The nature of science is concerned with science as a way of thinking, but this doesn’t exist in isolation, so the New Zealand curriculum document includes three other substrands of the nature of science to embed it within. The ‘Participating and contributing’ strand of the curriculum is one of these three other substrands. In school, science is all too often presented as a series of facts. This strand can totally debunk this myth.

Participating and contributing achievement aim

  • Bring a scientific perspective to decisions and actions as appropriate.

Levels 3–4 achievement objectives

  • Use their growing science knowledge when considering issues of concern to them.
  • Explore various aspects of an issue and make decisions about possible actions.

Levels 5–6 achievement objectives

  • Develop an understanding of socio-scientific issues by gathering relevant scientific information in order to draw evidence-based conclusions and to take action where appropriate.

This substrand of the nature of science is about students using their science understanding to participate and contribute to their own lives and to society.

Only some students will become professional scientists, but all students need to be able to use an understanding of science to solve problems faced in everyday life and to confront and make decisions about issues that involve science. We live in a scientific and technological society in which, increasingly, many personal and societal decisions involve scientific understanding.

Personal decisions

Will eating organic vegetables make me live longer? Will smoking kill me really? Are sunbeds a safe or unsafe way to tan? Should I bother recycling? Will using my cell phone increase my chances of a brain tumour? Making decisions on issues like these requires students to have an understanding of the nature of science. They need to understand:

  • what scientific knowledge is relevant
  • how reliable the knowledge is
  • how the knowledge was generated
  • the limits of the knowledge
  • how much confidence we can have in that knowledge.

This understanding will help them distinguish good science from bad science and to tell apart scientific and pseudo-scientific claims. Our students need to be able to evaluate and respond to ‘scientific evidence’ in media reports and in advertising in order to make informed personal decisions. They need to become critical consumers of science.

Participating and contributing in societal decisions

Should I be concerned about stem cell research, captive breeding in zoos, use of human embryos in research or about practices in commercial fishing? Should I call my city council about the pollution from the garage next door burning tyres? Is climate change really as big a threat as scientists tell us?

Socio-scientific issues such as these impact us all. Our students need to know enough about the nature of science to be able to make sense of socio-scientific issues like these. We want them to be able to make their own decisions about such issues.

We also want them to be sufficiently informed that they can voice their opinions and participate in the decision-making process of a democratic society. The public evaluation of science requires as many citizens to take part as possible. This will only be possible if the general public understand what science is and how it is produced – the nature of science.

Including socio-scientific issues in science programmes

Socio-scientific issues are complex and will need scaffolding to be effective in the classroom. In any issue, the students need to sort out what parts of the issue require a scientific lens and what parts require other lenses. For example, thinking of stem cell research, students will need to identify and separate the scientific, legal, social, emotional and family issues. Being able to identify the credible scientific evidence allows further decision-making to occur. Students can make judgements about the data, construct a logical argument, present a case, remain open-minded and perhaps reach a class consensus.

Addressing socio-scientific issues in the classroom has been shown to increase students’ understanding of science content, science processes and the nature of science. Because many of these issues highlight borderline science that is controversial and still being debated, students can appreciate more fully the tentative nature of scientific knowledge, the non-linear process of science and the crises, controversy and conflicting conclusions that can be part of the work of scientists.

It will also show how science is socially and culturally embedded by highlighting the complex relations between science, technology and society and the social, economic, political, moral and environmental implications of scientific and technological knowledge.

Examples of ‘Participating and contributing'

There are many resources on the Science Learning Hub that can be used to deepen this participating and communicating strand, develop students’ ability to bring a scientific perspective to their own decisions and foster a developing understanding of socio-scientific issues.

Many teaching and learning activities, videos and articles have a strong focus on issues of concern to students in areas where they can make a personal choice.

Other resources can be used to highlight the social, ethical, economic and environmental implications of the application of scientific knowledge in society.

See examples on the Hub

Social, ethical, economic and environmental implications:
Clean and green fuels
Food versus fuel
Collections
Exercise Ruaumoko
Wastewater polishing

Many of the research stories can be used to investigate the influence of scientific advancements on our lives, society and environment.

The Ethics thinking tool on the Hub can also be used to help explore any socio-scientific issue using ethical frameworks. The Futures thinking tool is designed to help explore how our society and environment may be shaped in the future. Both tools have demonstrations on how to use them.

See examples on the Hub

Exploring issues:
Ethics thinking tool
Ethics of euthanasia
Ethics of saving the takahē

Useful link

British science writer, doctor and psychiatrist Ben Goldacre unpicks dodgy scientific claims made in reports and advertising in popular media and is devoted to criticism of scientific inaccuracy, health scares, pseudoscience and quackery, see his website.

    Published 7 October 2011