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


Learning About Relationships Among Fields of Science & Technology and Societies & Environments

Welcome! This page provides ideas, resources and links to relevant websites for STSE Education; i.e., learning about conceptions in relationships among (and the nature of) fields of science & technology and societies & environments. Although not found in all curricula around the world, it is listed first among three goals for science and technology education in Ontario, where most of my work occurs.
If you have comments, questions, suggestions, resource ideas, etc. about anything here, write to me about them.

Meaning of STSE Education
'STSE' stands for relationships among: Science, Technology, Society & Environment. Such relationships are depicted at right, although - as shown below - the 4 items are more overlapping than portrayed here. Although STSE education prioritizes understanding relationships, it also is important to have realistic conceptions of each element - including about the nature of science and technology (NoST), the nature of societies (e.g., sociology) and the nature of environments (e.g., ecology and environmental sciences). Particularly important in studies of STSE relationships are controversies arising from different opinions about some relationships - often related to various political positions. I believe, however, we must focus on potential harms.
Given the STSE model above is, likely, somewhat misleading - in that it suggests separation of the four elements in it - perhaps the model below is more realistic, recognizing societal and environmental embeddedness of science and technology; and, recognizing possibilities for overlapping of goals, procedures and outcomes of science and technology. It also stresses needs for foci on Sociopolitical ('WISE') Activism to overcome Socioscientific (STSE) Harms.

STEM Education and STSE Education

With advent of 'STEM' education initiatives, one might add engineering & mathematics to the STSE mix; ie 'STEM-SE.' Although the model below may do this reasonably-well, we have to keep in mind that - at least based on actor-network theory - that STEM fields are dynamically and, to a great extent, unpredictably, interrelated with many or most other 'entities,' including living, non-living and symbolic entities. Such a view makes it extremely difficult to depict science and technology (or STEM) in any kind of static, two-dimensional, way. Nevertheless, such a STEM-SE schema may be important to emphasize, given that many STEM education initiatives appear to limit considerations of many societal and environmental relationships - particularly those regarding adverse effects of powerful people and groups on STEM fields and, in turn, wellbeing of individuals, societies & environments.

Rationale for STSE Education
Although science has traditionally been studied separate from other subjects, studies of STSE relationships has become more common. This seems to have occurred due to more general awareness of harms linked to science and related fields. Fields of science and technology have led to many societal advances. Many medical and surgical treatments, such as heart surgery and antibiotic treatments have saved and/or prolonged human lives. Communication tools, such as open-access aspects of the Internet, have helped people share ideas and cultural perspectives, etc. Such relationships need to be celebrated. However, where there are harms (or hints of harms) like those noted below and here, they likely should be addressed:
  • Fats, sugars, salts, etc. in manufactured ‘foods’;
  • Medications that are not adequately tested;
  • Automobile pollution; e.g., toxins as 'smog';
  • Poor labour conditions in electronics' manufacturing;
  • ‘Screen time’ (e.g., TV-viewing) and obesity;
  • Data-mining to tailor advertizing;
  • Carcinogens and nicotine in cigarettes;
  • Deforestation for cattle and hamburgers;
  • Patenting of life forms;
  • Climate change due to fossil fuel burning;
  • Death etc. from the military-industrial complex; etc.
Although there is much controversy about causes of harms in STSE relationships, many scholars and others suggest that excessive human orientation towards for-profit production and consumption of goods and services is largely at fault. John McMurtry (1999), a prominent philosopher and social commentator, says that we are in the 'cancer stage of capitalism' - in which 'cells' (capitalists) within us are damaging our 'bodies' (humanity). It seems clear that many products of science and technology, supported by companies and financiers, are generating much social and environmental degradation. Perhaps because of  seriousness of problems like those mentioned at left, STSE Education is part of school science and technology curricula. It is, however, a neglected aspect of students' education in many educational situations. It is common, for example, for STSE to be addressed in terms of telling students about many positive products - such as medical devices, etc. - that may be attributed to science and technology. Possible negative STSE relationships are seldom mentioned, particularly as they may relate to adverse influences of powerful individuals (e.g., financiers) and groups  (e.g., corporations). Without attention to such potential power-related harms, humanity's harms are, clearly, likely to persist and/or get worse. As indicated by the STSE framework above, humans are intimately connected to all other living things and their non-living environments. We can either choose to influence these in positive or negative ways.
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STSE Curriculum
As mentioned above, STSE is part of some official curricula - such as for Ontario schools. It is apparent, however, that many STSE goal statements (and those, as discussed below, in many STEM education initiatives) tend to be oriented towards positive 'applications' of science and technology - a tack tending to suggest that science and technology are 'good,' 'successful' and 'beneficial.' While that is not untrue in many cases, there are a number areas of STSE relationships about which we should be concerned (see WISE Problems). A useful way of analyzing and planning for STSE Education along these lines has been developed by Derek Hodson (2003). He suggests that there are four 'levels' of commitment to STSE education; that is,
  • Appreciating societal impacts of scientific and technological change, and recognizing that science and technology are, to some extent, culturally-determined.
  • Recognizing that decisions about science and technology developments are taken in pursuit of particular interests, and that benefits accruing to some may be at expense of others. Recognizing that scientific and technological development are inextricably linked with distribution of wealth and power.
  • Developing one’s own views and underlying value positions.
  • Preparing for and taking actions to address harms (adaped from p. 655).

I believe that students need to focus on all four such categories of STSE education.

Noting, as did Hodson (2003), that learning in one domain (e.g., STSE) can affect and be affected by learning in another domain (e.g., Skills), and acknowledging his call for socio-political actions to overcome harms, I created the STEPWISE framework above. In this schema, all teaching and learning is oriented towards 'STSE Actions'; that is, action(s) students might take to use their literacy (i.e., the elements around the periphery of the framework above) to try to improve wellbeing of individuals, societies and/or environments (WISE). For example, to address poor eating habits in school cafeterias, students could use their knowledge of Canada's Food Guide (Products Education), awareness that food companies may sacrifice nutritional value for profit (STSE Education), and findings from their own studies of students' eating habits (Students' Research) to lobby school administrators to organize more nutritional food choices in the cafeteria. For students to be comfortable and motivated to conduct such projects, we have found that a more linear version of STEPWISE can help and, for them to address harms in terms of influences of powerful people (e.g., financiers) and groups (e.g., corporations) on fields of science and technology (and much more ...), our research strongly suggests that teachers need to directly teach about such relationships.
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Gaps in Representing STSE Relationships
Educational researchers, politicians, teachers, etc. have choices in ways in which they represent relationships among fields of science and technology and societies and environments (STSE). Some choices I want to be used in S&T education, which tend - I believe - to be avoided in many science/STEM education initiatives, can be understood via the schema below:
The above schema is meant to depict relationships between the 'actual' nature of science & technology (S&T) in different contexts (on the left) and ways in which S&T may be portrayed in education (on the right). Conversions between left and right in the schema can be considered to be kinds of translations. As in translating between two languages, there may be inefficiencies or mis-translations; here, called "gaps." Some may be unavoidable, such as ontological gaps (e.g., due to differences in composition of people and descriptions of them) and epistemological gaps (e.g., due to different research methods used to depict S&T). Ideological gaps in translations, though, are intentional. There is much evidence, for instance, that many STEM education initiatives - and many science education programmes - tend to avoid references to roles of "Powerful Entities" in influencing STEM fields shown on the right above. I believe, like several colleagues, that it is students' democratic rights to be informed about such problematic aspects of STSE relationships.

STSE Education Pedagogy
Teaching students about STSE relationships is, in many ways, not unlike teaching for other learning expectations (e.g., Products of S&T). Based on constructivist learning principles, for instance, students often have pre-conceived notions about topics teachers intend to teach. Students' pre-conceived notions can influence how they interpret ideas, perspectives, experiences that teachers provide. With this in mind, teachers might consider using my constructivism-informed pedagogical framework for their STSE Education. Some specific examples of activities based on this three-phase framework are provided at right.
  • Expressing Ideas. Teachers may, for example, ask students to list several inventions (e.g., cell phones, nuclear weapons, heart surgery) and brainstorm and debate benefits and hazards associated with each one.
  • Learning Ideas. Teachers could use, for example, various case methods; that is, activities ('methods') that get students to interact with case studies ('documentaries') about some STSE issue; e.g., at: Action BioScience.
  • Judging Ideas. Students can - in various ways - make judgements about which STSE perspectives to believe. 'Town-hall Debates,' in which students role-play different positions on STSE issues are excellent. They also can form opinions as they take actions on issues/harms.

The above 3-phase pedagogical approach is common to 'apprenticeship' lessons and activities inherent to the STEPWISE teaching/learning framework.

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Student Assessment & Evaluation
Assessment and evaluation (A&E) of students' expertise regarding STSE relationships is complex. It should be carried out differently, depending on the phase of the instructional model being used. When getting students to express (demonstrate) their pre-instructional STSE ideas, for example, it is important to encourage them to freely express their ideas - knowing there are no 'right' answers. Accordingly, A&E at this stage should emphasize effort. During the 'Learning Ideas' phase of the instructional model, on the other hand, teachers can use more traditional A&E techniques - since the purpose in that phase of learning is to teach particular ideas, concepts, etc. However, because there is much controversy about whether or not STSE relationships are positive or negative (often due to a person's political stance), all A&E in STSE Education must be flexible - allowing for different perspectives, as long as they appear logical. Indeed, room must be reserved for students to decide what STSE relationships make most sense to them. This represents the Judging Ideas phase of the constructivism-informed instructional framework. This is a crucial part of STSE education, since decisions about STSE relationships and action(s) stemming from them can - philosophically - only be made in the context of 'real-life' situations, involving many, often simultaneously changing and interacting, variables. For example, decisions about production and use of such manufactured foods as potato chips are controversial and can only be made through negotiation among various 'stakeholders'; such as among company representatives, consumers, government officials, scientists, lawyers, etc. Some specific suggestions for A&E in the area of STSE Education are provided at right.
Assessment/Evaluation Suggestions/Resources
  • Check curriculum guidelines for instructions about which STSE relationships to emphasize, noting that many or most of these are controversial and, therefore, students may need to learn opposing views and, then, make decisions for themselves about which relationships make most sense to them in particular situations. Note that, in Ontario, teachers are only required to evaluate 'Overall Expectations.' 'Specific Expectations' are provided by the government as examples; not as requirements.
  • Refer to general principles of assessment & evaluation.
  • When helping students to develop expertise based on the model above, consider these guidelines:
    • Expressing Ideas. Since this phase encourages students to freely express their ideas, evaluation should be based mainly on effort and, if it's been taught, the degree of argumentation.
    • Learning Ideas. Although many STSE relationships are controversial, it is reasonable for teachers to A&E students' understanding of various positions; including through quizzes/tests, assignments, etc.
    • Judging Ideas. To ensure students are free to evaluate different STSE perspectives, A&E needs to be very flexible and based mainly on students' effort and degree of argumentation.
    • Procedural Education. Students may or may not have expertise necessary for Expressing, Learning and Judging Ideas. They may, therefore, need a procedural education - such as that addressed through Inquiry-Design Education. Principles of S&E for this kind of education are similar to those outlined above.

STSE Education Resources
As indicated above, there are different teaching approaches for STSE Education. There are, accordingly, many possible resources in support of various approaches. Many of these are located at: STSE web links. A very popular STSE Education approach is the 'case method'; that is, activities ('methods') that get students to interact with case studies (also called documentaries) about some STSE issue. Several of these are provided at: Action BioScience. Some case methods are available for field-testing by writing to me.
The above case methods are part of a larger set of resources developed as part of the STEPWISE research and development programme.

  • Bencze, L., Di Giuseppe, M., Hodson, D., Pedretti, E., Serebrin, L. & Decoito, I. (2003). Paradigmic road blocks in elementary school science ‘reform’: Reconsidering nature-of-science teaching within a rational-realist milieu. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 16(5), 285-308.
  • Hodson, D. (2003). Time for action: Science education for an alternative future. International Journal of Science Education, 25(6), 645–670.
  • McMurtry, J. (1999). The cancer stage of capitalism. London: Pluto.
© All rights reserved, J.L. Bencze, 2019.
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