Science Happens in MY Neighborhood

Engaging middle schoolers in local issues helps them apply knowledge and become informed citizens

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? Why?
  • How could we engineer this environment to grow your chosen plant?

Figure 1
Vacant Lot

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 this space.

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 plants grow.

Figure 3

Research Proposal – Community Garden Initiative

(In order for your project to be funded your plan must be complete!)

  1. My question: (Remember the format)
  2. 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.

Collaboration Opportunities

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,

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 the project

Cross-curricular learning benefits students by allowing them to apply skills in a more complex manner.

Project Impact

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 from

Zeidler, D. & Kahn, S. (2014). It’s debatable: Using socio-scientific issues to develop scientific literacy K-12. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.