The Challenges and Opportunities for Embracing Complex Socio-scientific Issues As Important in Learning Science: The Murray-Darling River Basin As an Example



Socio-scientific issues present a great challenge to science educators that are charged with equipping students—as future adult citizens—with the knowledge, skills and attitudes to understand and respond to them. These issues, such as climate change and over-exploitation of resources, are increasingly prominent in our lives. Complex socio-scientific issues are often defined by an interrelated set of smaller issues, they can have vast social impacts and their scientific basis is often uncertain or contested. The increasing global conflict around water, in particular in rivers that flow across territorial or national boundaries, is a notable example of one of these issues.

In Australia, the management of the Murray-Darling River Basin, which underpins a large part of the nation’s agricultural economy, became the focus of intense public debate in all forms of the media between 2010 and 2012. At the same time, a new national curriculum for school science was being developed. In this chapter, we use the Murray-Darling controversy as a context to investigate how this science curriculum might facilitate teaching and learning of socio-scientific issues (SSIs) by considering this SSI. We adopt the analytical tools of frame theory and boundary work to assess:
  1. (i)

    the role of science in the controversy surrounding this SSI;

  2. (ii)

    the strengths in the science curriculum to make a contribution to understanding the science involved; and

  3. (iii)

    the lessons that can be drawn from the Murray-Darling controversy about how the science curriculum might better equip teachers and students to tackle such complex SSIs.



Socio-scientific issues Science curriculum Framing Boundary work Water management Science controversy 


  1. AAAS. (2006). Annual report. Washington, DC: Author.Google Scholar
  2. ACARA. (2014a). The Australian curriculum: Learning areas: Science. Retrieved from
  3. ACARA. (2014b). The Australian curriculum: Learning areas: Humanities and social sciences: Geography. Retrieved from
  4. Aikenhead, G. S. (1992). Logical reasoning in science and technology. Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, 12, 149–159.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Allchin, D. (2011). Evaluating knowledge of the nature of (whole) science. Science Education, 95(3), 518–542.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Arup, T. (2012, January 19). Scientists reject plan to save Murray-Darling. The Sydney Morning Herald. Online.Google Scholar
  7. Bell, R. L., & Lederman, N. G. (2003). Understandings of the nature of science and decision making on science and technology based issues. Science Education, 87, 352–377.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bencze, L., & Carter, L. (2011). Globalising students acting for the common good. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48(6), 648–669.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bernstein, B. (1971). On the classification and framing of educational knowledge. In M. F. D. Young (Ed.), Knowledge and control (pp. 47–69). London, UK: Collier-Macmillan.Google Scholar
  10. Bonneuil, C., Joly, P.-B., & Marris, C. (2008). Disentrenching experiment: The construction of GM crop field trials as a social problem. Science, Technology & Human Values, 33, 201–229.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Clement, J. (2008). Creative model construction in scientists: The role of analogy, imagery and mental stimulation. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Collins, H. (2009, March 5). We cannot live by scepticism alone. Nature, 458, 30–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. COMEST. (2005). The precautionary principle. Paris, France: UNESCO.Google Scholar
  14. Cosier, P., Davis, R., Flannery, T., Harding, R., Hughes, L., Karoly, D., … Williams, J. (2012). Statement on the 2011 draft Murray-Darling Basin plan. Sydney, Australia: Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists.Google Scholar
  15. Crase, L., Dollery, B., & Wallis, J. (2005). Community consultation in public policy: The case of the Murray-Darling Basin of Australia. Australian Journal of Political Science, 40(2), 221–237.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Crase, L., O’Keefe, S., & Dollery, B. (2013). Talk is cheap, or is it? The cost of consulting about uncertain reallocation of water in the Murray–Darling Basin, Australia. Ecological Economics, 88, 206–213.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. CSIRO. (2011). The Murray-Darling Basin science. Retrieved from
  18. Driver, R., Newton, P., & Osborne, J. (2000). Establishing the norms of scientific argumentation in classrooms. Science Education, 84, 287–312.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Engle, R. A. (2006). Framing interactions to foster generative learning: A situative explanation of transfer in a community of learners classroom. Journal of the Learning Science, 15(4), 451–498.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Fensham, P. J. (1985). Science for all: A reflective essay. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 17(4), 415–435.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Fensham, P. J. (2013). The science curriculum: The decline of expertise and the rise of bureaucratise. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 45(2), 152–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Fensham, P. J., & Rennie, L. J. (2013). Towards and authentically assessed science curriculum. In D. Corrigan, R. Gunstone, & A. Jones (Eds.), Valuing assessment in science education: Pedagogy, curriculum, policy (pp. 69–100). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Funtowicz, S. O., & Ravetz, J. R. (1993). Science for the post-normal age. Futures, 25(7), 739–755.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Gieryn, T. F. (1983). Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from non-science: Strains and interests in professional ideologies of scientists. American Sociological Review, 48(6), 781–795.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Gilbert, J. K. (2004). Models and modelling: Routes to more authentic science education. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 2(2), 115–130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Gilbert, J. K., Boulter, C., & Rutherford, M. (1998). Models in explanations: Horses for courses? International Journal of Science Education, 20(1), 83–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Gilbert, J. K., & Stocklmayer, S. (Eds.). (2013). Communication and engagement with science and technology: Issues and dilemmas: A reader in science communication. New York, NY: Routledge.Google Scholar
  28. Goffman, E. (1974). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.Google Scholar
  29. Gregory, J., & Lock, S. J. (2008). The evolution of ‘public understanding of science’: Public engagement as a tool of science policy in the UK. Sociology Compass, 2(4), 1252–1265.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hardwig, J. (1991). The role of trust in knowledge. The Journal of Philosophy, 88, 693–708.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hodson, D. (2003). Time for action: Science education for an alternative future. International Journal of Science Education, 25(6), 645–670.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hodson, D., Bencze, L., Elshof, L., Pedretti, E., & Nyhof-Young, J. (Eds.). (2002). Changing science education through action research: Some experiences from the field. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto.Google Scholar
  33. Irwin, A., & Wynne, B. (1996). Misunderstanding science? The public reconstruction of science and technology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Jasanoff, S. (1987). Contested boundaries in policy-relevant science. Social Studies of Science, 17, 195–230.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Justi, R., & Gilbert, J. K. (2002). Modelling teachers’ views on the nature of modelling and implications for the education of modellers. International Journal of Science Education, 24(4), 369–387.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Kirch, S. (2012). Understanding scientific uncertainty as a teaching and learning goal. In B. J. Fraser, K. Tobin, & C. McRobbie (Eds.), Second handbook of research in science education (pp. 851–864). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Kolstø, S. D. (2001). “To trust or not to trust….”: Pupils’ ways of judging information encountered in a socio-scientific issue. International Journal of Science Education, 23(9), 877–902.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Kortland, K. (1996). An STS case study about students’ decision making on the waste issue. Science Education, 80, 673–689.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Layton, D. (1991). Science education and praxis: The relationship of school science to practical action. Studies in Science Education, 19, 43–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Layton, D., Jenkins, E., Macgill, S., & Davey, A. (1993). Inarticulate science? Perspectives on the public understanding of science and some implications for school science. Driffield, UK: Studies in Education.Google Scholar
  41. Levinson, R. (2004). Teaching bioethics in science: Crossing a bridge too far? Canadian Journal of Science, Technology and Mathematics Education, 4, 353–369.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Levinson, R. (2006). Towards a theoretical framework for teaching controversial socio-scientific issues. International Journal of Science Education, 28(10), 1201–1224.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Levinson, R. (2010). Science education and democratic participation: An uneasy congruence. Studies in Science Education, 46(1), 69–119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Lock, S. J. (2011). Deficits and dialogues: Science communication and the public in the understanding of science in the UK. In D. J. Bennett & R. C. Jennings (Eds.), Successful science communication: Telling it like it is (pp. 17–30). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. MDBA. (2010). Guide to the proposed basin plan: Overview. Canberra, Australia: Author.Google Scholar
  46. MDBA. (2011a). Plain English summary of the proposed basin plan—Including explanatory notes. Canberra, Australia: Author.Google Scholar
  47. MDBA. (2011b). Socioeconomic analysis and the draft plan: Part A—Overview and analysis. Canberra, Australia: Author.Google Scholar
  48. MDBA. (2012). Proposed basin plan consultation report. Canberra, Australia: Author.Google Scholar
  49. Minister for Education. (2008, October 12). Media release. Delivering Australia’ first national curriculum.Google Scholar
  50. National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academics.Google Scholar
  51. National Research Council. (2001). Grand challenges in environmental sciences. Washington, DC: Author.Google Scholar
  52. Nelkin, D. (1979). Controversy: Politics of technical decisions. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  53. Norris, S. (1995). Living with scientific expertise: Towards a theory of intellectual communalism for guiding science teaching. Science Education, 79(2), 201–217.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. OECD. (2007). PISA 2006 science competencies for tomorrow’s world. Vol.1. Analysis. Paris, France: OECD.Google Scholar
  55. Ogawa, M. (2013). Towards a ‘design approach’ to science education. In J. K. Gilbertt & S. Stocklmayer (Eds.), Communication and engagement with science and technology: Issues and dilemmas: A reader in science communication (pp. 3–18). New York, NY: Routledge.Google Scholar
  56. Patchen, T., & Smithenry, D. W. (2013). Framing science in a new context: What students take away from a student-directed inquiry curriculum. Science Education, 97(6), 801–829.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Poff, N. L., Allan, J. D., Palmer, M. A., Hart, D. D., Richter, B. D., Arthington, A. H., et al. (2003). River flows and water wars: Emerging science for environmental decision making. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 1(6), 298–306.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Ratcliffe, M. (1997). Pupil decision making about socio-scientific issues within the curriculum. International Journal of Science Education, 19(2), 167–182.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Rein, M., & Schön, D. (1994). Frame reflection: Towards the resolution of intractable policy controversies. New York, NY: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  60. Rittel, H., & Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155–169.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Roberts, D. (2007). Scientific literacy/scientific literacy. In S. K. Abell & N. G. Lederman (Eds.), Handbook of research on science education (pp. 125–177). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  62. Ryder, J. (2003). Identifying science understanding for functional scientific literacy. Studies in Science Education, 36, 1–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Sadler, T. D., & Zeidler, D. L. (2009). Scientific literacy, PISA and socio-scientific discourse: Assessment for progressive aims of science education. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46(8), 909–921.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. SMH. (2011a, November 28). Murray-Darling plan ‘ignores’ NSW farmers. Sydney Morning Herald. Online.Google Scholar
  65. SMH. (2011b, November 28). Murray-Darling water plan mired in controversy. Sydney Morning Herald. Online.Google Scholar
  66. Solomon, J., & Aikenhead, G. (1994). STS education: International perspectives on reform. New York, NY: Teachers College.Google Scholar
  67. Sullivan, C. A. (2014). Planning for the Murray-Darling Basin: Lessons from transboundary basins around the world. Stochastic Environmental Research and Risk Assessment, 28, 123–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Thomson, S., Hillman, K., & Wernert, N. (2012). Monitoring Australian year 8 students outcomes internationally. Camberwell, Australia: ACER.Google Scholar
  69. White, S. (2011). Dealings with the media. In D. J. Bennett & R. C. Jennings (Eds.), Successful science communication: Telling it like it is (pp. 151–166). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Wroe, D. (2011, December 5). Murray-Darling proposal slammed by irrigators. Sydney Morning Herald. Online.Google Scholar
  71. Zeidler, D. L., & Sadler, T. D. (2008). The role of moral reasoning in argumentation: Conscience, character, and care. In S. Erduran & M. P. Jiménez-Aleixandre (Eds.), Argumentation in science education: Recent developments and future directions (pp. 201–216). New York, NY: Springer.Google Scholar
  72. Zeidler, D. L., Sadler, T. D., Simmons, M. L., & Howes, E. V. (2005). Beyond STS: A research-based framework for socioscientific issues education. Science Education, 89(3), 357–377.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of EducationMonash UniversityClaytonAustralia
  2. 2.Department of PoliticsUniversity of SheffieldSheffleldUK

Personalised recommendations