Empower Science Students through Activism

Science and technology are fundamentally interwoven with society. The benefits of science and technology are only as great as their application in society, and, inversely, the needs and interests of society are what drive advancements in science and technology. To fully understand the practice of science, students must understand its impact on society, and, in turn, an understanding of how science and technology affect them and their community will engage and empower students to take action and affect change.

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) standards for students postulate that, as knowledge constructors, students should “build knowledge by actively exploring real-world issues and problems, developing ideas and theories and pursuing answers and solutions” (Standard 3d). We can empower students in their pursuit of answers and solutions by giving them opportunities to take direct action.

Focusing science students on social and environmental justice issues, or “socio-scientific issues” (Bencze, Sperling & Carter, 2012, p. 129) is advisable in science education, in part, because of the urgency of the challenges they face. Hodson (2003) and dos Santos (2009) argue that “an orientation in school science towards encouraging and enabling students to take sociopolitical action to address socio-scientific issues seems necessary” to address severe socio-scientific issues and have hope for social and environmental sustainability (as cited in Bencze, Sperling & Carter, 2012, p. 132). We can help students prepare for life after of school by helping them think, plan and act for the future now.

Hodson (2003) offers the following schema for the emphasis on socio-scientific issues in science education (as cited in Bencze, Sperling & Carter, 2012, p. 132):

  1. Appreciating the societal impact of scientific and technological change, and recognizing that science and technology are, to some extent, culturally determined.
  2. Recognizing that decisions about scientific and technological development are taken in pursuit of particular interests, and that benefits accruing to some may be at the expense of others. Recognizing that scientific and technological development are inextricably linked with the distribution of wealth and power.
  3. Developing one’s own views and establishing one’s own underlying value positions.
  4. Preparing for and taking action.

Technology offers students resources, tools and environments that can connect them to the world outside like never before. As Stornaiuolo and Thomas (2017) argue, “one of the most powerful dimensions of social media for youth activists is its collective nature, as young people no longer need traditional gatekeepers (teachers, librarians, community organizers) to build or share knowledge, find other like-minded people, or plan and coordinate actions.” From #BlackLivesMatter to #MarchForOurLives, young activists have made their voices heard across social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

News of the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, only gained traction after scientists with Virginia Tech’s Flint Water Study publicized their findings through social media. “Flint residents fought to be heard, and Dr. Edwards and the Flint Water Study team helped sound the alarm” (Smith, 2016, as cited in Jahng & Lee, 2018, p. 95). This example shows how social media can be a tool for direct action in science. “When scientists are engaged in political actions, they are interested in both educating the public about their scientific research and pressuring responsible target organizations or government agencies to increase regulatory measures to protect citizens from potential harm” (McCormick, 2009, as cited in Jahng & Lee, 2018, p. 93). Students can use this model to guide their own socio-scientific activism.

Student choice is essential to fostering engagement and intellectual investment in a socio-scientific action plan. Ito, Soep, Kligler-Vilenchik, Shresthova and Zimmerman (2015) identify that “young people are often driven to act on issues of public concern when those issues are connected to their deeply felt interests, affinities, and identities (as cited in Stornaiuolo & Thomas, 2017, p. 347). So, while it is important for educators to give students access and offer initial exposure to socio-scientific issues and current events, students should be allowed the freedom to choose the cause they identify most closely with.

Activism can take many forms in the science classroom. Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) practices call for students to engage in argument from evidence (practice 7). Science teachers can use the framework of scientific argumentation to support students in activism. For example, students may decide to start an awareness campaign (make flyers, posters or share ideas online) to convince others using scientific evidence and reasoning. While the supports and teaching process behind writing a claim, with evidence and reasoning will be familiar to science teachers, the context of activism expands the range of modalities students can create as final products and extends the reach of student voice beyond the classroom.

“In an era of struggle and contestation over narrative and meaning, young people today are, in the words of literacy scholar Vivian Vasquez (2014), ‘reading and writing the self into existence,’ using digital participatory cultures to restory schooling and society by making it into their own image” (Stornaiuolo & Thomas, 2017, p. 351).

As students develop a more global perspective and understanding, they are rebuilding the stories that society has written for them as individuals and reshaping the world around them. “In our current landscape of persistent inequality, the efforts of marginalized people to author themselves in order to be heard, seen, and noticed—to assert that their lives matter—has the potential to contribute not only to a new activist imagination but also to the making of a new world” (Stornaiuolo & Thomas, 2017, p. 352) Through activism, science students will see that they have the power to shape the world as they share their knowledge and ideas with others.



Bencze, L. l., Sperling, E., & Carter, L. (2012). Students’ Research-Informed Socio-scientific Activism: Re/Visions for a Sustainable Future. Research In Science Education42(1), 129-148. doi:10.1007/s11165-011-9260-3

dos Santos, W. L. P. (2009). Scientific literacy: a Freirean perspective as a radical view of humanistic science education. Science Education, 93(2), 361382.

Hodson, D. (2003). Time for action: science education for an alternative future. International Journal of Science Education, 25(6), 645670.

Ito, M., Soep, E., Kligler-Vilenchik, N., Shresthova, S., & Zimmerman, A. (2015). Learning connected civics: Narratives, practices, infrastructures. Curriculum Inquiry, 45, 10–29. doi:10.1080/03626784.2014.995063

Jahng, M. j., & Lee, N. (2018). When Scientists Tweet for Social Changes: Dialogic Communication and Collective Mobilization Strategies by Flint Water Study Scientists on Twitter. Science Communication40(1), 89-108. doi:10.1177/1075547017751948

Stornaiuolo, A., & Thomas, E. E. (2017). Disrupting Educational Inequalities Through Youth Digital Activism. Review Of Research In Education41(1), 337-357. doi:10.3102/0091732X16687973

Vasquez, V. M. (2014, March). Critical ethnography and pedagogy: Bridging the audit trail with technology. Keynote address presented at the 35th Annual Ethnography in Education Forum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.