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Does Science Education Need A Civic Engagement Makeover?

The more students are able to connect the dots between scientific processes and science's impact on society, the more informed they will be as citizens.

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Third graders in Harlem created dots illustrating climate issues and solutions. Image Credit: / Flickr CC BY-NC-SA

Even though the political campaign signs have been brought inside following Election Day, social studies and government classrooms will continue to discuss civics throughout the school year. According to the National Council for Social Studies, the goal of social studies is to promote civic competence, or the knowledge and intellectual skills to be active participants in public life. Yet, engaging with the most complex public issues of our time—biodiversity, climate change, water scarcity, obesity, energy, and HIV/AIDS—also requires a deep understanding of the scientific process.

Students connect the dots between their daily lives and climate change.

While the economic argument for doing a better job preparing American students with 21st century skills in STEM has been made time and time again, teaching students what philosopher John Dewey called “the scientific habit of the mind,” also has broader benefits for society. The more students are able to connect the dots between scientific processes and science’s impact on society, the more informed their political decisions will be as adult citizens. event .jpg

Third graders in Harlem created dots illustrating climate issues and solutions. Image Credit: / Flickr CC BY-NC-SA

Dr. Ricky Stern of “e” inc. , a Boston-based environmental science program that educates hundreds of students each year, believes civic engagement and science education are a natural fit given the many challenges our planet faces. “Civic engagement tells urban youth there are real steps and genuine actions available to them and that rather than watch the events of the day from a distance, instead come in and join in.  Come be part of a larger program—of something bigger than just yourself.”

Bringing social issues into science classrooms may also open up more STEM career possibilities for youth. In 2012, Net Impact and Rutgers University partnered to find out what college Millennials (21-32 years old) look for in their careers. Over 70 percent of college Millennials surveyed responded that it was very important to secure a job that makes a difference, and 31 percent found it “essential.”  This is higher than 49 percent of Generation X (33-48 years old) and 52 percent of Baby Boomers (49-65 years old) who found “making a difference” to be important to their career choices.  Many of today’s youth grow up connecting the concept of “making a difference” to careers in social work, public health and education. While these are all worthwhile fields, careers in disciplines such as computer science, biotechnology or engineering rarely make the list, despite their strong potential to improve society through science.

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So, what would more civic engagement look like in a science classroom? Every community, school, and educator may have a different approach.  Here are three methods and examples of ways to help students participate in civic and socio-scientific conversations.

Explore answers together

Alex Miller, a teacher at Village Leadership Academy recently began conversations in her science classroom about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, an infamous U.S. government study between 1932 and 1972 of rural African American men. Ms. Miller’s goal was to help her students see the connections between science and social justice.  She brought in articles about the research and facilitated a conversation about the study’s implications. Ms. Miller knew she didn’t have all the answers for them. Instead of lecturing, she actively explored the history alongside her students and allowed space for them to explore science’s role in the problem. Consequently, she helped her students think deeply about bioethics.

Make it normal to follow current science events

Devote time to talking about science news during every class. If you are crunched for time to read it in class, provide students the story’s summary and facilitate a short discussion about the social or political implications. For example, in a recent story from NOVA Next, scientists developed a tool called CRISPR-Cas9 to control mosquito populations through genetic modification. The technique has the potential to control or eradicate malaria. Ask students how this new technology benefits society. What could be some negatives? Do the benefits outweigh the negatives? Give students more responsibility by asking them to pick articles and lead the conversation.

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Image Credits: Penn State / Flickr CC BY NC ND

Offer opportunities for project-based learning with a civic goal

Dr. Stern mentioned that, “We teach science lessons every week to many children and teens. As they get more involved with the science ideas, simultaneously, we also begin to teach them that there are some related challenges on the planet going on right now.”  After talking with students about what project and action they want to take on, students “pick a team project based on what they have learned and they maintain it for the year.”

Pick a project devoted to a socio-scientific issue students care about and encourage them to take action on it throughout the year.

Examples of project-based civic engagement might include recording and reducing school energy consumption, starting a compost program or educating other students and staff on a public health issue. Students can present orally to the class at the end of the year, and use scientific concepts to back up why their project matters.

There is no doubt that science can have wider appeal by building opportunities for active civic engagement inside and outside the classroom. Are you already bringing civic engagement into your science classroom? NOVA would like to hear about it. Send your story to

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