Research in Science Education

, Volume 42, Issue 6, pp 1147–1163

Students’ Experience of Working with Socioscientific Issues - a Quantitative Study in Secondary School

Authors

    • Department of science and mathematics educationUmeå University
  • Margareta Ekborg
    • Faculty of Education and SocietyMalmö University
Article

DOI: 10.1007/s11165-011-9238-1

Cite this article as:
Ottander, C. & Ekborg, M. Res Sci Educ (2012) 42: 1147. doi:10.1007/s11165-011-9238-1

Abstract

This research project aims to investigate how students in lower secondary school experience work with socioscientific issues (SSI). The six socioscientific cases developed and used in this project are relevant according to characteristics of SSI and to the national curriculum. Approximately 1,500 students in Sweden have worked with one SSI case chosen by the teachers. A questionnaire-based instrument was used to measure the affective domain of students’ attitudes towards and interest in science before starting to work with the case and a second questionnaire after finishing a case. The second student questionnaire, measured the situational characteristics of the SSI work and perceived cognitive and affective outcomes. According to the students’ self-reported experience, all cases were interesting and related to a current issue. Most cases were equally interesting to boys and girls, the only exception was You are what you eat, which girls found more interesting than boys did. Almost all students claim that they learnt new facts, learnt to argue for their standpoint and to search and evaluate information during the work with the cases. The girls’ average scores were higher on several aspects of learning outcomes. Furthermore the students, especially the girls, perceived that the outcome of working with SSI had relevance for their future, with some cases more relevant than others. The more interesting the student found the case, the more they claimed they learnt. The students do not, however, claim that they learnt more science than during ordinary lessons.

Keywords

InterestLearning outcomeQuantitativeSocioscientific issuesStudents’ experience

Background

This article reports on a quantitative study that aims to investigate how students in lower secondary school (13–16 years old) experience work with socioscientific issues (SSI). We focus on how work with different SSI cases influence students’ interest and learning and what importance the content and task of the actual case has for those aspects. The aim is to investigate if there is a connection between outcomes in learning and interest and the different components of the cases. Another aim is to illuminate how students’ personal characteristics e.g. gender and attitudes towards science, affect their experience of working with SSI.

Two main arguments for making changes in secondary school science have been put forward, in Sweden as well as in other countries, namely student interest and the curriculum. Students often express interest in science but they find science in school difficult and without relevance for them (Lindahl 2003; Lyons 2006; Osborne et al. 2003). They are critical about both the content of the school subject and how it is taught. The students feel that in science the content is set and that there is nothing to discuss, unlike other school subjects such as history, social science and religious education. During the later years of compulsory school, interest in science education decreases. For a long time this has been most obvious for girls but is now becoming more common among boys as well (Lindahl 2003). The decrease in interest is most significant for chemistry and physics. Also, the students feel that they are not doing well in science - even if they have good marks. This is not the case for other school subjects (Lindahl 2003; Osborne et al. 2003). Results from the Swedish part of the ROSE project – Relevance of Science Education indicate that there is a gap between what students are interested in learning about and what is taught in school science (Oscarsson et al. 2009). New strategies for increasing young peoples’ interest and knowledge in science and their ability to use science outside school are needed (EU 2007; Osborne and Dillon 2008) to provide students with the knowledge they need for life in a modern society. We expect that work with socioscientific issues can help overcome some of the problems with science teaching.

The Swedish curriculum and syllabuses for science state that students should develop knowledge not only in scientific content but also in knowledge concerning scientific activity and knowledge concerning the use of knowledge. One goal is that students should be able to use their knowledge of nature, man and his activities as arguments on issues concerning the environment, health and inter-personal relations (Skolverket 2000). Goals to strive towards are to ensure that students: learn and work independently and together with others; and strengthen the habit of independently formulating standpoints based not only on knowledge but also on rational and ethical considerations (Skolverket 2000). Students are also required to critically evaluate information and to use scientific knowledge to formulate and evaluate arguments in current issues in society. This is in accordance with scientific literacy stressed in science curricula all over the world (e.g. Roberts 2007; Millar and Osborne 1998). However, according to the latest national evaluation, NU03, these aspects are not taught according to the recommendations in the curriculum (Skolverket 2005). In the PISA study, Swedish students performed around the average for OECD countries (Skolverket 2007), but they performed above average in aspects concerning conceptual understanding and below average in aspects concerning nature of science and use of science, which confirms the suggestion that these aspects are taught to a less extent (Skolverket 2007). Also, international studies show that many teachers teach the scientific content in preference to the nature of science (Sadler et al. 2006). Unfortunately NU03 also shows that many students do not reach the goals for conceptual understanding, as described in the national course syllabuses in science for school year nine (Skolverket 2005), which is interesting seen in the light of the PISA results. In other words, students in general find science boring and difficult, they are not taught what is stated in the curriculum and they do not reach a satisfactory level in what they actually are taught.

Work with SSIs can be a means of overcoming some problems with school science: to raise interest in science, to cover all aspects of the curriculum, and to involve a more interactive and dialogic pedagogy to ascertain students are practising argumentation and decision-making on issues in society. Ratcliffe and Grace (2003) describe general characteristics of SSIs as: they are important for society, have a basis in science, involve forming opinions, are frequently media-reported, address local, national and global dimensions with attendant political and societal frameworks, involve values and ethical reasoning, may involve consideration of sustainable development and may require some understanding of probability and risks, and there are no “right” answers. SSIs are also said to be vehicles for strengthening generic skills as team-work, problem-solving and media literacy (Ratcliffe and Grace 2003). Decision-making and argumentation are also important in work with SSI. Research has revealed that such issues challenge students’ rational, social and emotional skills (Sadler 2004). Also, SSI can serve as a useful context for learning specific science content knowledge, understanding of the nature of science and addressing citizenship education (Sadler et al. 2007). Other studies show that students are interested in working with issues with a more humanistic perspective (Aikenhead 2006). It seems that topics with social relevance are more motivating for the students. Also, people in general, find science interesting if it deals with inventions, explorations and health and environmental issues (Ratcliffe and Grace 2003). However, several problematic factors are identified, such as that the students can easily be distracted when they are working with complex issues where the outcome often is not clear (Zeidler et al. 2005). Aikenhead (2006) argues that issues with a humanistic perspective are often complex, and therefore difficult to understand. However, Sadler et al. (2007) state that significant work remains in order to ascertain the link between SSI curricula and the learning of science content.

Work with SSI puts new demands on teachers in that they must organize the classroom work differently by introducing argumentation and value laden discussions which might be unusual to many science teachers. Research shows that teachers find it difficult to teach with a humanistic perspective in SSI as well as argumentation. The problem does not seem to be the content in itself, but rather to teach ideas about science and to conduct teaching which includes decision-making and argumentation (Gray and Bryce 2006). Newton et al. (1999) report, that teachers often do not have faith in their ability to conduct teaching in which the students engage in argumentation. Teachers also feel insecure about the extent they should be involved themselves in the classroom discussions and to handle the anxiety or emotions caused by, for example, work with gene technology (Bryce and Gray 2004). Results from this project (described later), show on the contrary that Swedish teachers feel confident about the classroom work with group work and classroom discussions when implementing SSI introduced with a bottom-up perspective in their regular teaching (Ekborg et al. 2010). Teachers also experience tension between educational arguments for devoting time to developing students’ understanding of scientific processes and the classroom reality (Bartholomew et al. 2004). Most teachers have inadequate ideas about science and there is a complex relationship between teachers’ stated beliefs about science and how they actually present science in their classrooms (Abd-El-Khalic and Lederman 2000).

We want to investigate if work with socioscientific issues can help overcome the problems with students’ lack of interest in science and also include teaching concerning scientific activity and the use of knowledge. We also want to examine if work with SSIs promote development of problem-solving and decision-making skills as described above. Therefore teaching material dealing with socioscientific issues was developed (see section under Material and methods). The cases were chosen to be current, authentic and deal with subject content as an interdisciplinary topic to stimulate interest (Ratcliffe and Grace 2003; Penick 2003). Also the cases were framed to develop the skills mentioned in the curriculum and syllabus.

Research Questions

The aim of this research project is to investigate how students experience work with different SSI in order to reveal if and how outcomes in learning and interest are related to different aspects within socioscientific cases. The aim is operationalised in the following research questions:
  • How interesting do boys and girls find the different socioscientific cases?

  • How do the cases differ concerning how students judge currency, relevance of the task, and how difficult or easy the content and the task are?

  • To what extent do SSIs provide opportunities for learning science and skills like problem-solving and decision-making as perceived by students?

  • Does their perceived learning relate to their interest and other personal characteristics?

Material and Methods

This study is part of a larger ongoing Swedish research project, Socioscientific issues - a way to improve students’ interest and learning?, which involves both students and teachers. The questionnaires for students as well as for teachers include a rather large number of items. Here we only describe those that are relevant for this paper.

SSI Teaching Material

In Ekborg et al. (2009) we describe a conceptual framework consisting of six components chosen to describe characteristics of SSI. The components are: starting point; school subject; nature of scientific evidence; social content; use of scientific knowledge and level of conflict (Table 1). The framework was constructed both to use as a research tool for the analysis of different dimensions in pupils’ work with socioscientific issues and to present the characteristic components of a socioscientific case.
Table 1

Conceptual framework describing the characteristics of SSI

Component

Case

1. You are what you eat?

2. Laser treatment & near sightedness

3. To hear or not to hear?

4. Me, my family and global warming

5. Are mobiles hazardous?

6. Climate-friendly food in school?

1. Starting point

TV-programme

Personal homepage

Excerpt from novel

Family situation

Newspaper articles

School canteen

2. School science subject

Biology and chemistry

Biology and physic, technology

Biology and physics, technology

Chemistry and physics, technology

Biology and physics, technology

Chemistry and physics, technology

3 Nature of scientific evidence

Well-known, but information is often misleading and science is used incorrectly.

Well known and the scientific content is often correctly presented.

Well known and the scientific content is often correctly presented.

Well known and the scientific content is often correctly presented.

Not agreed upon.

Difficult to judge.

Figures can be difficult to judge.

4. Social content

Media literacy

Social life

Different cultures and belonging.

Social life

Social life

Economy

Economy

Economy

Values

Economy

Economy

Politics

Self-Identity

Self-identity

Ethics

Politics

Media literacy

 

Ethics

Ethics

 

Ethics

  

5. Use of scientific knowledge

Critical thinking

Decision –making

Investigation and clarification

Decision –making

Decision- making

Act to make a change

Scrutinize information

Clarifying

  

Cost benefit

 
 

Risk assessment

  

Risk assessment

 
    

Scrutinize information

 
    

Critical thinking

 

6. Level of conflict

Individual

Individual

Individual

Individual

Individual

Individual

 

Societal

Societal

Societal

 

Societal

   

Structural

 

Structural

We also constructed six cases in which these components vary. All cases are current and authentic, that is we have used real situations as it is presented in different media as starting points of the case (Table 1). In Sweden school science is defined as biology, chemistry and physics. The subjects can be taught separately or as integrated science depending on local decisions. As issues related to health or the environment usually are of interest to the general public (Ratcliffe and Grace 2003) the six cases are chosen so that the subject content is a combination of a doorway into an interdisciplinary topic and traditional school science. In the cases health or environmental issues are used to introduce the content but is connected to different science subjects (Table 1). The cases are You are what you eat?; Laser treatment and short sightedness; To hear or not to hear?; Me, my family and global warming; Are mobiles hazardous? and Climate-friendly food in school?.

A teacher’s guide which includes a brief description of the research project, information about SSI as described in Ratcliffe and Grace (2003), the framework and work sheets for the six cases was then developed (http://www.sisc.se). The guide also includes how the learning goals of the case correspond to the goals in the curriculum. The cases were not prepared to completely cover a topic, but to encourage work with all aspects of the curriculum, i.e. science content, scientific activity and knowledge about science. The cases vary in terms of content and how the starting point is presented, e.g. media reported in a newspaper or a TV programme or as a personal webpage. In all cases we try to stimulate inquiry by giving the students a task for example cost-benefit analyses, evaluating information and decision-making. Below two cases are described in more detail to unpack the framework and to describe what we expect students to learn from it.

One case is about global warming. The students got a work sheet with a short introductory text about the issue followed by a task. As it is easy to become moralizing or prescriptive (Jensen and Schnack 1997) when working with this type of issue the students got a task in which they could express needs and wishes and make their decisions according to these. In the task the students were asked to make a plan for how their family can reduce carbon dioxide emissions. They then had to start by investigating their own current situation. Issues about global warming and climate change were much discussed in media during the time for the project. The science content is well-known but it is often difficult to judge how accurate figures are and how different actors come to different results about amounts of emissions. The science content is about transformation of matter and energy as well as concepts such as global warming and greenhouse effect. In order to make judgments about various solutions, one has to consider energy use, energy production and environmental effects in the whole chain of fuel production from cultivation/extraction to combustion in engines. There is much research showing that students know about global warming and the greenhouse effect, but both their factual knowledge and their conceptual understanding are incomplete and often misleading (Rickinson 2001). Klosterman and Sadler (2010) conclude in an intervention study with students working with a case about global warming that SSI provide context for learning science content. Depending on social systems such as politics, economy, legislation, we as citizens can be led to use different fuel alternatives. Questions about transport contain a number of conflicts of interest on the individual level, as well as on local, regional and international levels.

The second example is a case starting in a TV programme You are what you eat. The programme’s basic theme is that a person with weight problems, usually overweight, is helped in changing this through advice on nutrition and exercise. It was shown every Thursday night during the project. In the programme many terms and concepts are used and the viewer is given information about the effect on the body of various substances. Sometimes the advice is consistent with what we teach in science lessons. Sometimes, as a science teacher, it seems that there is no foundation for the advice at all. The content of the programme is therefore appropriate for critical analysis. It is also appropriate to assess the way in which the information is given. The relationship between the host and the participants is not always equal. The participants are in a subordinate position in seeking help to solve their weight problems. There is a power relationship which is created and strengthened in various ways. To be able to evaluate the information, the students, besides science, need to know something about media (Jarman and McClune 2007) and economy. Ethical issues concerning how you relate to other people are also included. There are opportunities to discuss different body ideals and how we relate to these. The conflict of interest is mainly on a personal level. What choices do you make, and why, concerning lifestyle? It is possible to expand the case, and thereby the conflict of interests, to involve health issues in developing and developed countries.

Sample

We found interested teachers by contacting headmasters and visiting a number of schools in two regions of Sweden. Eventually 70 teachers with about 1,500 students in secondary school volunteered to participate. All the teachers got the teacher’s guide and they chose one of the six cases. We met all teachers personally and explained SSI and the cases. They had opportunities to ask questions. We then asked them to work at least 5 h with the chosen case, to use the work sheet including the starting point and to organize small group discussions on at least one occasion. We did not give them detailed instructions about classroom activities and assessment. The reason why we gave the teachers such a large influence is that the Swedish syllabuses are goal-driven and not very detailed, which has the consequence that teachers are free to choose content and teaching methods as long as their students reach the goals (Skolverket 2000). It also means that it is almost impossible to give detailed instructions to Swedish teachers and expect them to be followed, as teachers are used to organizing the work as they find appropriate. We had the opportunity to involve ordinary teachers in the project and one of the main objectives of the whole project is to investigate prerequisites for introducing SSI in regular teaching. In Ekborg et al. (2010) where we investigate teachers’ experience from work with SSI it is confirmed that it is important for teachers’ participation that they can choose case and have an influence on how to organize their work.

Questionnaires

The students, 13–15 years old, were asked to answer one questionnaire before starting the work and a second questionnaire after finishing a case. In total, the instruments comprised 144 items, distributed on seven different categories. Most of the questions in the questionnaires are validated in other studies (Kobala and Glynn 2007; Schreiner and Sjøberg 2007; Winberg and Lindahl 2008). In this paper, however, we only describe those factors, 118 items, that are relevant for this paper (Table 2). The first student questionnaire aimed to describe the pupils’ personal characteristics from several aspects. It included questions about gender, learning goals, attitudes toward science in school and society and beliefs about learning. It also aimed to describing the work forms that the pupils were accustomed to in science classes. The second student questionnaire, measured the situational characteristics of the SSI work and perceived cognitive and affective outcomes and it was completed immediately after an SSI activity. All questions used Likert scales with five steps where 1 is disagree and 5 is fully agree. Area of questions and example of statements are presented in Table 2. Of all the items in the questionnaires, results about the students’ interest and perception of learning outcome and work forms are most interesting for this paper. A principal component analysis was done to investigate the relationship between work with the cases and cognitive and affective outcomes. This analysis shows that SSI work forms are important for explaining both cognitive and affective outcomes, with a functioning group work and lots of discussions being especially important. The outcome of the principal component analysis is reported in Winberg and Lindahl (2009).
Table 2

Area of questions and example of statements in the two questionnaires. All questions used Likert scales with five steps where 1 is disagree and 5 is fully agree. Area 1–4 belongs to questionnaire 1, before working with the case, and area 5–7 to questionnaire 2, after working with the case

Area of questions

Example of statements

1. Attitudes towards school and science.

I like school

Science and technology can help poor people

2. Ordinary work forms in science class.

In science class, we have discussions

In science class, the teacher talks most of the time

3. Work forms during SSI

I could influence the way the work was conducted

We discussed a lot/conducted lab work

We were allowed to formulate our own questions

4. Affective and motivational outcomes

The work was about a current issue

It was fun to discuss the case

The work was boring/interesting in the way it was conducted

We discussed a lot/conducted lab work

We were allowed to formulate our own questions

5. Cognitive outcomes

I have learned new facts/more science …

I have learned to evaluate information

I have learned to argue for my opinion

The first questionnaire, measuring the affective domain of students’ attitudes towards science, was answered by almost 1,500 students (N = 1,459). The second questionnaire, which included questions about students’ experience of the case and the classroom work as well as of their own learning, was answered by fewer students. Data from students answering both questionnaires (N = 1,137) is reported in the result section. All students did not answer all questions in the questionnaire and therefore small discrepancies in number of students can occur between different questions.

Data Analysis

The values of the responses in the Likert scale are arbitrary in the sense that we do not know the exact amount of interest or agreement. We assume that the students interpret the distances between each of the categories as equal sized intervals. One advantage of considering the scale as an interval scale is that it can be used in the most common statistical procedures (Ary et al. 1996). The data from the questionnaires were exported to an SPSSTM file. Descriptive statistics - frequencies, average values, median and cross tabs were used. To test the statistical significance Pearson Chi-Square distribution (χ2) were calculated. We have also done a Kruskal-Wallis test by comparing the answers for attitude, interest and sex as an analysis of significance. Principal component analyses were performed to discover patterns of relationships between the questionnaire items. In all statistical comparisons where the χ2- value is presented, it is calculated from the frequencies on the five steps in the Likert-scale and the p-value is a measure of the statistical significance. This occurs even if the result section presents the steps 1 + 2 and 4 + 5 in Likert scale merged together and χ2 -values in combination with average values or percentages to facilitate comparison. When statistically significant difference is stated it is always at a specified level of 0.05 or less.

The components in the framework, which differ between the cases, was used to analyse the effect on pupils’ work with socioscientific issues to investigate possible relationships between the different components in the case and the students’ self-reported learning outcomes and interest. Sub group analyses of different components were done by one-way analysis of variance (one-way ANOVA) to compare average values of two or more samples. Case six, Climate friendly food, was only used in one class. The case is included when comparing how interesting the different cases are but omitted when comparing learning outcomes of the cases.

Results

The majority of students in this study were positive to school and describe themselves as doing well at school. The boys perceived themselves to be better than girls in chemistry and physics with mean values of 3.6 on the statement “I am good at ” compared to girls mean value of 3.3 (χ2 -values of 27.8 and 39.5 and p-values less than 0.01, for chemistry and physics, respectively). There was no difference between the sexes in the case of biology which had a mean value of 3.5. The boys described school science as somewhat more interesting than girls with a mean value of 3.6 and 3.5, respectively (not statistically significant). However, less than 50% of the students claimed an interest in science, i.e. report a self-evaluated value on the Likert scale above 3 (4 and 5 are interested and very interested, respectively). Interestingly, not more than 20% found school science difficult. In almost all classes the teacher chose what case to work with. Most chosen, with more than 350 students, were the cases Me, my family and global warming and You are what you eat followed by Are mobiles hazardous with 200 students and Laser treatment and nearsightedness with 100 students (Table 3). Two classes worked with the case To hear or not to hear and only one class with Climate friendly food.
Table 3

Girls’ and boys’ judgment of how interesting the cases were. The questionnaire used a Likert scale with five steps between disagree and agree. In this table steps 1 + 2 and 4 + 5 are merged together and instead of actual number of students the percentage is reported. The percentages are shown to facilitate comparison, however, the Pearson Chi-Square value is calculated from the frequencies on the five steps in the Likert-scale. The p-value is a measure of the statistical significance

   

The case was interesting

  

Case

Sex

n

Disagree

Midway

Agree

χ2

p-value

   

%

%

%

  

You are what you eat

Girls

178

17.4

25.3

57.3

18.123

0.001

Boys

182

28.6

31.9

39.6

Laser treatment and nearsightedness

Girls

64

17.2

32.8

50.0

0.056

0.973

Boys

53

18.9

32.1

49.1

To hear or not to hear?

Girls

14

35.7

35.7

28.6

0.221

0.896

Boys

23

39.1

39.1

21.7

Me, my family and global warning

Girls

202

27.2

29.7

43.1

1.006

0.909

Boys

172

26.2

26.7

47.1

Are mobiles hazardous?

Girls

106

19.8

21.7

58.5

8.466

0.076

Boys

101

21.8

26.7

51.5

Climate friendly food

Girls

11

27.3

45.5

27.3

2.369

0.306

Boys

5

0

40.0

60.0

According to the students, all cases except one were interesting (Table 3). There was a significant difference between how interesting the students found the different cases. The most interesting case was Are mobile telephones hazardous. Both boys and girls found that case interesting. It was followed by Laser treatment and nearsightedness and You are what you eat. In each of these cases, half of the student group agreed to the statement that the case was interesting and approximately 20% disagreed. The case You are what you eat was, however more interesting according to the girls. Both Chi-square and the Kruskal-Wallis test show a significant difference between how girls and boys judge the case (χ2 = 18.123 at 4 df and a p-value of 0.001) All other cases were gender neutral. The only case that was not interesting was To hear or not to hear where approximately 25% of the students found it interesting and almost 40% disagreed. The cases that were considered most interesting all had starting points from different media, i.e. newspaper, personal web page and a TV-programme.

In general the students found the cases interesting, related to a current issue and with an interesting task (Table 4). All, but one case had an average value above 3 in the aspect of how interesting the case was and all had an average value above 3 in the aspects of currency. The statistical test, i.e. Pearson Chi-Square distribution (χ2) and the p-values, show a significant difference between how the different cases were judged. The cases differ concerning how students judge currency and how difficult or easy the content and the task are. The case Me, my family and global warming was considered the most up-to-date followed by Are mobile phones hazardous. The case Climate friendly food and To hear or not to hear were not so current according to the students. There was also a significant difference in how easy the students experienced the tasks of the different cases (Table 4). The case You are what you eat was considered to be the easiest task and Me, my family and global warning the most difficult task. Overall the students considered the assignments easy to solve.
Table 4

Students’ judgment of the cases; how they value the content and the task in each case. The figures are mean values (average scores) from the 1–5 Likert scale used in the questionnaire where 1 is disagree and 5 is agree. Standard deviations are in brackets. The Pearson Chi-square value for the comparison between cases is presented

Case

N

The case was interesting

Assignment related to a current issue

It was fun to discuss the questions

The assignment was easy

The assignment was boring

χ2 = 18.59 *

χ2 = 63.46 **

χ2 = 32.44 *

χ2 = 48.96 **

χ2 = 22.94

You are what you eat

364

3.32 (1.2)

3.63 (1.2)

3.21 (1.2)

3.43 (1.1)

2.81 (1.3)

Laser treatment and nearsightedness

117

3.40 (1.1)

3.52 (1.1)

3.59 (1.2)

3.21 (0.9)

2.7 (1.3)

To hear or not to hear?

37

2.81 (1.2)

3.33 (1.2)

2.86 (1.1)

3.22 (1.3)

3.51 (1.3)

Me, my family and global warning

379

3.28 (1.2)

4.04 (1.2)

3.27 (1.3)

3.09 (1.1)

2.9 (1.4)

Are mobiles hazardous?

209

3.46 (1.2)

3.71 (1.2)

3.53 (1.3)

3.22 (1.1)

2.78 (1.4)

Climate friendly food

16

3.31 (1.1)

3.24 (1.1)

3.29 (1.1)

3.41 (1.1)

2.75 (1.3)

* p < 0.05 ** p < 0.01

The average score for the girls was significantly higher on the statement “it was fun to discuss the questions in the assignment”, with mean values of 3.4 for girls and 3.2 for boys (one-way ANOVA, F = 3.2 and p < 0.05). Biggest differences were seen in the cases You are what you eat followed by Are mobiles hazardous. However, there was no significant difference between boys and girls in aspects of how easy or current the case was. The students did not find it difficult to search for information about the cases. In all cases, internet was the most used source for information, followed by textbooks and other books.

We also wanted to know to what extent SSI provide opportunities for learning. The students’ claimed that they learnt facts and science, to search for and evaluate information and to argue for an opinion during the work (Table 5). The girls perceived themselves to have learnt more than boys concerning factual knowledge, to search for information and the most prominent difference being in learning to argue for an opinion. The average scores were between 0.2 and 0.4 units higher on the perceived learning outcomes on statements like “learning facts/science”, “search information” and “argue for my opinion”, i.e. receiving a statistically significant higher average score (F values between 8 – 12 and p-values less than 0.01). The learning outcome for the different cases varied. The case Laser treatment was considered to be the case in which the students developed most new knowledge, both stated as new facts and as science, according to their own judgment. It was followed by the case about mobile phones. The students reported that, in all cases, they learnt to argue for their standpoint and to search for and evaluate information. The case about mobile phones stimulated to search for and evaluate information more than the other cases. Noteworthy is that the average value of the students self-reported learning outcome is higher for the statement ‘learning new facts’ than for ‘learning science’, even though the students worked with the cases in science lessons. Neither did the students claim that they learnt more science than during regular lessons. There was a significant difference between the cases when it comes to learning facts, dealing with information and arguing for an opinion but there was no significant difference between the cases when it comes to learning science.
Table 5

Students self-reported learning outcome. The figures are average values (average scores) from the 1–5 Likert scale used in the questionnaire where 1 is disagree and 5 is agree. Standard deviations are in brackets. The Pearson Chi-square value for the comparison between cases is presented

Case

I have learnt new facts

I have learnt to search information

I have learnt to evaluate information

I have learnt to argue for my opinion

I have learnt science

I have learnt more than in regular classes

χ2 = 45.54 **

χ2 = 35.86 *

χ2 = 32.99 *

χ2 = 41.14 **

χ2 = 24.23

χ2 = 21.40

You are what you eat

4.0 (1.0)

3.3 (1.3)

3.4 (1.2)

3.7 (1.1)

3.5 (1.2)

2.8 (1.3)

Laser treatment nearsightedness

4.5 (0.7)

3.5 (1.1)

3.5 (1.1)

4.1 (0.9)

3.7 (1.2)

2.7 (1.3)

To hear or not to hear?

4.0 (1.1)

3.0 (1.4)

3.2 (1.4)

3.7 (1.2)

3.3 (1.3)

2.3 (1.4)

Me, my family and global warning

4.0 (1.1)

3.4 (1.2)

3.2 (1.1)

3.7 (1.1)

3.5 (1.1)

2.8 (1.3)

Are mobiles hazardous?

4.2 (1.0)

3.7 (1.2)

3.6 (1.1)

4.0 (1.0)

3.5 (1.2)

2.7 (1.3)

* p < 0.05 ** p < 0.01

In all cases, the students were satisfied with what both themselves and their peers accomplished during the group work and there was no significant difference between the cases. They found the discussion and each other’s standpoints important. The students, especially the girls, perceived that the outcome of working with SSI had relevance for them. Mean values of the statement “I will benefit from the knowledge gained during the case outside school” was 3.6 for girls and 3.3 for boys (one-way ANOVA, F = 13.7 and p < 0.01) and the statement “What we learned was important to myself” was 3.8 and 3.5 (one-way ANOVA, F = 7.8 and p < 0.01), respectively. There was also a difference between the cases where Laser treatment and nearsightedness and You are what you eat was considered more important for themselves than the other cases, with mean values of 3.9 for both cases for girls and 3.7 and 3.5 for boys, respectively. The case You are what you eat showed a bigger difference between the sexes on how they perceived the benefit of the knowledge outside school, with mean values of 3.7 for girls and 3.2 for boys. There was no significant difference between the other cases. The work forms used were quite similar to their regular teaching. The major difference is that laboratory work was rare when working with SSI.

When comparing the students' different levels of interest with the average scores of different aspects of learning outcomes the result shows that the more interesting the students found the case, the more they claimed they had learnt (Figure 1). This is valid for both learning outcomes of searching and evaluating information, arguing for a standpoint and for learning science. Similar trends in learning outcome can be seen for other personal characteristics, e.g. more positive attitudes towards science are correlated with higher scores for different learning outcomes.
https://static-content.springer.com/image/art%3A10.1007%2Fs11165-011-9238-1/MediaObjects/11165_2011_9238_Fig1_HTML.gif
Fig. 1

Students self-reported learning outcome of; learning new facts; search for information; evaluate information; argue for a standpoint; learning science at different levels of interest for working with the case. Numbers presented are average scores. (1 = do not agree and 5 = fully agree)

To summarize, all cases but one were interesting and all cases were considered to be relevant for the students’ everyday life. The starting point was important for creating an interest, and interest, rather than currency, cohere with positive learning outcomes, e.g. the case about global warming being most current, was not so interesting to discuss given lower levels on reported learning outcomes than the case about laser treatment (cf. Tables 4 and 5 and Figure 1). According to the students the cases are fruitful for learning since the students claimed to have learnt new facts, science and generic skills during the work. The students also perceived that the learning outcome of working with SSI had relevance for their future. Especially the girls’ average scores were higher on several aspects of learning outcomes than the boys’ average scores. However, the students did not perceive themselves to learn more science than in regular teaching. Instead, the students claimed that work with SSI strengthens group work, the ability to argue for their standpoint and to search for and evaluate information. Noteworthy is that the more interesting the students found the case, the more they claimed they had learnt.

Discussion

This study of students’ self-reported experience of working with socioscientific issues shows many positive results. All six socioscientific issues were considered current and authentic and all but one were considered interesting. These results confirm the teachers’ view of the cases (Ekborg et al. 2010) and are in accordance with other studies with SSI (Ratcliffe and Grace 2003; Sadler 2004). One important finding is that the girls in this study, who perceived themselves less interested in science and not as good as boys in physics and chemistry, found the work with the cases interesting. Moreover even the students who do not consider regular science classes interesting reported on positive learning outcomes. In two cases the girls also reported a higher level of perceived relevance of the outcome of working with SSI, both reported as gaining “knowledge of benefit outside school” and “important to myself”. The cases were Laser treatment and You are what you eat, i.e. cases involving health aspects but also chemistry and physics. Currency was not strictly correlated with how interesting student considered the case. Although the case about global warming was considered most current and we often hear that young people are concerned about the future and the environment, the case Me, my family and global warming was not judged as the most interesting by the students. However, it scored above 3 so we can also argue that is a good way to work the basic chemistry and physics. The students found the cases interesting concerning starting point, content and task, which is similar to the teachers view, however the teachers were giving a higher overall rate than the students’ (Ekborg and Ottander 2010). Interestingly is that the case To hear or not to hear which the students did not like was given a high value by the teachers and the opposite was seen concerning the case Are mobile phones hazardous which the students found interesting, current and relevant (ibid.). This is similar to the discrepancy between students' and teachers' interest in different science topics seen in the ROSE-project (Oscarsson et al. 2009). It is encouraging that the students found the cases interesting as we also found that a majority of the students are not very interested in science. They found them interesting in spite of the absence of lab work which is what students usually appreciate most in school science (Lindahl 2003). Results from this study are in accordance with other studies reporting on more engaged learners (Bulte et al. 2006) and a positive appraisal of learning experiences (Bennett and Lubben 2006). Thus working with SSI could be considered as an appropriate activity for all students.

Work with SSI might not so much raise students’ interest in science in general, but the students found themselves learning a lot while working with the case. They claimed to have learnt new facts/science, to argue for their standpoint and to search and evaluate information during the work with the cases. Moreover the knowledge gained was considered to be relevant for the students’ everyday life. The result that the students claim to have learned facts but not more science than during regular science lessons can be considered as a negative result but can also be interpreted to reveal what students’ ideas of what learning science is about. It is possible that students do not believe that the social aspects of science dealt with during the SSI work do not have much to do with “science”. Other studies assessing content knowledge gains for students involved in SSI-related interventions show disparate results. In Yager et al. (2006) there were no differences in content knowledge gain compared to a control group. In a module of biotechnology the SSI-intervention gained better results (Dori et al. 2003) and in a chemistry study the comparison students gained a better result (Bennett and Lubben 2006). Furthermore, in a chemistry study of water quality, the intervention generated a need-to-know among students (Bulte et al. 2006) which is somewhat similar to our results of students claiming to gain knowledge of relevance for their everyday life. Almost all students in this study report on successful group work and a gain of media literacy and these generic skills are considered important skills for future citizens (cf. Osborne and Dillon 2008).

Both teachers (Ekborg et al. 2010) and students indicated that group work had been common and that there had been lots of discussion. Especially the girls appreciated the discussions. One important skill to develop is students’ ability to understand and practice scientifically valid ways of arguing. Students in this study perceive themselves as engaged in activities that stimulate discussions, however, we do not know if it involves scientifically valid ways of arguing. According to Simon et al. (2006) arguments need to be explicitly taught through suitable instructions. Just giving them controversial socioscientific issues will not prove sufficient to ensure practice of a valid argument. However, when students are given thorough instructions about arguing, their reasoning from multiple perspectives develops (Wu and Tsai 2007). Reflecting these results with the students’ perceived learning it is interesting to note that the students indicate that they learnt to argue but they did not learn more science. Maybe it takes some time to get discussions, argumentation etc. to work in a way that feels rewarding and is understood as learning opportunities by the students. We believe that teachers need to develop strategies for facilitating group discussions e.g. as elaborated on in Albe (2008) who identified several processes of group argumentation which included interactions from scientific data, common ideas and epistemological and strategic considerations as well as social interactions, which is also found in work by others (Osborne et al. 2004; Simon et al. 2006).

There are some gender differences in how the students perceive the work with SSI in line with the themes presented in the review by Brotman and Moore (2008) pertaining to girls’ engagement in science. It is not so much the content of the case that appeals differently to boys and girls since only the case about You are what you eat did girls find more interesting than boys. This is in contrast to results in the ROSE-study (Oscarsson et al. 2009) where gender differences of interest in science content in different contexts are significant. The authentic cases presented in this study, that uses real-life contexts and addresses the social and societal relevance of science seem to belong to a more gender-inclusive science curriculum. The SSI workforms draw upon both girls’ and boys’ experiences, interests, and prioritizes active participation of self-directed projects. The gender difference is however noticeable in that girls found it more interesting to discuss the questions, they perceived themselves to learn more than boys when working with SSI and they perceived that the outcome of working with SSI had relevance for their future in line with other studies showing that girls, on average, are more relational and cooperative, and are emphasizing social and societal connections (Zohar and Sela 2003). However, it is important to stress that the cases are fruitful for learning for all students since the students claimed to have learnt new facts, science, generic skills and learning outcomes of relevance for the future during the work.

Most results about how students experience work with different SSI are very positive. This is interesting since the students' report that the work forms used were quite similar to their regular teaching. Considering the successful results, we have to keep in mind that reported cognitive and affective learning outcome is as perceived by the students and we do not know what the students actually have learnt during the work. The fact that many students considered the assignments easy to solve and reported no difficulty in searching for information suggests that students underestimated the task and therefore their self-reported learning outcome can be overestimated. However more work is needed to ascertain the link between SSI curricula and the learning of science content. We also need information on what is crucial when working with SSI and how we can improve this way of working. We have collected data from six classrooms working with SSI and this qualitative study will give us more information about what the students actually learn and how we can improve this way of working.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011