WWW Site for John Lawrence Bencze, Associate Professor, Science Education, OISE/University of Toronto

Students' Researched & Negotiated Actions to Address STSE Issues

This page provides some general ideas about teaching and learning relating to the STEPWISE framework - which is the basis for the STEPWISE research and development project. Teachers can read a summary of STEPWISE here. A graphical and more short-form description of STEPWISE is provided here. If you have any comments, questions, etc. about the project, and/or would like to join it, please write to me.
Overview of Pedagogy.
Express STSE Issues.
STSE Issues.
Multi-Stakeholder Docs (New!).
Teach RiNA Projects.
Guide RiNA Projects.
STSE-Content Teaching.
Student-led RiNA Projects.

To be 'true' to the spirit of the STEPWISE framework, teachers and students can start anywhere in it - because, for example, every element is co-dependent on every other element. Many teachers find, however, that a more 'linear' approach - such as the one below - can be helpful. This was developed in consultation with teachers. This approach provides students with an 'apprenticeship' (e.g., teacher demonstrations & guided student practice) so that students develop expertise and confidence enabling and encouraging them - often after at least 2 units of study - to self-direct research-informed action projects to tackle socioscientific (STSE) Issues of interest/concern to them.

Rationale for STEPWISE, including the above pedagogical version, along with some examples, are provided here.

Further suggestions about the above framework are provided below


Brainstorming STSE Issues

Based on constructivist learning theory, students begin science education already possessing 'conceptions' (ideas, attitudes, etc.) about subjects to be studied. They don't usually arrive 'empty-headed.' Indeed, conceptions students have in their minds can (and usually do) influence their interpretations of their experiences (including teachers' teaching). Moreover, these prior conceptions often can conflict with ideas, skills, attitudes, etc. presented by teachers. At the same time, learners often are not very conscious of their pre-conceptions. If, however, they are encouraged to 'express' their pre-instructional conceptions, these often can be consciously considered in comparison to conceptions presented by others (e.g., the teacher). According to theory of Jean Piaget, which can be helpful to a degree, conceptions entering a person's brain can lead either to their assimilation into the person's brain or adjustment of the person's conceptions to accommodate the incoming conceptions. This is illustrated here: Assimilation vs. Accommodation.

Given this theory, students should be encouraged to express their pre-instructional ideas about STSE issues and actions people have taken to address them.

Students can express their pre-instructional ideas in various ways. Some suggestions for encouraging students to express their pre-conceived notions about 'products' (e.g., laws & theories), techniques which can be used for also having students express pre-conceived notions about STSE issues, are provided at: Expressing Ideas. To stimulate students to express their conceptions about STSE issues and actions, it can help if teachers are aware of some of these so that they can name some topics that might lead to discussions about issues and actions. Some STSE issues are presented at: STSE/WISE Issues. Based on the list here, for instance, teachers can ask students to consider various issues - such as: To what extent should oil and gas extraction be permitted in polar regions? Another way of getting students to express their ideas about STSE issues is to show them examples of technologies/inventions that may be controversial, such as this list, and ask them to brainstorm 'positive' and 'negative' effects of them on individuals, societies and environments.

Teaching About STSE Issues

Students' pre-instructional ideas about STSE issues are likely to vary in 'sophistication.' Some students may have little, if any, ideas about problems with technologies/inventions, for example, while others see a range of problems. It also is apparent that many students perceive the issues in a one-sided way; that is, from a negative standpoint. Some may, for instance, believe that automobiles are, generally, 'bad' - producing toxic emissions and carbon dioxide that contributes to climate change. They may not, though, recognize that not everyone agrees with them. They may, indeed, perceive the word 'issue' as equating with 'problem,' rather than with 'controversy.' Some students may not recognize that capitalists, for instance, may be more concerned with making a profit than with any potentially negative side-effects of their products and services.

There are many ways that teachers can introduce students to various STSE issues. Some approaches are given at
: WISE Issue-Activism Education. A common approach is to show students a video documentary about issues, such as The Story of Electronics:

In having students interact with such documentaries, it is generally important to get them to carry out further activities (e.g., further research) and to answer questions. When making up such assignments, it is important to ensure students are not just answering simple knowledge/memorization questions. In other words, it is important to make up tasks/questions that encourage students to use/develop higher-order thinking skills (HOTS), as well as lower-order-thinking skills (LOTS).

When students are asked to carry out tasks and/or answer questions relating to STSE documentaries, we are involving them in what are called case methods - or case study teaching. Members of the STEPWISE team have produced several case methods, such as those the one here dealing with 'Blood Diamonds.'

Multi-Stakeholder STSE Documentaries

A new kind of case/documentary we are developing, called 'Multi-Stakeholder Documentaries,' feature short testimonials from various 'stakeholders' linked to a commodity (consumer product/service) frequently consumed by youth. Teachers can show these to students and get them to conduct further research - both secondary and primary - to further understand positions of the various stakeholders and, then, make some decisions about controversial possqible problems - about which they may then develop and carry-out actions to address them. Six of these are linked below. To encourage students to make their own decisions about ideas, actions, etc. that are controversial in these documentaries, they should be encouraged to view individual 'cells' (e.g., for 'scientists,' etc.) in an order for amounts of time that interests them.

Modeling Research-informed & Negotiated STSE Actions

Exposure to case documentaries about STSE issues can motivate students to act to address them. However, if that is the only approach used by teachers, students may perceive the issues as belonging (being of concern) to others - such as to teachers and other adults. They may not have very deep personal commitments to addressing the issues.

We believe that students/citizens need to develop expertise and motivation to take social actions to address many STSE issues. Some of our reasons are given here: Rationale for WISE Actions.

Students can become motivated to act on STSE issues in many ways. One approach is to simply show them that other people, many like them, have taken important actions - and, often, had successes.
In showing students cases of others' research-informed actions, it can be very helpful to show them at least one example of such a project in which the teacher has been involved. It is always good to 'walk the talk, in other words! But, showing them examples of youth actions can help students to identify with such citizenship. For example, a teacher with whom we have worked showed his students in grade 10 the following video - in which a young woman speaks about her experiences (as a 17 year-old) opposing child soldiers:

While showing students various examples of actions people - including youth - have taken, we have found that is helpful to show them various kinds of actions people can take, such as those here. Furthermore, students should be invited to discuss/debate the relative merits of different action types - and, perhaps, to discuss the extent to which they may be prepared to take various kinds of actions. Students may, for instance, be fine with educating others, but not so keen to engage in visible protest marches, etc.

We have found that students can become very motivated to act on STSE issues if they have self-generated some findings - that is, through their own research - about the issue(s).

Some students may, after learning about STSE issues, suggest that they would like to conduct further research to learn more about the issues and/or to convince themselves that the potential problems are as serious as some people suggest. Other students, though, may not be so concerned about basing actions on their research. One approach for helping students to recognize the importance of basing actions on research is to show them videos of the Di-Hydrogen Mono-Oxide (DHMO) Scare.

We also have had successes in showing students examples of citizen actions and either pointing out the research that the person(s) conducted or discussing with them research that the person(s) could or should have conducted. The one below, for example, relates to issues surrounding 'trans-fats' in manufactured foods:

The teacher could, for instance, briefly describe trans-fats - particularly in terms of likely health effects - and discuss research that this person may have conducted to be able to produce this video. Teachers should emphasize that the person may have conducted 'secondary' (getting ideas/findings from others) and 'primary' (creating your own ideas/findings) research.

We believe that students - and other citizens - can conduct both 'secondary' and 'primary' research. Often, secondary research precedes primary research. 'Secondary' research refers to efforts to gather and analyze information, conclusions, etc. developed by other researchers. Common sources of such information are, of course, the internet and libraries. Teachers are, generally, pretty familiar with helping students with such research.

Teachers may not be comfortable with helping students to conduct 'primary' research; that is, efforts by students to investigate a problem, issues, etc. and draw their own conclusions from their investigations. Two common types of primary research that teachers can share with students are are correlational studies and experiments. Correlational studies are particularly useful for research into STSE issues, because potential negative outcomes (e.g., cancer) would not be the fault of the researcher - as they would be if the researcher used experimentation (e.g., asked volunteers to smoke varying numbers of cigarettes). Students who had investigated problems with energy use and conducted a study to determine peers' lengths of showers (for bathing), for instance, produced a pamphlet for peers - one side of which is given here.
Guiding Research-informed STSE Action Mini-projects

Demonstrating other people's research-informed actions to address STSE issues can be helpful for students, but they need guided practice in actually conducting such projects before being asked to conduct them on their own. This will help them deepen their expertise and motivation for research-informed actions.

There are various points in RiNA projects at which students may need some supports. Frequently, for instance, despite the teacher having show students examples of others' RiNA projects, students often appreciate some kinds of 'stimuli' for thinking of topics or 'controversies' to study and about which to take actions. The multi-stakeholder documentaries provided above can help serve this purpose. However, some teachers and students find that these have too much information, perhaps leaving students with less to research than may be desirable. So, we also have prepared less information-rich documentaries, like that below about batteries:

Teachers can provide students with several such 'commodity actant arrays' and ask them to review them and, eventually, choose one about which to conduct further research and eventual actions. A different, but related approach, is to present students with cartoon strips - like the one below about fast foods - and ask them to discuss issues depicted in them and then to conduct research to learn more about related issues and, where problems are identified to take actions to address them.

It likely will be particularly important for teachers to help students to develop expertise pertaining to experiments and correlational studies they could conduct for their 'primary' research. Distinctions between these two types of investigations are outlined at right and elaborated here: Experiments vs. Studies. Because STSE issues are, by their very nature, contentious and, possibly, dangerous, it often is best if students conduct correlational studies to learn more about particular STSE issues. For example, with regards to food and health, students might look for correlations among:

'Cause' Variables
'Dependent' Variables
Amount of Smoking
Amount of Sleep
Amount of Fast Food
Position in Family
Blood Pressure
Heart Rate
Running Speed
Body-Mass Index

Students also could conduct experiments, but teachers would have to ensure that these would be safe. They could, for instance, conduct an experiment to determine effects
on germinating seedling growth of increased expose to acidity (lower pH) in water (relating to acid rain).

With results/findings from their primary and secondary research, students should then be asked to develop plans of action to address issues relating to their findings. A group of grade 11 students produced a series of informational pamphlets (EG) promoting better nutritional habits - using findings from their studies. Other students, after lessons in climate change and their own correlational studies and internet research about transportation, produced this video (modeled after those at RSA Animate):

Meanwhile, in a private school (which, of course, may have more resources than comparable classes in public schools!), a group of students in a grade 6 French-language class explored issues of child labour regarding commodities commonly purchased by people in so-called 'developed' countries, like Canada. A typical activist video from this project is provided below:

Another student project, this one by someone in grade 10, demonstrated roles of various actants/'stakeholders' (regarding actor network theory) relating to a particular commodity; in this case, liquid foundation makeup:

A group of tenth-grade students studying and taking actions to address problems with shampoos, produced an unusual kind of action; that is, a diorama depicting positive selling features for shampoos on the outside of a shampoo bottle, but lists of negative substances and their effects on the inside of the cut-open bottle - as demonstrated by their teacher below:

Typically, teachers will ask/require students to produce reports of their RiNA projects. These often are submitted as paper reports, but some students choose more interactive and online media for these - such as the following page on the Smore website:

Frequently, activities like those above are not sufficient for helping students to develop expertise and confidence for conducting primary research. In those cases, students can benefit if teachers provide them with a skills apprenticeship.

NOTE: The above research-informed STSE action apprenticeship may, depending on students' existing expertise in this regard, take more than the time for one unit of study. This could extend over several units, with students building their expertise and comfort with conducting research-informed STSE activism. It may be particularly important for teachers to guide students through at least two correlational study-based activism projects and two experiment-based activism projects.

STSE-based 'Content' Teaching

During the middle part of the unit, emphasis should be placed on helping students to develop useful conceptions of important 'products' of science and technology, including laws and theories. In teaching about these 'concepts' (as the Ontario government calls them...), it is motivating for students if this instruction is set within the context of STSE issues.
For example, in a unit on cell metabolism (e.g., protein, carbohydrates, cellular respiration), the teacher could help students to realize that this learning (Concepts Education) could help them with nutritional problems, such as in the case of the poor nutritional value of manufactured and ‘fast’ ‘foods.’ Another good example is: ‘Fast Food Nation.'


Within the same or subsequent (depending on students' progress) units of study, teachers should ask students to complete a student-led research-informed action project to address a particular STSE issue of students' choices.

Such a project is the 'defining' feature of STEPWISE.
Although students may be motivated to address STSE Issues based on STSE Education, this motivation may be enhanced through student-directed (SD), open-ended (OE) research they conduct to investigate possible STSE Issues. Such SD/OE projects can be motivating because of how much ownership students have over knowledge building, dissemination and use(s). As described above, teachers should introduce the 'Inquiry-based STSE Action Project' assignment to students at the beginning of the unit.

Some suggestions for facilitating such assignments are:
  • A copy of this assignment - such as this one - should be given to students as soon as possible, to give them time to plan and conduct it;
  • Students should be divided into teams, each focusing on a different issue; Students might choose issues from a list like that at: STSE/WISE Issues;
  • Time to work on this project should be provided in several classes throughout the unit(s), and then at the end for students' STSE action(s);
  • During the unit, students will, hopefully, gain considerable knowledge, skills and attitudes relating to metabolism through the teacher's STSE-based Concepts Education and Guided Research-based STSE Action Mini-project.
  • During the unit, students should be encouraged and enabled to carry out primary and second research relating to the issue they plan to address.
  • Towards or at the end of the unit, students should be asked to defend their proposed actions and, ideally, to have implemented their action plans. In defending their plans, they should be required to make reference to skills and knowledge they used to determine them.
For a project relating to metabolism, students may have completed something like the following scenario:
  • Issue: Near the beginning of the unit, a group of students chose to work on possible issues associated with food colouring. Students discussed the issue, brainstormed what they already knew and listing what they wanted/needed to know. They divided up tasks, depending on group members' strengths, interests, etc.
  • Secondary Research: Students conducted searches (e.g., via internet and/or libraries), talked to people, etc. to learn more about food colouring (or artificial sweeteners). Teachers encouraged them to focus on STSE ideas, claims, etc. Often, information was found in books and websites dealing with food additives, more generally; e.g., Dirty Dozen.
  • Primary Research: Students conducted an experiment to test effects of increasing concentrations of food colouring on yeast cell metabolism. Results indicated that certain concentrations of food colouring limit yeast fermentation. Because students could not conduct experiments with food colouring (or artificial sweeteners) or other additives on humans (or, likely, on any animals), they conducted correlational studies to determine effects of student age and gender on consumption of food colouring. They found that this is a particular problem with younger students, particularly boys or girls. These data helped them decide what actions to recommend and to whom to target their actions.
  • STSE Actions: As a result of their research, this group of students placed posters in the school cafeteria and short messages in daily PA announcements that caution students - mainly younger ones - about choosing certain manufactured foods containing food colourings (or artificial sweeteners). Note: In backing their actions, the students drew upon Concepts, Skills and STSE Education that were taught earlier in the unit, as well as on their primary and secondary research. Teachers evaluated student projects on the basis of all STEPWISE elements.
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