An increasingly popular STEM strategy called “socio-scientific instruction” is an educational approach that integrates social and ethical considerations into the curriculum.
In K12 schools across the country, teachers are looking for ways to improve academic performance, which suffered greatly in the wake of COVID-19-related shutdowns. At the same time, districts are eager to tie what kids are learning to future-ready skills, whether the subject is math, social studies or science. Enter socio-scientific instruction, which involves teaching science concepts within the context of real-world issues, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, food insecurity or biotechnology.
What does socio-scientific instruction look like in the classroom? First, teachers and students identify an issue—something connected to both the grade-level curriculum and the needs of society. Then they work together to develop socio-scientific reasoning by connecting scientific ideas and practices to solving the problem they’ve identified. Finally, they synthesize ideas, practices and reasoning through an activity designed to put their theories to the test.
Socio-scientific instruction is future-focused
Numerous studies show that achievement rises when students learn to employ socio-scientific thinking. My home state of Tennessee collects school-level data showing how this teaching practice raises achievement not only in science but in other subjects as well. Our data found that students from schools that engage in socio-scientific instruction are better prepared for their postsecondary paths, whether that’s college or a career.
To earn a STEM school designation, schools are required to engage in three to five days of socio-scientific projects once per quarter. STEM and STEAM-designated high schools average 76% on the Ready Graduate scale, which measures the percentage of students who are ready for postsecondary education or careers before they graduate from high school. That’s a full 36% higher than the Tennessee average.
Importantly, socio-scientific instruction prepares kids for complex jobs of the future, which will require them not only to understand science and technology but the social, cultural and ethical issues in those fields as well. This practice develops students’ ability to think critically and solve problems effectively. By analyzing complex problems, considering multiple perspectives and evaluating evidence, they develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are essential for success in the workforce.
It also fosters collaboration and communication skills, since this type of instruction often involves problem-solving through teamwork. That teaches students to express their ideas effectively, listen to their teammates’ ideas and collaborate to reach a common goal—all of which employers consider critical skills in their workers. And it promotes engagement and motivation by connecting science education to real-world issues, something that helps students see the relevance of what they’re learning. For example, girls are more likely to participate in STEM subjects when there’s a human interest element involved.
Quality science instruction such as the socio-scientific approach employs an inquiry-driven process where students take the lead. Socio-scientific instruction naturally ties into the claims-evidence-reasoning process, or “CER,” which requires students to collect evidence to support their arguments. CER is an evidence-based teaching tool used to push students to think more deeply about science concepts, and it is a great tool for teachers to enhance and incorporate socio-scientific issues into their instructional practice. BrainPOP Science, a resource for middle-school science instruction, uses CER as a framework. The platform guides students through investigations where they interact with 3D worlds, simulations and data manipulatives.
Tackling weighty issues
I’ve seen districts design authentic problem-based learning experiences that engage students in solving real-world problems. Some forge partnerships with community organizations and businesses—for instance, connecting teams of students with a nonprofit to research a local environmental issue or design a sustainability initiative. This helps them develop a sense of civic responsibility and learn how their socio-scientific knowledge can be used to address real-world problems. Other districts leverage technology to enable students to collaborate on projects, communicate with experts and access information. By doing so, students develop digital literacy skills that are essential for success in the modern workforce.
Socio-scientific instruction gives students the chance to apply the skills they’re learning to address weighty issues, which not every class provides. That builds self-confidence and a sense of accomplishment, which can pique their interest in science—and learning in general. It also builds the very skills employers say will be crucial in the future.
To develop these future-ready skills and attributes effectively, we must ask ourselves if we’re educating students to understand the complex issues of our time—issues that can’t be solved by a single perspective. In the real world, complex problems require blending expert knowledge to find a solution. And that, after all, is what our children should be learning.