Environmental science knowledge intertwined with
cultural practices have ripple effects that impact many
aspects of society. For example, the increase in the use
of fertilizer and practices of overfishing have resulted
in red tides and dead zones within waterways, where
nothing is able to grow. It is important for students to
have formal instruction to engage with these topics,
preparing them to be scientifically literate members
of society. A powerful way to engage middle school
learners is to use socio-scientific issues to teach
environmental science. Socio-scientific issues (SSI) are
those that deal with topics that can be debated and
relate scientific understanding to making real world
decisions (Zeidler & Kahn, 2014).
We cannot assume that middle school students
have had experience with meaningful high-quality,
hands-on science units. Therefore, it is important
to provide them with appropriately challenging
coursework that meets individual needs. Teaching
with SSIs reaches students that come to the classroom
with a wide range of background knowledge. This
article provides an example of an SSI unit in which
students review their knowledge of scientific thinking,
ask self-designed experimental questions, and conduct
an experiment to test their question. Their final
writing project allows students to use their knowledge
of science and their community to propose a solution
to a local need. First, a brief overview will be provided
about the value of these types of strategies.
Benefits of Exploring Local Socio-Scientific Issues
The National Science Teaching Association (NSTA)
asserts that students need to know, understand, and
be able to apply their knowledge of science (NSTA,
2016). This is part of being a scientifically literate
member of society. To do this, students must be
exposed to lessons that explore socio-scientific issues
and be taught how to use their knowledge in a local
context. Learning in this manner is highly engaging
and personalizes science as a practice for students
(Birmingham & Barton, 2013). Additionally, using local
events provides an opportunity for students to connect
personal experiences to the content they are learning
and allows them to contribute to the community.
The utilization of SSIs also supports the middle
school concept advocated for by AMLE. For example,
students learn science concepts and applications
in the science classroom, discuss issues of policy in
social studies, refine their writing and communication
skills in English language arts, and plan for budgets in
the mathematics classroom. Integrated learning such
as this is a powerful method for students to make realworld
connections and understand content at a deeper
level. In the next section, a brief unit of instruction is
provided that demonstrates an example of teaching an
SSI in the context of an ecology lesson.
SSI Environmental Science Lesson
This unit of instruction allows students to apply
scientific practices in context and makes learning
relevant for students. It fits in an instructional
sequence where students have previously learned
about asking scientific questions, experimental
design, and a basic knowledge of ecology and needs of
plants. Students are placed into research groups.
This lesson begins with the teacher showing the class
an image of a vacant city lot (see figure 1).
Students are asked to quietly write out reflections on
the following questions:
- Describe the abiotic and biotic factors that you see
in this environment.
- What is growing here? Why?
- What types of plants might we want to grow here?
- How could we engineer this environment to grow
your chosen plant?
After five minutes of individual reflection, students
discuss their answers in a group. The teacher places
four posters around the room with the previous
questions written on top of each as a prompt. This
small group discussion allows students to build
on prior knowledge and brainstorm ideas. A group
representative writes the responses on the posters.
During group writing, the teacher reads the responses
to formatively assess student thinking. Then, she
leads class discussions on each of the topics. Students
are then presented with the project topic: They will
determine needs of plants that they choose to grow in
Community Garden – Lab Practice
To acclimate students to this type of research, they
complete a practice lab analysis. Analysis should be
completed in research teams, with student discussion
about each of the prompts. During this time, the
teacher formatively assesses student knowledge of
experimental design and responds appropriately to
clear up misconceptions. This activity allows students
to practice their research skills that will be needed for
future activities and provides an opportunity to practice
collaboration (see practice worksheet in figure 2).
Explore: Research Proposal
Groups identify a plant that they wish to grow in
this space. They justify the choice of a plant using
a combination of research and knowledge of their
local community. Each group develops a research
proposal to identify needs of the chosen plant in their
local environment. Students complete the planning
template (see figure 3) and turn it in to the teacher
for approval. After approval, they execute their
experiments by collecting data over the next month.
Students develop their scientific practice skills while
taking ownership of their work as they watch their
Research Proposal – Community Garden Initiative
(In order for your project to be funded your plan
must be complete!)
- My question: (Remember the format)
- Experimental Design:
a. Independent Variable (you can only have one)
b. Dependent variable (what you are measuring)
c. Constants (you should have many)
d. Procedure: (step-by-step, be specific)
***Describe the types of data you will collect***
e. Qualitative data:
f. Quantitative data:
Explain: Poster Presentation
Finally, students present their findings through a
poster presentation. The presentation highlights their
experimental question, methods, and findings from
their research. The conclusion section contains a
discussion about whether their proposed plant would
be a good fit for their neighborhood environment
and in what ways it will serve a community need.
The teacher assists students in putting their posters
together and facilitates student presentations to
the class. This activity helps students develop their
scientific writing and speaking skills.
Evaluate: Individual Persuasive Essay
After the groups have presented their findings,
students use their knowledge of all groups’ research
to write a two paragraph persuasive essay arguing
which plant should be planted in the vacant lot. The
argument should be made based on ways this plant
meets community needs, the requirements for growth,
and the amount of work/cost required to engineer the
plot of land. They make their claim using evidence
from the research findings. This essay provides a rich
opportunity for students to use their knowledge and
skills in a real-life situation, forming a good foundation
for developing scientific literacy.
This activity could be modified to include all content
area teachers. For example:
Social Studies – In depth research about identifying
needs of communities, study of their local economy
and community, or a study of food deserts, https://www.tolerance.org/lesson/food-deserts-causesconsequences-and-solutions
English Language Arts – Writing letters to the local
city council proposing their plan
Mathematics – Determining a budget and space
requirements for the implementation of scaling up
Cross-curricular learning benefits students by allowing
them to apply skills in a more complex manner.
This project helps students learn to think scientifically,
solidify their understanding about the needs of plants,
and apply their knowledge to serve a local need. All
aspects develop students toward the goal of becoming
a scientifically literate member of society. Although
this example demonstrates the use of socio-scientific
learning within an urban environment, the process could
be replicated and modified to fit any school community.
For example, students in a rural environment could
explore the impact of local farming practices on water
quality. Regular practice engaging in these types of
activities engages students to promote civic action. Civic
action by scientifically literate members of society is
critical to maintain good stewardship of our local, state,
and national communities.
Birmingham, D. & Barton, A. (2013). Putting on a
green carnival: Youth taking educated action
on socio-scientific issues. Journal of Research in
Science Teaching, 51(3), 286-314.
National Science Teaching Association (NSTA). (2016).
NSTA Position Statement: Teaching science in the
context of societal and personal issues. Retrieved
Zeidler, D. & Kahn, S. (2014). It’s debatable: Using
socio-scientific issues to develop scientific literacy
K-12. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.
Lise Falconer, M.A., NBCT is a middle school
science specialist with the Alabama Math, Science,
and Technology Initiative (AMSTI) at the University of
Alabama at Birmingham.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2020.