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Socio-scientific Issues Instruction

An interdisciplinary approach to increase relevance and systems thinking

The Science Teacher—November/December 2020 (Volume 88, Issue 2)

By Molly Ewing and Troy D. Sadler

Engaging with science in ways that are meaningful, authentic, and relevant is of increasing importance in the science classroom. One way to provide these opportunities is by using socio-scientific issues in instruction. Socio-scientific issues are societal challenges which are both scientific and social in nature (e.g., climate change and water pollution); such issues are inherently authentic, consequential to society, and abundant in the news. In order for students to make sense of such challenging issues they need to analyze the complex and interdisciplinary systems these issues are embedded in.

For example, the issue of water pollution is interdisciplinary both in terms of connecting to multiple scientific disciplines as well as disciplines outside of science. In order to understand water pollution, it needs to be studied through the lens of the relevant social systems (e.g., governmental and economic systems) and scientific systems (e.g., physical, life, and Earth systems). Without understanding the dynamic and interdependent nature of these systems, students will not be able to deeply comprehend how an issue such as water pollution develops, its consequences, or how the issue can be resolved. It is this opportunity for interdisciplinary systems thinking through socio-scientific issue instruction that we explore in the remainder of the article.


Within socio-scientific issues, specific phenomena that are embedded in the issue can be used to drive lessons. Once a phenomenon is chosen, the specific science ideas and related systems necessary to explain it can be identified. For example, high levels of lead found in the water in Flint, MI (and the outbreak of dangerous bacteria) is a specific phenomenon that illustrates the socio-scientific issue of water pollution. Students can work to make sense of this phenomenon, and in so doing, they need to learn interdisciplinary scientific ideas and apply those ideas to the relevant system of the drinking water (e.g., structures and properties of matter (PS), chemical reactions (PS), natural resources (ESS), ecosystem dynamics, functioning, and resilience (LS), and interdependent relationships in ecosystems (LS)). Additionally, students need to learn about government systems functioning—or in this case, lack of functioning—in order to make sense of how the lead and bacteria levels got so high in Flint. This example demonstrates how the process of making sense of the phenomenon embedded in a socio-scientific issue drives both scientific learning as well as social science learning. 


Systems thinking

“A system is a group of related parts that make up a whole and can carry out functions its individual parts cannot” (Appendix G in NGSS Lead States, 2013). This definition can be applied to scientific systems or social systems. Those investigating any given system—whether scientific or social—first define it by creating artificial boundaries around the system of interest and only including relevant system components for the purpose of the investigation.

While delimiting systems is necessary to make studying systems manageable, investigators recognize that the defined system may interact with other systems, have sub-systems, and be a part of a larger system. For example, in order to understand how a plant grows we might define the system as the plant itself with component parts (e.g., stems, leaves) making up the whole, which can carry out a function the individual parts cannot, as well as inputs (e.g., carbon dioxide), outputs (e.g., oxygen), and processes (e.g., chemical reactions). The system of a plant interacts with other systems (e.g., the hydrosphere), is part of larger systems (e.g., a habitat), and contains subsystems (e.g., a cell).

An example of a social system is a school which also has component parts (e.g., students, teachers, administrators) that make up the whole which can carry out a function the individual parts cannot, inputs (e.g., students’ knowledge and experiences, instructional materials, and finances), outputs (e.g., specific scientific understandings), and processes (e.g., learning). The system of a school interacts with other systems (e.g., neighborhood), is part of larger systems (e.g., a district), and contains subsystems (e.g., a classroom). The following sections further elaborate scientific and social systems thinking.

Scientific systems thinking

The Framework for K–12 Science Education (National Research Council (NRC) 2012) includes Systems and System Models as a crosscutting concept, stating that “defining the system under study—specifying its boundaries and making explicit a model of that system—provides tools for understanding and testing ideas that are applicable throughout science and engineering” and that the crosscutting concepts in general “help provide students with an organizational framework for connecting knowledge from the various disciplines into a coherent and scientifically based view of the world.” These descriptions address the multifaceted role that systems and the crosscutting concepts can serve for making connections across scientific disciplines and as a tool for sensemaking.

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013) include specific ideas, referred to as elements, about systems that students should develop and use within each gradeband in Appendix G. An example of a high school element is: “When investigating or describing a system, the boundaries and initial conditions of the system need to be defined and their inputs and outputs analyzed and described using models.” This element provides guidance on how to describe and analyze a system.

Example of scientific systems 

Returning to the issue of water pollution in Flint, students could develop a systems model for analyzing how lead got into the water. This work could include analysis of inputs (e.g., water from the Flint River), outputs (e.g., water with dangerous levels of lead and bacteria) and the mechanisms that caused the change. In this case, the main mechanism was that oxidants in the water reacted with the lead pipes, which caused the lead to dissolve in the water and contaminate it (SciShow 2018). Water is typically treated with an anti-corrosion chemicals like orthophosphate, which forms a compound that makes a protective layer on the inside of the pipe. The water in Flint was not treated with anti-corrosion chemicals, which allowed the lead to dissolve into the water. Additionally, the water had higher-than-average chloride levels because sodium chloride (i.e., salt) washed into the river after being used to de-ice roads. The elevated level of chloride increased the speed of the pipe corrosion. Chlorine was added to the water to fight bacteria but, because of the corrosion, the chlorine reacted with metals, forming different compounds that do not control bacteria. As such, the level of bacteria also increased. At least 12 people died from the bacterial outbreak.

Example of social systems 

Understanding the scientific system described earlier is critical to understanding how the lead levels got so high in Flint’s water, but it is also necessary to consider non-scientific, social systems to understand how the lead levels were allowed to become unsafe. Examples of social systems one might include when trying to understand this socio-scientific issue could include local and federal governments, which make decisions and regulations based on ethical, economic, and political reasons. In Flint—which is over 50% Black and over 40% of the population is below the poverty line—the local government made the decision to switch the city’s water provider for economic reasons (Kennedy, 2016). Government officials chose to use water from the Flint River as an interim measure before they were able to connect to the new provider they identified. However, they did not treat the water with anti-corrosion chemicals, and later said that decision was due to not fully understanding the federal Lead and Copper rules. 

Residents quickly raised concerns about the quality of their drinking water but were told that the water was safe. Even after a test of one resident’s water revealed a high lead level and a child in the home was diagnosed with lead poisoning, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) dismissed concerns, saying that the case was an exception and did not reflect a broad problem. The MDEQ then released a report stating the lead was within federally mandated levels. 

It was later discovered that water samples that would have required action to be taken based on federal regulation were intentionally (and unethically) dropped. When children were found to have higher blood-lead levels than before the water switch, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services suggested the increase may have been caused by changes in the season as opposed to the water. When a new mayor, who campaigned on addressing the water crisis, was elected, she declared a state of emergency. This highlights the political role in such a crisis. Additionally, emails between state officials noted beliefs that local government officials were trying to deflect blame and were politicizing the issue of lead exposure.

Social systems thinking

In science classes, lessons often stop with using scientific systems to make sense of phenomenon. But if we want students to understand how science is used in the real world and current issues they will encounter in the news, students’ knowledge and use of systems should be expanded outside of science to include social systems. Examples of social systems one might include when trying to understand a socio-scientific issue like water pollution could include local and federal governments, which make decisions and regulations based on ethical, economic, and political reasons.

It should be noted that discussing issues of ethics, economics, and politics will illuminate issues of power and inequity in society. For example, water pollution is much more likely to affect non-dominant groups who have less power in political decision-making systems. When including socio-scientific issues in classrooms, educators should be prepared to explicitly acknowledge the uneven distribution of power in our society and to support students in recognizing the role of power in these issues.

The interdisciplinary approach required to understand socio-scientific issues creates opportunities (and a responsibility) to talk about aspects of the Nature of Science. Students making sense of socio-scientific issues will need to recognize that not all questions can be answered by science and that solving problems involves human decisions influenced by ethics and values.

The Nature of Science idea that “there are affordances and limitations of science for issue resolution” (Appendix H in NGSS Lead States 2013) is at the heart of understanding socio-scientific issues. It is important for students to identify the kinds of questions that can best be addressed through scientific processes, as well as dimensions of the issue that may need to be informed by other disciplines such as ethics or economics. In addition to the affordances and limitations of science, other elements of the Nature of Science are exemplified by socio-scientific issues such as “society is influenced by science and science is influenced by society” (Appendix H in NGSS Lead States, 2013) and the idea that it is important to consider and understand the specific cultural context of a given scientific issue.

Including Socio-Scientific Issues in Instruction

How to choose an appropriate socio-scientific issue and related phenomenon or problem

The issues selected for inclusion in instruction should be complex and contentious societal issues with substantive connections to science (The ReSTEM Institute: Reimagining & Researching STEM Education 2018). Within socio-scientific issues, phenomena or phenomenon-based problems that are embedded in the issue can be used in lessons to drive learning. When a potential phenomenon is chosen, it is useful to write or create a model of an explanation of the phenomenon. The explanation can then be analyzed to determine whether targeted scientific and social systems understandings are both sufficient and necessary to explain the phenomenon. If so, the phenomenon is both appropriate and rich enough to drive the necessary learning and to design an instructional sequence around.

In the case of Flint, science afforded understandings that could help prevent or resolve the issue of water pollution, but there were limits to the extent to which these understandings were employed. Political, ethical, and economic considerations interacted with scientific understandings in the decision-making processes.

Include explicit opportunities to make sense of systems and consider the Nature of Science

Often, ideas related to systems and Nature of Science are only included in instructional materials implicitly (NRC 2012). Instruction based on socio-scientific issues both requires and provides an opportunity for explicit inclusion of systems and Nature of Sscience in authentic ways. Systems thinking strategies, such as delimiting relevant systems, developing systems models, or creating causal maps (a map that shows causal connections between a position on an issue and the impacts of the position on the overall system (an example can be found here:; Waring 1996) should be incorporated into instruction to allow students explicitly make sense of and use the relevant systems.

Likewise, students should have the chance to explicitly analyze relevant aspects of the Nature of Science within the context of socio-scientific issues. For examples, students can be asked to explicitly identify and analyze the role of scientific understanding in specific socio-scientific issues as well as the limitations of science in issue resolution.

Instructional connections to engineering

Depending on the specific issue chosen (e.g., the issue of climate change), it may be unrealistic to ask students to develop a solution to a phenomenon-based problem embedded within the issue. However, in some cases it may be appropriate to identify the criteria and constraints that a solution would have without developing the solution. The exercise of identifying criteria and constraints reinforces the idea that problems can be both scientific and social, in that the criteria and constraints of a solution are often political, ethical, and economic as well as scientific. Additionally, students could evaluate solutions based on how they meet varied criteria and constraints and discuss how decisions about trade-offs are made.

Use the interdisciplinary nature of socio-scientific issue instruction to leverage resources

Including the analysis of social systems and other aspects of instruction needed to make sense of socio-scientific issues may be new for many science teachers. But if we want students to meaningfully engage with these issues, it is essential to incorporate ideas from disciplines other than science. While the interdisciplinary requirements of socio-scientific issues may create challenges for science instruction and educators, it also creates the opportunity of working with educators in disciplines outside of science. These educators can be resources for how to include necessary social science topics and ideas into science classrooms. Additionally, based on the interdisciplinary work, social science educators may also feel more comfortable including the role of science in their own classrooms and work.

Characteristics of Socio-scientific issues instruction. Note: This table was inspired by and modified from the NGSS Lesson Screener (NGSS Lead States, 2016)

Socio-scientific issues instruction will look less like this:

Socio-scientific issues instruction will look more like this:

Scientific phenomenon and problems are presented as separate from society.

Lessons require students to explicitly consider the interrelated science and social dimensions of complex societal problems. 

Systems are treated as fixed and isolated entities that do not interact with other systems.

Lessons require students to identify the parts of each system (including both scientific and social systems) that are interacting with other systems.

Solutions to problems are not informed by the broader societal context and are therefore not viable (e.g., not politically or economically realistic solutions).

Solutions to problems designed by students explicitly account for and address social dimensions of the problem.

Nature of science ideas can be inferred by the teacher (not necessarily the students) from the lesson materials.

Nature of science, including limitations of science, are made explicit. Example limitations include that not all questions can be answered by science and that what to do about problems involves human decisions influenced by ethics and values.

Students do not recognize the need to consider culture or see culture as a singular and fixed thing.

Students know to consider the cultural context of scientific issues and recognize the diversity of contexts.

Students see science as unaffected by society.

Students recognize that society is influenced by science and engineering and also that science and engineering are influenced by society.

The lesson teaches a topic adults think is important. Socio-scientific issues and related phenomena are used only as a “hook” or engagement tool.

The lesson motivates student sense-making or problem-solving through use of socio-scientific issues and related phenomena that are authentic and consequential. 



Using socio-scientific issues in classrooms requires students to develop and use understandings of the complex and interdisciplinary systems these issues are embedded in and creates opportunities for students to make sense of real, current, and consequential issues.


Kennedy, M. 2016. Lead-laced water in Flint: A step-by-step look at the makings of a crisis. National Public Radio.

National Research Council (NRC). 2012. A framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

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

NGSS Lead States. 2016. NGSS lesson screener: A quick look at potential NGSS lesson design for instruction and assessment.

The ReSTEM Institute: Reimagining & Researching STEM Education. 2018. Position causal map. Rigorous Investigations of Relevant Issues.

SciShow. 2018. The science of Flint’s water crisis [Video].

Waring, A. 1996. Practical systems thinking. Oxford, UK: Alden Press.

Molly Ewing ( is a graduate student at The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, NC and Troy D. Sadler is Thomas James Distinguished Professor of Experiential Learning at The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, NC.

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