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 ideas and resources relating to the 'practical' STEPWISE teaching & learning framework, which teachers tend to prefer instead of the theoretical version. If you have any comments, questions, etc. about the project, and/or would like to join it, please write to me.
Overview of Pedagogy.
Apprenticeship Details.
Student-led Projects.

Pedagogy Overview

In principle, teachers could follow the theory-informed tetrahedral version of STEPWISE. In practice, however, teachers find this to be relatively impractical - partly, for example, because it implies that any student could start at any point in the tetrahedron and involve one or more another points in it in their learning. Consequently, teachers prefer the more linear framework below:

STEPWISE Pedagogy Overview

To get students to the point that they can independently design and carry out research-informed and negotiated action (RiNA) projects to address STSE relationships of their concern/interest, teachers have found that students can benefit from one or more series of 'apprenticeship' lessons and activities. As elaborated below, such apprenticeship lessons and activities generally involve three 'phases,' which can vary in length and time of use - depending on, for example, age and progress of students:
  • Students Express STSE Issues & RiNA: Teachers provide students with some stimulus to get students to 'express' some of their ideas, views, skills, attitudes, etc. about STSE relationships - including where they see problems and, if so, what they suggest might be done (perhaps some actions, based on some research) to address such problems. Students' responses to such expressions of their reflections are likely to vary - with some really struggling while others have lots to say. At this stage, we suggest teachers help students celebrate whatever ideas, attitudes, etc. they have developed;
  • Teachers Teach RiNA Projects: Basically, because students may struggle discovering important ideas, skills, attitudes, etc., we suggest teachers should use more direct instructional approaches to ensure students learn what is needed. At this stage of the apprenticeship, we broadly suggest that students learn about some major STSE relationships, controversies within them and, especially, situations that may be problematic in terms of actions of powerful people and groups (like financiers and corporations). In doing so, the teacher also can teach traditional laws and theories ('knowledge'), but s/he also should show students examples of how other people (including other students and citizens) have developed and carried out actions to address problems they perceive. Related to this, students should be shown examples of research that people have conducted as at least partial bases for their decisions about actions;
  • Teachers Guide Students' Mini-RiNA Projects: Clearly, showing students examples of STSE relationships and RiNA projects is insufficient; they need to be more directly engaged in making decisions about them. So, here, teachers are advised to ask students to conduct research to learn more about STSE relationships of interest to them and, where they perceive harms to individuals, societies &/or environments, to develop and carry out research-informed and negotiated actions to address such harms. Where they feel they need assistance, they can ask for teacher help - with the teacher perhaps erring on the side of encouraging students to make most decisions on their own.

At some point, the teacher may feel that students have enough lessons and activities like those outlined above and, therefore, are ready to independently design and conduct RiNA projects to address problematic STSE relationships. Such a decision will, of course, vary - depending on, for example, age and development of students, as well as with confidence of the teacher.

As illustrated below, lessons and activities based on the STEPWISE apprenticeship framework above have helped many students to develop and implement interesting and effective RiNA projects.

While we have seen some very good student-led RiNA projects generated apparently as a result of the above sort of apprenticeship, we are aware that many basic aspects of the approaches do not always align with common school science practices. We feel that many factors must work together to facilitate the sort of teaching outlined above. Brief notes about some of these are provided below:

  • Curriculum Support: A great contributor to STEPWISE is the fact that the Ontario government's curricula for science have, since at least 1998, given considerable priority to STSE education and to students' inquiry activities. Although we feel that this curriculum is very helpful, it doesn't go far enough; for example, in tending to avoid discussion of harms from private sector influences on STEM fields. Also, while it does promote inquiry activities, it seems overwhelming emphasis is on more teacher-directed and closed-ended activities to ensure students 'discover' correct laws and theories
  • Teachers' Perspectives About the Nature of Science/STEM: Our research suggests that the more teachers adhere to Naturalist-Antirealist views about science (and technology/engineering), the more likely they are to promote major principles and activities of STEPWISE. Related to this, while we do not have publications about this, it is apparent that the more teachers' political views align with Libertarian (somewhat) - Left on the Political Compass, the more likely they are to implement STEPWISE;
  • Student Successes: Often, different approaches like STEPWISE can be encouraged when teachers witness successes of students. This can happen by viewing examples of students' work (e.g., see below) and/or by having the teachers simply try our approaches (without, necessarily, believing in them) and see for themselves;
  • Collegial and Administrative Supports: With the above in place, it still may be difficult for teachers to implement STEPWISE. They can benefit greatly from support for core STEPWISE principles by fellow teachers (especially those teaching the same or similar subjects and/or classes) and, as well, by administrators (at least in terms of allowing exploration). Related to this, such support often requires appropriate communication with parents and parent groups.

Detailed Apprenticeship Description


The above outline may help some teachers, perhaps mostly those who already have been working with STEPWISE or STEPWISE-related principles and practices. For teachers who are relatively unfamiliar with perspectives and practices promoted here, the suggestions and examples below may be helpful. Please let me know if we can do more to help in this regard.

Apprenticeship Suggestions

The suggestions below follow the apprenticeship in the above schema:

  • Students Express STSE Issues & RiNA: Based on constructivist learning theory, students begin science education already possessing 'conceptions' (ideas, attitudes, etc.) about subjects to be taught/learned. 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 own 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.
Students can express their pre-instructional ideas, skills, attitudes, etc. 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, which individuals and groups may defend positive vs. negative aspects (e.g., cell phone salespeople vs. cell phone critics).
  • Teachers Teach RiNA Projects: 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.
A very popular way to get students to learn required information, skills, etc. is to engage them inquiry-based learning activities. There are various forms of such IBL, but those in which teachers support, guide, 'scaffold, or (worse) 'correct' students' decisions (e.g., about topic choice, methods & conclusions) I find problematic. I think a basic problem is that students' self-esteem may be damaged when teachers interfere with their choices; but, my biggest concern is that, because there is so much to learn, which can comprise available time to do so, students who are disadvantaged in some ways (e.g., intellectually or culturally) may struggle to discover what is intended. This is a basic problem with regards to constructivist learning theory, as discussed here. IBL can, therefore, contribute to or perpetuate social stratification (e.g., differences between rich and poor). Detailed arguments about IBL are provided here.

There are many ways that teachers can introduce students to various STSE relationships/issues. Some approaches are given at
: WISE Issue-Activism Education.

A common approach is to show students documentaries ('cases') that illustrate STSE relationships, problems and peoples' actions (hopefully, research-informed and negotiated) to address problems. In the last decade or so, it has been very common to show students multimedia/video documentaries about issues, such as The Story of Electronics from the Story of Stuff project, at right. Of course, 'documentaries' can be provided in various formats, including as videos like that shown above. There are, as well, though, many text-based cases, several of which are noted here.

Documentaries/cases can provide essential information, attitudes, etc. for students. But, as described above, it seems necessary to ensure students' interpretations about what they read or see align with what the teacher wants them to learn. Again, based on constructivist learning theory, students may draw different conclusions from cases. This usually implies the teacher should use more teacher-directed and closed-ended approaches, such as lecturing/telling, showing, etc.

There is much to teach about STSE relationships, some of which is outlined here. In doing so, although there is much to celebrate about STSE relationships (e.g., many helpful inventions for citizens), we must educate students about potential and/or realized problems - such as those outlined here.

Clearly, as students become aware of problems, they may become more open to discussions of personal and social actions that people can - and, perhaps, should - take to try to overcome such problems/harms. As part of such education, students should hear about reasons for people to take actions, some of which are discussed here. Convincing students of needs for actions can, however, be difficult - sometimes because students have not personally experienced hardships from STEM products/services. 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). This is a priority for the next stage (below) of the apprenticeship.

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. Although teachers can show and discuss many important aspects of studies and experiments, etc. and forms of action, it seems clear student learning will be deepest when they have had opportunities to apply such ideas, skills, etc. in personally-meaningful contexts - which is the focus of activities for the next stage of the apprenticeship (below).

Although I have mentioned this above, while teaching students about STSE relationships and RiNA projects, teachers will - inevitably - have to teach relating knowledge from fields of science and technology. I have called these 'products,' since they (e.g., laws & theories) are products of work of science and technology. 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.'
Although I have recommended more teacher-directed and closed-ended approaches to ensure students learn what they need to learn, it is also clear that student learning becomes deeper the more they apply ideas, skills, attitudes, etc. they have been taught. This amounts to 'application-based learning'; that is, deepening one's learning by applying what has been previously taught. This can be encouraged by engaging students in further research on a topic, asking them questions to ponder, etc. 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.' In doing so, 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).

  • Teachers Guide Students' Mini-RiNA Projects: As stated above, while it appears to be essential that teachers provide students with essential ideas, skills, attitudes, etc. through more direct instruction, the deepest learning seems to arise when students have more control over decisions. In this third phase of the apprenticeship, therefore, teachers should ask students to choose an STSE topic, learn more about it and, where they detect harms for individuals, societies and/or environments, develop and implement plans of action to try to rectify problems.

Having said that, it also seem clear that many students will need teachers to provide 'stimuli' or resources to get students to choose and pursue topics. There are many kinds of such stimuli, and teachers' choices in ones to use will depend on various factors - such as ages of students and their development in terms of STEPWISE ideas, skills, etc. It is difficult to classify the various stimuli teachers can use, but the following categories may help:

Brief issue descriptions: For a unit in grade 10 biology, for instance, a teachers provided students with about 10 brief descriptions of STSE issues, which they were asked to read. Different student groups then chose to further explore one of each of these. One example was, as follows:

Energy drinks, which contain high levels of caffeine, sugars and crabs, are designed to improve alertness and increase cognitive performance. Excess consumption, however, can lead to negative side effects including insomnia, irritability, anxiety, arrhythmia, and stomach upset. In addition, the names and slogans of different drinks targets towards adolescents are controversial (e.g. Rockstar, Monster, Big Buzz, Cocaine). Parents groups in Canada are mobilizing to ban energy drink sales to minors.

Some teachers have tried to indicate such controversies using more visual aids, such as through depicting issues in the form of cartoons, like this one about fast foods.

A key area of focus for the teaching phase (above) that may be incorporated into stimuli for students is to explore STSE relationships in terms of actor-network theory (ANT). This is a complex and, to some extent, debated theory; but, it seems to basically hold that what we think of in terms of individual entities, such as a plastic water bottle, is, really, part of (and some would say is a) network of entities ('actants'). To stimulate students to further explore STSE topics in light of ANT, teachers can provide them with brief descriptions of different actants relating to commodities, such as as shown here for electric batteries.

Recently, we have developed what we call 'Multi-actant Documentaries' (MADs) using the Prezi format. One of these is linked at right. Each MAD provides some information (perhaps too much, in some cases) about different types of actants. They do not, however, show connections among actants.

So, we suggest MADs can be used to both teach ideas about STSE and to have students further explore them (in the 'Practice' phase of the apprenticeship. We have developed several other MADs in Prezi, including for: Automobiles; Fast & Manufactured Foods; Cell Phones; and, Tattoos.

Upon choosing an STSE topic/issue/problem, students would then be asked to conduct further research - both secondary (e.g., Internet searches) and primary (e.g., experiments and/or studies) research - to learn more about their topic and then develop and implement actions to address problems/harms they perceive in the STSE relationship(s) under study. Again, teachers can provide support for students in this stage of the apprenticeship, but that should, likely, be given mainly upon student request.

Students' reactions to design and conduct RiNA projects will, again, depend much on their age and stage of development of expertise, confidence and motivation for such projects. Because school science systems (e.g., often led by governments) often do not encourage students to self-direct science inquiries and arrive at students' own conclusions, students often struggle with requests to develop and carry out research as bases for action decisions. In such cases, teachers need to provide students with some guidance in this area. Some such guidance can occur in the second apprenticeship stage (above), but it also helps to provide such modelling in this stage. Again, to ensure students have autonomy with their own RiNA projects, such modelling is likely best conducted on separate topics as separate lessons and activities.

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.

Students' RiNA Projects

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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