activity related to an issue. Beginning and ending, or book-ending, a unit with activities that focus specifically on an issue can create a context for students to make connections between the issue and the content. Students are presented with an issue or a problem, and then, after a series of activities in which they gather and evaluate evidence, they apply the evidence to address the issue or problem. For example, a unit on evolution that focuses on biodiversity and conservation might begin with an activity examining various human effects on biodiversity. Next, students could learn about evolutionary concepts in a series of activities. Then, in a culminating activity, students could use the evolutionary science they learned as part of the evidence in making a conservation decision about areas that have a certain level of biodiversity and contain resources used by humans. While book-ending can provide the overall framework of incorporating the issue into the content, it is important that the issue still be woven wherever possible throughout the activities being taught.

(2) Include case studies to connect issues to biological concepts. Case studies can be a powerful way to make the issue relevant for students and can be used to make specific connections between content and an issue. For example, a lesson on dominant and recessive genes could include a case study on sickle cell anemia and malaria resistance. They can also be used to allow for a broader study of a topic (e.g., when studying population dynamics, case studies on the spread of several invasive species could be used to emphasize how environmental conditions affect population growth). Another strategy for using case studies is to include multiple case studies in a unit in order to follow an issue throughout, such as multiple case studies on diseases in a cell biology unit focused on global pandemics. A case study can be written for use with a specific activity or unit. This allows for relevant content connections, for adaptation to students' reading abilities, and for bridging the content and issue between activities within a unit. If multiple case studies are used, they can be written with parallel structures so that the information the students are tracking can be compared. For example, in a genetics unit, each case study might include information on the benefits, risks, and concerns of the use of a genetically modified organism, the current status of research and development on that organism, and alternative solutions to the problem that the organism is supposed to address.

(3) Contextualize each activity. Incorporating an overarching issue into the introduction of an activity can help students make the connection between the content and the issue being studied. This can be done with a warm-up activity that brings out background knowledge about the issue. Such warm-ups could include a brief class discussion or brainstorming about a particular aspect of the issue or a short film clip, cartoon, news article, or reading about the issue. For example, when teaching about gene expression and how genes are turned on and off in cells, a connection can be made to the issue of genetically modified organisms. Genetically modified organisms have a gene or genes inserted or deleted. Usually the gene being inserted is from another species. In some genetically modified organisms, the inserted gene is turned on by various conditions, such as the addition of a specific chemical. A short reading on a genetically modified crop of this type that is being reviewed by the FDA for commercial use ties the content of gene expression to the issue of genetic modification and can be used to elicit students' background knowledge on the topic of genetic modification.

(4) Integrate the issue throughout the activity or lesson. If the chosen issue works well with the content being taught, the issue can be incorporated into the body of the lesson(s), within the procedure of an activity, or throughout a reading. For example, the procedure for a typical non-issue-oriented activity about population dynamics might walk students through a predator-prey model in which students can model predators hunting "prey" by trying to find colored objects against a particular background. This activity conveys several aspects of population dynamics and can be easily modified to include concepts such as natural selection, birth and death rates, and the effects of disease on populations.

In order to incorporate the issue of how to make the ocean's fisheries sustainable into the population dynamics activity, the model could be set up to mimic a fish population. The same procedures described above could be followed in order for students to learn about basic population dynamics. Once students are comfortable with those concepts, the model can be modified to add the pressure of fishing. Students can be given particular roles (e.g., trawl-net fisher, subsistence fisher, etc.) with different fishing limits, fishing seasons can be implemented in the activity, and the students can examine how the various pressures of fishing affect the population of fish. This provides students with a deeper understanding of the content being taught, as well as a context that is more meaningful than the typical wolves-and-hares model.

(5) Use end-of-activity questions and discussion to reinforce connections between the issue and content. The end of a typical lesson will often include questions that require recall or content understanding. Adding issue-oriented questions can elicit student discussion and debate about the issue. For example, in the gene expression lesson described above, an analysis question that focuses on a genetically modified crop expressing a specific trait would link the issue to the content being studied. Students could also debate the pros and cons of using a crop that has been genetically modified to express a specific trait. This strategy can also be helpful in drawing out links among several lessons that address various aspects of an issue.

* Conclusion

Teaching issue-oriented science takes careful planning and designing of lessons or activities. When implemented properly, it can result in significant benefits to student learning. The relevance and engagement provided by issue-oriented science also helps students understand the nature of science and develop the skills of scientific literacy that will prepare them to think critically about the issues that face society now and in the future. Teachers with whom we have worked have reported that using issues engages students previously not interested in science, and it provides not only the students but also the teachers themselves with an improved experience in the classroom.

Techniques for Incorporating Issues in the Classroom

* Begin and end the unit with an activity related to the issue.

* Include case studies to connect the issue to biological concepts.

* Use a current and/or local news article.

* Incorporate the issue into the introduction of the activity or lesson.

* Integrate the issue throughout the activity or lesson.

* Use end-of-activity questions and discussion to reinforce connections between the issue and content.

Tips for Incorporating Issues in the Classroom

* Elicit students' ideas about the issue and/or the type of evidence that could inform their decision about the issue.

* Have students make a decision or recommendation about the issue.

* Whenever possible, connect the issue to current events and local problems or concerns. Use local newspapers, experts, speakers, and organizations for additional local connections to the issue.

* Make connections between the scientific principles and evidence related to the issue. The relevant science concepts may be more numerous than those investigated in the specific unit being studied.

* As students investigate the science content related to the issue, revisit the issue regularly to discuss new evidence that has been gathered and questions that have arisen.

* Be sure that students explain how scientific principles and evidence were used to help them understand the options and reach a decision about the issue.

DOI: 10.1525/abt.2012.74.8.4


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Zohar, A. & Dori, Y.J. (2003). Higher order thinking skills and low-achieving students: are they mutually exclusive? Journal of the Learning Sciences, 12, 145-181.

Zohar, A. & Nemet, F. (2002). Fostering students' knowledge and argumentation skills through dilemmas in human genetics. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 39, 35-62.

LAURA LENZ ( and MAIA K. WILLCOX ( are Curriculum Developers for the Science Education for Public Understanding Program (SEPUP) at The Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, 1 Centennial Drive, #5200, Berkeley, CA 94720-5200.
Table 1. Essentials of an issue-oriented science continuum.

                              Less Emphasis/More Emphasis

Science          Discussion of scientific    Discussion with
Discussion       facts in isolation from     occasional reference to
                 personal, societal, and     personal, societal, and
                 global issues               global issues

Student          Students work alone         Students work in groups
Collaboration                                with assigned roles

Application      Students acquire            Students support a
of Scientific    scientific information      position about a
Evidence                                     personal, societal, or
                                             global issue with
                                             reasons that are
                                             subjective or

Identification   Students take a position    Students take a position
of Trade-offs    on an issue without         on an issue and
                 identifying the trade-      recognize the trade-
                 offs                        offs associated with
                                             personal, societal, or
                                             global issues

Assessment       Assessments address only    Assessments address
                 science content             science content and
                                             occasionally reference
                                             personal, societal, or
                                             global issues

                              Less Emphasis/More Emphasis

Science          Deeper discussion with      Rich discussion with a
Discussion       connections more often      deep understanding in
                 to personal, societal,      the context of personal,
                 and global issues           societal, and global

Student          Students work in            Students work in
Collaboration    authentic groups that       authentic groups with
                 simulate a scientific       equal, self-guided
                 community and/or            collaboration
                 community of
                 stakeholders with
                 minimal teacher guidance

Application      Students use scientific     Students apply accurate
of Scientific    evidence to support a       understanding of science
Evidence         position about a            concepts and evidence to
                 personal, societal, or      support decisions about
                 global issue but the        personal, societal, and
                 reasoning may be            global issues
                 incomplete or part of
                 the evidence may be

Identification   Students take a position    Students take a position
of Trade-offs    on an issue and support     on an issue and support
                 it with incomplete or       it with complete and
                 inaccurate trade-offs       accurate trade-offs

Assessment       Assessments address         Assessments closely tie
                 science content and         science content to
                 often relate to             personal, societal, or
                 personal, societal, or      global issues whenever
                 global issues               possible

Note: Students and/or a classroom may be at different points on the
continuum for the various criteria.

Table 2. The issue of sustainability in a biology course.

Biology Content   Sustainability
Focus             Focus                       Personal Issue

Ecology           Human influence on          Should you buy farmed
                  ecosystems                  fish? Is it healthy and

Cell Biology      Global health issues        How do you decide
                                              whether a new medicine
                                              is safe to use?

Genetics          Use of genetically          Would you eat a
                  modified organisms          genetically modified

Evolution         Changes in and threats      Would you be in favor of
                  to biodiversity             using genetic
                                              engineering to recreate
                                              an extinct species, such
                                              as the woolly mammoth?

Biology Content
Focus             Societal Issue              Global Issue

Ecology           What should be done         How can countries work
                  about an invasive           together to make the
                  species in an ecosystem?    ocean's fisheries

Cell Biology      What should be done         Which infectious disease
                  about antibiotic            should be given global
                  resistance?                 funding priority?

Genetics          Should labeling be          Should the world's
                  mandatory for foods that    governments approve the
                  are genetically             planting of genetically
                  modified?                   modified foods?

Evolution         Should a local wetland      Where should global
                  be conserved or             conservation priorities
                  developed?                  be set in order to
                                              maintain diversity?
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