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It Starts at Home

Building on students’ interests through socioscientific issues-based approaches

Science and Children—May/June 2022 (Volume 59, Issue 5)

By Melissa Cieto and Stephen B. Witzig

It Starts at Home

Students enter the classroom with a wealth of prior knowledge about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). As part of a summer school program, we wanted to build upon students’ prior interests, knowledge, and experiences to help them develop socioscientific arguments. In this article, we present a mini-unit we taught in a fourth- and fifth-grade summer school program that helped a small group of students connect their prior interests about STEM to socioscientific reasoning. This series of lessons were designed to integrate the use of informational texts and media-based resources into a science unit to meet both Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts (CCSS-ELA) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The states’ science curriculum standards address Earth and human activity in grades 3 through 5, whereas the NGSS address this relationship in grade 5. We found that students’ home experiences with their families influenced not only the choice of issue that they researched but also the arguments they presented to support their claims. They were engaged throughout the unit and eager to share their final product at home.

Assessing Prior Knowledge

The greatest predictor of student interest in STEM originates from extracurricular experiences with family or friends (VanMeter-Adams et al. 2014). These experiences are important to build upon both in and out of school. Our mini-unit aimed to help students connect their prior interests about STEM to socioscientific reasoning. Socioscientific reasoning incorporates the complexity of socioscientific issues (SSI), taking into consideration multiple perspectives, the open-ended nature of scientific inquiry, and skepticism (Kahn and Zeidler 2016) where SSI are open-ended social problems with substantive connections to science (green chemistry, genetic engineering, etc.) (Presley et al. 2013). To begin our unit, we asked the class: “What do you know about science?” To focus the conversation on human activity, we asked the students questions such as: How can people use science to solve problems? How can science help with a need or want? What does the word socioscientific make you think of? During this initial class discussion, we made a list of the students’ responses (Figure 1). As evident in Figure 1, students had many ideas about what SSI and STEM was and about scientists from specific fields but had generally broad ideas.

Figure 1
Students’ brainstorm of the meaning of socioscientific.

Students’ brainstorm of the meaning of socioscientific.

As a preassessment, we asked the students to think about wildlife they had seen in their neighborhoods. They were to discuss the wildlife in a class meeting and provide details. Then students were shown pictures of wildlife in a variety of settings (backyards, parking lots, rivers adjacent to residences) and were asked what they noticed. In the preassessment, most students were able to name a human impact and personal connection for each of the photographs shown. Personal connections included times when family pets chased rabbits, when they were driving with their families and saw a live deer, and finding crabs on the beaches in the area.

Introducing SSI

After the students completed their discussion, they were ready for an investigation into a SSI. We derived our first week’s lesson from Post and Sadler’s (2010) Wolves in the Wild activity and made grade-appropriate adaptations for our students. We scheduled 45 minutes to an hour daily for three days for this lesson (see Table 1). The teacher split the students into four stakeholder groups and assigned group roles: recorder, questioner, summarizer, reporter. A stakeholder was defined as a person or group of people with a special concern on an issue. For this lesson students took on the roles of the organizations with concerns related to the wolf population in Yellowstone National Park, namely cattle ranchers, sportspeople, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Earth Justice Group. Our goal was to provide students with one example of a SSI to depict Earth and human activity that would also capitalize on students’ experiences from home while serving as a model for students’ independent research.

Table 1. Pacing for SSI mini unit.


Time Frame

Wolves in the Wild (Post and Sadler 2010) teacher modeling

2 ¼ hours to 3 hours

Student selection and research of topics

4 to 4 ½ hours

Writing argumentative essays

¾ hour to 1½ hours


¾ hour to 1 hour

Having students represent various stakeholder roles is a strategy that supported students’ attainment of speaking and listening skills and Earth and human activity content knowledge. Perspective-taking and debating stakeholders’ points of view are strategies to develop socioscientific reasoning discourse before asking students to write argumentative essays about their self-selected topics (Kahn and Zeidler 2016).

We asked students to present the stakeholders’ perspectives and evidence from the provided fact sheets (see Supplemental Resources) that was modified to align with the fourth- and fifth-grade reading informational text standards. We modeled for the class how to infer perspectives and record evidence with a stakeholder that was not assigned to them. To support readers’ comprehension, we pre-taught perspective-taking using picture books (see Supplemental Resources). As a whole class, students discussed what they thought the stakeholder’s claim was while we demonstrated on an example recording sheet where to fill in this information. Students then worked through their own stakeholder information.

The students were given 10 minutes to identify their stakeholder’s claim and find text evidence to support their claim. The stakeholder recording sheet (see Supplemental Resources) had students reflect on specific questions about the human impact pertaining to this SSI topic. To support students, we recommend using sentence stems and word banks; teachers can also scribe for students as needed.

As students worked, we walked around to each student to see what their claims were and what evidence they were gleaning from the informational texts. Questions we asked included: What do you think your stakeholder is claiming? How does your stakeholder feel about this issue? We encouraged them to focus on the human impact on the issue. In this way, we were encouraging students to make their stakeholder claims using evidence to support their argument. Our SSI lesson served as an anchor activity that we referred to when students later conducted research on their self-selected topics. For example, when discussing food webs, we had a rich discussion about the possible effects of overfishing. We also analyzed data showing the decline of the bald eagle population, a consequence of using DDT as a pesticide.

Student responses to the three issues presented gave us insight into some possible sources of extracurricular STEM experiences. In their reasoning, students drew from their home experiences in conjunction with the information from the fact sheets. Examples included: “my family hunts,” “my mom protects ocean habitats,” and “my dad is a fisherman.” Students answered based on their previous experiences and observations about wildlife and human activity. For example, some students wrote they were in support of hunting for conservation efforts, while others wrote down that they were against hunting as a means of protecting livestock, referencing family hunting trips and visiting their friend’s farm. Teachers can contextualize students’ experiences, whether they be extracurricular experiences, books that students have read, and/or videos students may have seen. Capitalizing on and drawing those experiences out for students will likely require prompting from the teacher. Teachers can make science relevant through community connections and local contexts (Rivet and Krajcik 2008).

Capitalizing on Students’ Experiences

In week two of this unit, we conferenced with each student to choose another SSI to investigate on their own. At this point in the mini unit, students heavily relied on their prior experiences and interests. Students’ chosen SSI influences their choice in resources, which in turn will influence both their opinion and their content knowledge, so some guidance is needed here from the teacher in helping the students evaluate what sources are credible (Witzig et al. 2013). While students were researching, we walked around to ask them questions about their topic such as: Why are you interested in this topic? Have you heard about this topic before? Where might you find information about your topic? Then, we asked the students in a whole-class discussion to share their topic and rationale for their choice. We reviewed the students’ selections and rationales. One student chose to study bald eagle conservation and mentioned that her mother took her to an Audubon center where they learned about endangered species, another student mentioned that their father is a fisherman and has to follow fishing regulations, another student mentioned that his mother is a marine biologist and he had visited his mother’s workplace, and still another student mentioned his family having a collection of books on his chosen topic.

Each student received supplemental teacher-allocated informational articles and/or video files to further expand their body of research. To differentiate reading materials, articles were leveled using NewsELA, print sources were read aloud as needed, and we allocated multimedia sources and enabled closed-captions. Teachers can further accommodate allocated resources by using text-to-speech technology, using interactive multimedia resources to aid students’ comprehension such as EdPuzzle, and by rotating among groups to provide individual guidance. Students used a graphic organizer for notetaking with an emphasis on ascertaining if the authors were in support or against their issues (see Supplemental Resources). Individually, students used their provided resources to find information about their topic, searching for claims and evidence. Students also needed to interpret maps, photographs, and illustrations. We conferenced with students to help them make sense of the information they were reading by helping them to synthesize evidence across multiple resources. We encouraged the students to share with each other the information they found in preparation to write an argumentative essay as an “expert.” Through discussions with peers, the students were able to help each other craft stronger arguments for their topics and often shared ideas and experiences (Terrazas-Arrelanes et al. 2018).

When students finished their research, as a culminating activity, they wrote a persuasive letter to explain the importance of educating people about their SSIs (see Supplemental Resources for samples and SSI rubric). They addressed these letters to stakeholder groups including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Weather Service. Students then shared their letters in an oral presentation. As students discussed their SSI topics, we wanted them to elaborate on how their family experiences inspired them. Students shared anecdotes such as being on a commercial fishing boat and watching smaller fish be thrown back into the ocean and seeing the equipment used to track tides. It was evident that students’ home experiences have played an important role in their STEM thinking (VanMeter-Adams et al. 2014). These experiences can include travels, multimedia resources, books, and student wonderings about local interests (the local watershed, what happens when land is deforested for buildings, etc.) to ensure that each student has experiences to draw from for the activity.

Incorporating STEM

In the final week of this mini-unit, students were asked to use provided upcycled materials to create a model of a structure that was related to their SSI. For this unit, upcycled materials included cardboard and recycled papers but can include objects found outside (twigs, plastic bottles). Examples included a bald eagle sanctuary, a weather station tower, a fishing net, and a green energy site (Figure 2). Most students commented that their ideas came from visiting science venues with their families. One student modeled her bald eagle sanctuary after the osprey sanctuaries she had visited. Another student built a fishing net like the ones used by his father, explaining that larger netting allowed for younger fish to pass, and still another student built his green energy site like an office at his mother’s workplace.

Figure 2
Student work examples.

Student work examples. Upper: A student builds a model of a bald eagle watch tower. Lower: Student builds a model of a fishing net that allows smaller fish to pass through.

After completing this mini-unit with embedded hands-on engineering, students are on their way to meet the expectations set forth in the NGSS in which they must, “define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost” (NGSS Lead States 2013, p. 46). They have also participated in several of the science and engineering practices, including communicating information as well as argumentation from evidence as they have “constructed an argument with evidence, data, and/or a model” (NGSS Lead States 2013, p. 11). Finally, the students in this lesson not only learned about SSI but were involved in capitalizing on their extracurricular experiences with STEM through use of informational resources for an authentic purpose: to garner support for their SSI. Thus, authentic use of nonfiction resources in a science context can be beneficial for teaching nonfiction text features, reading for claims and evidence, and students’ speaking and listening skills to address the CCSS-ELA.

We found that students were highly motivated given their choice of SSI topic. Families received weekly class newsletters, with our goal being to encourage ongoing conversations at home. We found that when students are welcome to bring prior experiences into the classroom, they are engaged and eager. Formal science learning comes to life when students see their extracurricular experiences as being valued and appreciated. Nothing compares to when students leave asking, “Can I bring this home to show my family?

Supplemental Resources

Download the unit resources at

Online Resources



Melissa Cieto ( is a doctoral candidate, and Stephen B. Witzig ( is an associate professor, both at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.


Kahn, S., and D. Zeidler. 2016. Using our heads and HARTSS: Developing perspective-taking skills for socioscientific reasoning. Journal of Science Teacher Education 27 (3): 261–281.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers. 2010 (NGAC and CCSSO). Common Core State Standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Washington, DC: NGAC and CCSSO.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Post, J., and T.D. Sadler. 2010. Wolves in the wild. The Science Teacher 77 (9): 30.

Presley, M.L., et al. 2013. A framework for socio-scientific issues based education. Science Educator 22 (1): 26–32.

Rivet, A.E., and J.S. Krajcik. 2008. Contextualizing instruction: Leveraging students’ prior knowledge and experiences to foster understanding of middle school science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 45 (1): 79–100.

Terrazas-Arellanes, F.E., M.A.J. Gallard, L.A. Strycker, and E.D. Walden. 2018. Impact of interactive online units on learning science among students with learning disabilities and English learners. International Journal of Science Education 40 (5): 498–518.

VanMeter-Adams, A., C.L. Frankenfeld, J. Bases, V. Espina and L.A. Liotta. 2014. Students who demonstrate strong talent and interest in STEM are initially attracted to STEM through extracurricular experiences. CBE – Life Sciences Education 13 (4): 687–697.

Witzig, S.B., et al. 2013. The interface of opinion, understanding and evaluation while learning about a socioscientific issue. International Journal of Science Education 35 (15): 2483–2507.

Equity Inclusion Social Justice Teaching Strategies Elementary

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