Skip to main content

Editor's Corner

Teaching Societal Issues in the Science Classroom

The Science Teacher—July/August 2022 (Volume 89, Issue 6)

By Ann Haley Mackenzie

Teaching Societal Issues  in the Science Classroom

Why is it imperative to include societal issues in our science classrooms, regardless of the discipline? By ignoring societal issues, we make it difficult for students to see how science relates to their current and future lives. After all, isn’t one of the key purposes of schooling to help prepare our students to be well-informed citizens, capable of enhancing the democracy of our country? If they are not well versed in topics such as climate change, alternative sources of fuel, and genetic engineering, for example, how will they become leaders within their communities?

We live at a time when noneducators often decide what should be included in the curriculum, sometimes at a huge cost to scientific literacy. These decisions can pose a danger to our society, especially if they preclude young adults from learning how societal issues impact them at the personal, community, state, federal, and international levels.

Exploring societal issues in science affords our students the opportunity to generate enduring questions; experience positive confusion; engage in reflective thought; and develop an understanding of differences in values, priorities, and definitions of morality among people all over the world (Soley 1996).

According to Soley (1996), “teaching about controversial issues has been widely viewed as preparing students for effective citizenship. Learning the content and thinking skills necessary for students to make public policy decisions, operate successfully in a society to build consensus, and learn to negotiate and manage differences have been the bulkheads of the field.”

By incorporating societal issues into our classrooms, we provide students a chance to explore topics in depth, instead of simply glossing over the content. Yager and Lutz (1995) provided the following reasons for including societal issues in science courses:

  • These issues justify information included in science courses.
  • Societal issues allow students to find science classes relevant to their daily lives.
  • These societal issues enable teachers to evaluate student success at application and synthesis of ideas.
  • Infusing societal issues defines the teacher’s role to be “facilitator” and relegates the textbook’s/digital learning platform status to “information sources.”
  • These issues may allow for increased scientific understanding of concepts, based on cognitive theories of learning.
  • These issues provide a vehicle for tying the whole school program together (from McCann 2000).

A current societal issue is COVID. Could it have been predicted? Could it have been avoided? What will be the long-term impact of our international community experiencing a two-year-long pandemic? What can be done to prevent future pandemics? As of now, COVID appears to be a part of our lives for the long term, much like the flu. What science is involved with these long-term phenomena? How will COVID impact communities if it becomes endemic to our society? How will people living in poverty be affected within our country and throughout the world? All of these questions need to be explored in the science classroom when discussing viruses, evolution, disease transmission, or areas in other disciplines of science.

The Science/Technology/Society reform movement in science education received enormous attention back in the 1980s and 1990s. It has now been transformed via the NGSS into areas where core ideas, crosscutting concepts, and science and engineering processes can be used to explore societal topics. The Elaborate phase of the 5E learning cycle is also critical after students have experienced the phenomena and are able to explain what they are uncovering.

Some possible ways to engage students in exploring these topics are debates, claim-evidence-reasoning strategies, real-time data analysis from various websites such as the Population Education website (, simulations, town hall meetings, case studies, position papers, editorials, blog posts, and community projects and involvement.

Take a stand toward infusing these issues into your teaching. They foster the development of students’ problem-solving skills, nurture their creativity, and enhance their ability to be innovative. Aren’t these reasons enough?

Possible Societal Topics for Science Classes

  • How does the destruction of the rainforest lead to future pandemics through the release of viruses and bacteria into plant and animal vectors? How will we keep these diseases under control?
  • Do we have an obligation to assist developing countries in obtaining clean water? If so, how do we do so in a culturally appropriate manner?
  • Should chemical warfare continue to be developed? What guidelines should be in place in terms of ethical concerns? How are nations handling the development of these weapons?
  • Should a nuclear power plant be built in an area close to a population center? What are the ramifications of such a decision?
  • How does the chemical nature of pesticides impact the health and well-being of all life or does it?
  • What ethical considerations are present within companies like “23 and Me” where our DNA is “owned” by these companies?
  • How is climate change expressing itself as a domino effect across all the scientific disciplines?
  • Should we use government funds for space exploration when school buildings still have lead paint, asbestos, and other deleterious chemicals in them, and their structures are falling apart, especially in low-income areas where the tax base is limited?
  • What are the ethical issues surrounding “designer” babies? Where should we draw the line regarding parents choosing characteristics for their future children?
  • Why is the loss of biodiversity one of the most serious issues facing the population of the world?
  • Why is it that only 9 percent of the plastic bottles are actually being recycled even though we put them in our recycling bins? Why doesn’t the general population know this fact? What can be done to help people reduce the use of plastic?
  • What are the medical costs of humans ingesting a credit card worth of plastic each week?
  • What can be done about the floating garbage refuse in the ocean that is gaining size each year? What are its impacts on ocean life and human life?
  • Is Artificial Intelligence becoming sentient? How are robots being programmed to mimic human empathy? Is this a concern? Should there be limitations and legislation around robotic development?
  • How does social media monitor our behavior through the computer techniques they employ? What does this have to do with science of thought? Science of programming?


McCann, W.S. 2000. Teaching about societal issues in science classrooms. ERIC Digest.

Soley, M. 1996. If it’s controversial, why teach it? Social Education 60 (1): 9–14.

Yager, R.E., and M.V. Lutz. 1995. STS to enhance total curriculum. School Science and Mathematics 95 (1): 28–35.

Equity Inclusion Social Justice STEM High School

Asset 2