Relating science to society

21st January 2005 at 00:00
Participation in controversial debates often requires some scientific knowledge, says Gary Hayden

Should smokers be banned from public places? Is wind power better than nuclear power? What should we do about global warming? Is it wrong to create "designer babies"? Should we grow genetically modified crops? Citizenship and science are intimately connected, with many scientific advances having the potential for harm as well as good, and raising new and difficult moral questions.

Research on embryonic stem cells may lead to new treatments for diseases.

But what about the rights of the human embryo? GM crops offer increased yield and improved pest resistance. But might they also lead to health and environmental problems?

The links between science and citizenship were explored at the recent Citizenship and Science Education Conference at Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry. Keynote speaker Ralph Levinson, from the University of London's Institute of Education, emphasised the need for science to be linked to issues of social justice, fairness and human rights.

"But science teachers often lack confidence in exploring socio-scientific issues," he said. "And pupils themselves often make a distinction between substantive science and 'the other stuff'. They say 'we want our science lessons to be science lessons'. This is understandable, since there are times when we like to abstract ourselves from the real world."

The conference was attended by teachers, trainees and trainers.

Participants learned about successful citizenship and science projects around the country, and discussed ways in which teachers in both areas and science professionals might work together.

George Baxter of the North West Development Agency emphasised the close connection between the two. "It is difficult to have a meaningful debate about many controversial issues without some scientific knowledge," he said.

Dilemmas in human genetics

Human genetics has created a host of ethical problems. Stem cell research, human cloning, genetic selection and "designer babies" are frequently in the media, and the subject of heated debate. Kate Mathieson, formerly a genetic counsellor and now education officer at the North West Genetics Knowledge Park (Nowgen), suggested ways of helping pupils to explore these issues.

One strategy to open up the debate is to give pupils a set of statements.

These can progress from trivial and ethically neutral to complex moral ones. Pupils can express their initial reactions in a number of ways: * Form a line across the room from wall to wall. One wall represents strong agreement, the other represents strong disagreement.

* Hold up coloured cards to represent agreement or disagreement.

* Stand in a row. Take up to three steps J-forward to indicate agreement, backward to indicate disagreement.

Workshop participants were asked to express their reactions to the following:

* Wayne Rooney is the best footballer in the premier league.

* An 11-year-old wants to have the predictive test for Huntingdon disease.

His parents support his request. He should be allowed the test.

* A 15-year-old wants to have the predictive test for Huntingdon disease, but his parents do not support the request. He should be allowed the test.

* A 30-year-old wants to have the predictive test for Huntingdon disease. He is clinically depressed, and professionals are worried about how he'll cope with bad news. He should be allowed the test. (Huntingdon disease is a genetic disorder of the nervous system, the symptoms of which usually appear within the third or fourth decade of life, and may include involuntary movements, loss of motor control and personality changes) Having gauged initial reactions, a method of moving the debate forward is to examine the way the issue is represented by the media. For example, a front-page headline in the Daily Mail last summer read: "Now give me a brother to save my life." Pupils could use the accompanying article to explore ethical questions raised by the creation of "designer babies" to save sick siblings:

* Compare the Daily Mail headline with those in other newspapers. Write alternative headlines.

* Identify facts and opinions.

* Extract quotes from the article. Think about who might be responsible for them, and what might motivate them.

Pester power Clodagh Cherry, education officer at the Catalyst Science Discovery Centre in Widnes, led a workshop entitled "Rotten rubbish and gritty roads", a successful science and citizenship project run jointly by the Catalyst Centre and Halton Borough Council. The project, now in its second year, addresses concerns of Halton residents: litter, waste, recycling and road safety. So far, more than 900 Year 56 pupils have taken part.

Taking account of differing learning styles, Clodagh uses a variety of teaching methods: an interactive show, a hands-on workshop, a visit to the Catalyst museum, and science kits. An innovative element of the project is the provision of "investigators' crates", each containing instructions and materials to carry out eight scientific investigations with an environmental theme. These can be done in school as part of classwork, or taken home by pupils to carry out with their families. The activities include testing the pH of household liquids, collecting and analysing air particles, testing magnets and measuring wind speed and direction.

Doing these activities at home not only involves parents in the science curriculum, but gives pupils a chance to talk to their families about associated citizenship issues, such as reducing, reusing and recycling waste. This kind of "pester power" plays a vital role in environmental education.

* CitizED organises regular conferences and offers free downloadable

* For information on North West Genetics Knowledge Park and to book school visits Email:

* Catalyst Discovery Centre Email:

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