Instructional Pathways to Considering Social Dimensions Within Socioscientific Issues

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Rawson Lesnefsky, R., Sadler, T. D., Ke, L., & Friedrichsen, P. (2023). Instructional pathways to considering social dimensions within socioscientific issues. Innovations in Science Teacher Education, 8(2). Retrieved from
by Rebecca Rawson Lesnefsky, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill; Troy Sadler, University of North Carolina; Li Ke, University of Nevada-Reno; & Pat Friedrichsen, University of Missouri


The Socioscientific Issues Teaching and Learning (SSI-TL) framework is a guide for developing an instructional approach to learning experiences focused on socioscientific issues (SSI). Despite the potential benefits of SSI learning, teachers often struggle to implement this approach in their classrooms (Sadler et al., 2006; Saunders & Rennie, 2013), and one of the most prominent reasons for this struggle is science teacher concerns and hesitation associated with incorporating social dimensions of the issues into their instruction (Friedrichsen et al., 2021). The purpose of this article is to provide science teacher educators with tools to help teachers better manage the integration of the social dimensions of SSI in issues-based teaching. In doing so, we suggest an expansion of the SSI-TL framework such that it more explicitly highlights pathways for focusing on the social dimensions of SSI within science learning environments. These pathways emerged as a result of a joint effort with nine high school science teachers as they developed a unit related to COVID-19; however, the pathways support science teachers as they implement science learning experiences that provide opportunities to negotiate social dimensions across most SSI. The pathways include systems mapping, connecting analysis to policy positions, media literacy, and social justice. We present how following each pathway integrates the social dimension of the focal issue, an example from the COVID-19 unit, evidence of success, and future considerations for science teacher educators as they help classroom teachers adopt an SSI approach.


Socioscientific issues (SSI) are complex, controversial problems that have significant connections to science concepts but are primarily concerned with societal ideas. SSI highlights the interdependence of science and society to develop potential solutions to society’s most challenging issues rooted in scientific understanding (e.g., climate change, viral pandemics, and antibiotic resistance). Although scientific proficiency is necessary to engage in SSI meaningfully, this understanding alone is not sufficient to render sustainable, fulfilling solutions; a deeper grasp of societal impacts and the relationships between science and society is key to appreciating the full magnitude of socioscientific issues (Zeidler, 2014).

Many classroom teachers attest to the possible benefits of using an SSI-based approach (Sadler et al., 2006; Saunders & Rennie, 2013), and the literature surrounding SSI-based instruction features resources for picking issues, constructing SSI curricula, and structuring classroom dynamics (Bayram‐Jacobs et al., 2019; Eastwood et al., 2012; Hancock et al., 2019; Lee & Yang, 2019). However, despite holding favorable perceptions of SSI and the resources available, researchers have found that many teachers struggle to incorporate SSI in their classrooms (Tidemand & Nielsen, 2017). One of the most significant challenges that teachers report is struggling to integrate the social dimensions of SSI into their curriculum designs. Teachers struggling with addressing the social dimensions of SSI has been a long-standing problem for SSI teaching and even issues-oriented approaches that precede formalized SSI teaching models. Research that has explored teacher practices regarding SSI has consistently highlighted that science teachers struggle with how to integrate social perspectives into their science classes (Ekborg et al., 2013; Friedrichsen et al., 2021; Gayford, 2002; Lazarowitz & Bloch, 2005; Lee et al., 2006). This article addresses this concern by establishing four pedagogical pathways for integrating social dimensions within an SSI instructional approach.

A Model for SSI Teaching and Learning

The SSI Teaching and Learning (SSI-TL) framework presents teachers with a guide for developing and implementing SSI-focused pedagogy (Foulk et al., 2020; Hancock et al., 2019; Sadler et al., 2017). This framework was developed iteratively through a series of design-based research studies that involved multiple rounds of teacher review and input (Sadler et al., 2017). The SSI-TL framework identifies three distinct phases of instruction as it is carried out over a curricular unit. The framework highlights elements specific to science content while emphasizing the need to incorporate societal dimensions of the issue being considered.

Figure 1 depicts three phases of instruction with the SSI-based curricular unit. The left side of Figure 1 presents the SSI-TL framework as it stands now. First, students encounter a compelling focal issue raised by the instructor, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, antibiotic resistance, or oil drilling, to set the context for learning and promote student engagement and motivation. The focal issue is the curricular anchor that contextualizes the subsequent two phases. In the second phase, students explore the disciplinary core ideas, as defined by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; NGSS Lead States, 2013), that are needed to understand the focal issue (National Research Council [NRC], 2012). These ideas are developed with opportunities to engage with science and engineering practices such as modeling, argumentation, data analysis and interpretation, and explanation. Simultaneously, the framework suggests that scientific ideas and practices develop in concert with considering the social dimensions of the focal issue. In the final phase, students have an opportunity to synthesize their perspectives on the social dilemma, new scientific understanding, and research and evidence in a culminating activity that is sharable with their classmates or a broader audience. This three-phase approach to SSI instruction provides multiple opportunities for learners to consider the complex dynamics at work within the focal issue (Hancock et al., 2019). Although the SSI-TL provides a productive framework, teachers are still hesitant to incorporate social dimensions into their instruction (Sadler et al., 2006; Saunders & Rennie, 2013). Therefore, we suggest expanding the SSI-TL framework to more explicitly highlight pathways for focusing on social dimensions of SSI within science learning environments. The right side of Figure 1 reflects our additions.

Figure 1

The SSI-TL Framework

Note. The left side of this figure presents the SSI-TL framework, which includes three phases of instruction with the SSI-based curricular unit. The right side of this figure reflects our proposed expansion of the SSI-TL framework to more explicitly highlight pathways for focusing on social dimensions of SSI within science learning environments.

This expansion of the SSI-TL framework leverages teachers’ discretionary autonomy in determining the best approaches for composing an SSI learning sequence. Huizinga et al. (2014) determined that teachers have more successful SSI implementation when they are involved in the curriculum design process. Therefore, by offering pathways for considering social dimensions of issues, we intend to help teachers feel more confident implementing the full range of SSI teaching. The pathways are systems mapping, connecting data to positions, media literacy, and social justice. As pathways for considering the social dimensions of SSI, each approach offers a way for learners to engage in social considerations that are challenging for teachers to incorporate in their science classrooms. These pathways are explored more thoroughly in the following sections.


This article emerged as the result of a research project in which we worked with science teachers to develop an SSI unit centered around COVID-19. We invited nine high school science teachers to participate in a professional development (PD) experience that included a 2-day session in spring 2020 (just as COVID-19 began to spread in the United States) and a 4-day workshop in July 2020 (as schools were planning for instruction for the 2020–2021 school year). Collaborative curriculum design served as an overarching frame for the PD experience (Huizinga et al., 2014). During the workshops, teachers codesigned an SSI-based unit following the SSI-TL framework, which centered around the COVID-19 pandemic, to be used in their classrooms during the 2020–2021 school year (and beyond). Teachers were given autonomy on curricular decisions, and the research team served as facilitators and resources for SSI teaching. During the 2020–2021 school year, seven teachers implemented the SSI unit in their science classrooms and participated in follow-up interviews. During that time, the research team refined and organized the instructional activities developed during the PD to prepare them for dissemination to the broader community. During this process, and with the help of teacher feedback, the researchers identified pathways to support science teachers as they implement science learning experiences that provide opportunities to engage with social dimensions across most SSI.

Pathways to Consider Social Dimensions

SSI teaching is dependent on students exploring the scientific and social dimensions of an issue. In this section, we detail how each of the four pathways serves as a method to engage learners in considering the social dimensions of SSI.

Systems Mapping

Systems thinking is a broad term used to describe epistemic habits that allow for predicting, modifying, and engaging with complex systems (Ke et al., 2020; Sadler et al., 2007). “Systems and System Models” is identified by NGSS as a crosscutting concept (NGSS Lead States, 2013; see also NRC, 2012). Systems thinking is an analysis that allows for identifying patterns as well as cause-and-effect relationships and grasping the magnitude of the system and potential solutions or outcomes (NRC, 2012). A systems map is a type of model that engages students in systems thinking while investigating the complex social and scientific elements of SSI. Figure 2 demonstrates how a systems map can make visible relationships that are often obfuscated by dominant mental models or the priorities of various interested parties. The arrows represent cause-and-effect relationships, and the plus (+) and minus (-) symbols indicate the direction of the relationships (i.e., positively correlated or inversely correlated). Because socioscientific issues have implications for society and science, there are dimensions of the model that are more social in nature. Systems maps can be a tool to help better understand the dynamics of the science and social components of SSI from a systems-thinking perspective. Figure 2 illustrates the social and scientific elements of a specific SSI, COVID-19, in a systems map. By making visible the connections among elements of an issue, the systems map encourages analyses of how elements affect one another in direct and indirect ways. As Figure 2 demonstrates, these elements relate to policy, economics, cultural norms, and scientific evidence.

Figure 2

COVID-19 Infection Rate Systems Map

Note. The arrows indicate relationships between factors with a plus sign (+) indicating a positive correlation and a minus sign (–) indicating a negative correlation.

An advantage of students developing systems mapping as a form of modeling is that it allows for a comprehensive analysis of the multiple dimensions of socioscientific issues present. In the systems map depicting the ramifications of COVID-19 (Figure 2), there are scientific components, such as COVID-19 infection rates, and social impacts, such as economic implications and limited social interaction. The + sign indicates a positive correlation, and the – sign indicates an inverse relationship (e.g., if the causal factor increases, the affected factor decreases). For example, nonessential business closures are negatively correlated with the economy, so an increase in business closures would have an adverse impact on the economy. Another advantage of developing a systems map is that it is a type of scientific model. As a science and engineering practice identified by NGSS, scientific modeling (“Developing and Using Models”) is a critical practice involving identifying forces at work and analyzing their relationships (NGSS Lead States, 2013; see also NRC, 2012). A key feature of scientific modeling is the possibility and necessity of revising the original model; therefore, as learners develop their scientific awareness, there should be opportunities to return to original systems maps, make revisions, and add evidence to support claims. As learners build and revise their models, they examine the social, political, behavioral, and scientific components teachers have reported struggling to integrate with the content, making it an opportunity for learners to consider the interconnectedness of science, people, organizations, government, and culture in society. This type of activity highlights the inherent complexity of SSI and prepares learners to begin engaging in productive epistemic habits, such as considering the social dimensions of the issue.

Connecting Data to Positions

Data analysis is typically understood as a strategy for systematically analyzing scientific data; however, in science classrooms, analysis can extend to other forms of data that can inform positions and perspectives. SSI teaching has long been linked with argumentation and focuses on students’ use of data to support their claims (Kutluca & Aydın, 2017; Sadler & Donnelly, 2006). However, the framing of socioscientific argumentation in this research has prioritized scientific data. Multiple forms of data and many perspectives are integrated in SSI; therefore, we are calling for the expansion of the types of data that students consider, such as economic or public-opinion data. This is consistent with other research and development efforts that have made a case for students to engage in more data analysis associated with issues, including economic analyses and consideration of other social dimensions of sustainability issues (Böhm et al., 2020). Investigating different types of data through analytic tools, such as graphical interpretation, visualization, or statistical analysis, develops an evidence-based understanding of social trends, economic factors, and political forces at play within the focal issue. By examining different positions and data sources, learners are exposed to diverse perspectives. A key feature of SSI is that there are typically multiple approaches for resolutions; however, this does not mean all perspectives are equally tenable. By considering diverse data and interpretations, learners are pushed to engage with issues beyond a personal framework to recognize the substantive challenges present in any solution strategy.

One example of this analysis is to investigate how government responses to SSI impact social factors such as health, education, infrastructure, and economic opportunities. For instance, national responses to COVID-19 varied significantly across the world. By providing students an opportunity to analyze COVID-19 data such as infection rates and overall case numbers from multiple countries, interpret the data in relation to their government policies, and form personal opinions about policy implementation and infection rate, students are prompted to think critically about the government’s role in responding to natural disasters and the resulting consequences of government action or inaction. This activity requires learners to view the issue from multiple perspectives by considering implications for public safety, economic repercussions, and political interests when implementing any national policy. Developing such analysis skills in a political context opens the possibility of questioning interested parties with different priorities, thinking critically about government action, and using evidence to drive decision-making. This type of critical-thinking exercise supports learners as they examine the social and scientific dynamics of SSI from the national level down to personal responsibility. Through engaging with diverse types of data, learners are exposed to opportunities to negotiate the social implications using scientific evidence to develop a personal position.

Media Literacy

SSI are frequently reported in the media through traditional venues and social-media outlets. Because of their contemporary relevance, accessing information about SSI and considering how SSI are represented through media is essential for negotiating SSI in the modern world. Therefore, SSI teaching should incorporate opportunities for learners to build skills associated with accessing reliable information about SSI through media. However, media does not divide issues in terms of disciplines, making it interdisciplinary by nature. Therefore, media-literacy skills allow students to explore and interpret media messages that address multiple dimensions of issues, positioning media literacy as a constructive pathway for considering social dynamics within SSI.

The value of media literacy is largely uncontested in the science education community; however, featuring media-literacy within science learning environments is not necessarily commonplace (Bautista & Batchelor, 2020; Dani et al., 2010; Sperry, 2012). This challenge is exacerbated by the equivocal nature of media-literacy skills because there is no one way to practice media literacy (Bråten & Braasch, 2017). In the COVID-19 module, teachers incorporated media literacy into their science instruction by directing student attention to and analysis of source information, author credentials, and lateral reading.

Students were encouraged to consider source information such as the type of publication, date of creation, and venue for the story (e.g., social-media post vs. an established news outlet). Students were also asked to explore the author of a piece of media and ask questions such as the following. Who is the author? What expertise do they have? What potential biases might they have, and how could that impact the media product? Finally, students were encouraged to engage in lateral reading, a strategy by which media consumers actively look for independent confirmation of information provided in a particular source (Wineburg & McGrew, 2019). The active looking dimension of lateral reading requires consumers to go beyond the materials that might get pushed to them through, for example, social-media algorithms. Although there are a variety of approaches to and strategies for supporting media literacy practices among learners (Kahne & Bowyer, 2019), our intent in this article is not to necessarily advance one approach but rather to advocate for the inclusion of media literacy in science classes, particularly those that incorporate socioscientific learning opportunities.

SSI predicates scientific issues as civic ones. Therefore, using media literacy to analyze and think critically about media texts informs participation through public discourse. By foregrounding media literacy, educators empower learners to circumvent the influences of misinformation campaigns and media bias to allow for responsible citizenship participation. By providing the skills to access SSI through media, media literacy is one way in which SSI bridges science learning to lived experiences.

Social Justice

In addition to media literacy, SSI bridge school environments to students’ lived experiences through significant social-justice implications. Implementing components that advantage a social-justice lens foregrounds the notion that SSI and SSI implications are not neutral or impartial. For example, climate change is arguably the most prominent SSI on the planet, with impacts being experienced across the globe, and yet, the most profound and damaging impacts are on marginalized communities. By leveraging Ladson-Billings’ (2009) Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (CRP) principles, particularly developing a critical consciousness, teachers provide a pathway for learners to view the science classroom as a space in which challenges can be identified and work toward potential solutions (Boutte et al., 2010). In doing so, SSI instruction can foster a justice-oriented perspective. By explicitly providing opportunities to investigate, question, and challenge how established systems contribute to the discrepant struggles SSI present across race, class, gender, or other identifying lines, the science classroom can become a space in which learners develop the knowledge and skills to work toward equitable, tenable solutions. Using scientific principles to critically assess social, political, and economic structures for inequities informs reasoning skills necessary in civic participation. The original PD did not include social justice as a pathway for teachers to engage students. However, upon recognizing this gap, we elevated social justice more prominently as a pathway for educators to include in classroom instruction. In doing so, SSI uses CRP to bridge the gap between science concepts and the lives of students. Drawing on our experiences with our work on the COVID-19 unit, we designed a lesson that provokes learners to think about the impacts of socioscientific issues in different sectors of society.

To leverage social justice as a pathway for integrating the social dimensions of SSI into the classroom, students need opportunities to investigate the systemic barriers, advantages, and incentives alongside their peers. Examples of ways to accomplish this can be through case studies or participating in activities that intentionally promote civic participation, such as letter writing. The method of engaging in social justice is less important than the conversations and positions that are developed through this pathway. For example, using a case study that details the challenges a family with social vulnerabilities can face when accessing a COVID-19 testing site can take the form of storyboarding or a mock town-hall meeting. The conversations surrounding systemic racism, socioeconomic status, trust in institutions, and access to resources are essential to consider the social implications inherent within the issue.

Evidence of Success

The research team employed multiple data sources to identify the pathways used and document their efficacy as useful expansions of the SSI-TL framework. These data included field notes collected during the teacher workshops, interviews with teachers after the workshops and implementation of the COVID-19 unit, teachers’ design products, and student-learning artifacts generated during the COVID-19 unit enactment. In the case of two pathways (media literacy and systems mapping), we have also conducted further iterative testing and collected feedback from teachers and learners.

During the workshop sessions, the researchers introduced systems mapping to the teachers. Several educators struggled to understand the conventions and complexity of the systems map because they kept reverting to their prior experiences with causal maps, a form of concept mapping (Ke et al., 2020). One teacher said,

So, it was the causal map. [It] makes so much sense to me, and I’ve taught it before, and I’ve taught it to students before. And then, kind of having to shift slightly for a systems thinking was really hard because I kept wanting to go back to: Well, this is what I know how to do.

As a result of this struggle, the researchers saw the need for additional scaffolds to make the process easier. The researchers responded to this need by providing a short introductory lesson to systems maps in which students built a practice systems map alongside the instructor. The practice map focused on a simple system (e.g., pollution in a hypothetical river) that differed from the target systems map (in this case, COVID-19 infection rates). The practice map activity also explicitly introduced systems-mapping conventions such as the direction of arrows (from causal factors to affected factors) and the meaning of positive and negative labels on the arrows (positive or negative correlations between factors). These scaffolds allowed learners and instructors to grow more confident with the process of systems mapping before moving to the COVID-19 map. Because these changes were added after teachers implemented system mapping, we tested our new materials in a different classroom context. Figure 3 is an example from a different context in which we asked high school students to engage in systems mapping. The students produced a detailed systems map that shows the complexity of COVID-19. These changes in how to approach systems mapping in a classroom context allow them to be a productive tool for exploring SSI deeply.

Figure 3

High School Students’ COVID-19 Systems Map

Connecting data to policy decisions allowed teachers to introduce this often-overlooked dimension of SSI. In our previous work, teachers focusing learning activities on policy consumed valuable instructional time without enough attention to science learning. In this COVID-19 unit, we addressed this critique by connecting the policy considerations with data analysis. The participating teachers felt more comfortable implementing policy-oriented learning experiences because doing so created opportunities for their students to engage with data analysis that has a clear connection to scientific practice. Introducing political dimensions can be challenging for teachers who often shy away from politicized issues (Chen & Xiao, 2021). However, this group of teachers reported that linking policy considerations with data made students’ policy-related investigations fit better in their science classrooms.

Teachers and students embraced using media literacy in the science classroom because it offered the opportunity to engage with information and messages differently. The media literacy activity helped to empower learners as critical consumers of information rather than passive receivers of messages. Upon reflecting on implementing media literacy into the COVID-19 unit, one teacher described their technique for engaging students in asking questions about the media they were consuming.

I did a four-slide jam board where the first slide was: “What do you know?” And then the second slide was: “What are you unsure about, but you’re not quite sure?” [. . .] “What do you know? And then, how do you know that it’s for real?” And then, that fourth slide was: “What do you know is fake? What have you heard that you know is just total misinformation? And how do you know that it’s misinformation?” That I envisioned a 10-minute intro, and it went 45 minutes. They just wanted to talk and talk and talk and talk and talk about it. And the feedback that I got from students was that it allowed them to ask the questions that they wanted in a format that it wasn’t obvious who was asking them. And they enjoyed some of the misinformation, disinformation stuff, trying to find the most outrageous example they could have of something that was out there. (Postimplementation interview)

The learners’ enthusiasm for asking questions and finding disinformation demonstrated their interest in this aspect of SSI. This response shows that learners are excited to expand beyond classroom context in unique ways. This unit was developed for and implemented in high school classrooms, so, possibly, this activity played to adolescents’ intrinsic need to make and understand their own decisions (Krettenauer et al., 2011). It is also possible that learners responded positively to this dimension of the framework because their lives are so inundated with digital media messages (Reid Chassiakos et al., 2016). Given the growing recognition of the importance of media literacy in disciplinary contexts and the spread of disinformation, particularly in the context of SSI (Lombardi & Busch, 2022), the incorporation of media and information education within SSI-oriented science teaching seems to be a necessary expansion of the SSI-TL framework.

SSI offer a context for learners to engage with issues relevant to their lives and futures. By positioning social justice as a key dimension of these issues, learners can view their classrooms as spaces in which they can work toward solutions and develop agency concerning these issues. As mentioned previously, we did not initially incorporate a social-justice activity into the unit; however, upon recognizing this gap, we developed an activity that built on Ladson-Billings’ (2009) three tenets of CRP: (a) holding all students to high achievement, (b) developing cultural competence, and (c) fostering critical perspectives through which to challenge inequities of the current social order. Although SSI inherently aligns with CRP by bridging gaps between scientific concepts and students’ lives (Mensah, 2011), it is not enough to simply connect to students’ lives; it is necessary to go a step further to provide skills and tools for identifying and challenging inequities. This requires science classroom activities to be a conduit for raising critical consciousness (Brown & Crippen, 2016). We call for explicit attention to social justice to foster critical consciousness. Science instruction can provide straightforward opportunities for learners to encounter inequities in society and build their critical consciousness.


Socioscientific learning experiences should present students with opportunities that challenge them to develop informed perspectives, which include scientific understanding and social implications. The purpose of the SSI-TL framework is to provide an overarching guide for organizing an SSI unit; the addition of the pathways complements the framework by giving specific pedagogical approaches for engaging students with the social dimensions of SSI. Incorporating systems mapping, connecting data analysis to positions, media literacy, and social justice into the SSI-TL framework as pathways for considering social dimensions creates space for negotiating the dynamic relationship between scientific understanding and societal complexities. Teachers can utilize these pathways to bridge the gap between scientific competency and the social implications of SSI.

In recognizing that science teachers often struggle to incorporate social dimensions into their SSI instruction, we have begun to use the expanded SSI-TL framework in our work with K–12 teachers. Based on this work, we suggest that the expanded framework can support science teacher educators as they help teachers better incorporate societal considerations into their SSI units. The framework can be leveraged in preservice teacher education settings and inservice opportunities to make sense of and embrace the full vision of SSI teaching.


This work was supported by National Science Foundation under Grants No. 2023088 and 2101083. Ideas expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation


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