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General Science and Teaching

Teaching Controversial Topics in Science

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Megan Doty Megan Doty 11847 Points

Hello all, What strategies do you use when teaching controversial topics such as: climate change, evolution, GMOs or vaccinations? What challenges have you faced? Do you have any lesson plans for the above topics (or other controversial topics) or material you could share? Perhaps other ideas? Coincidentally, NSTA is hosting a Virtual Conference titled "Teaching Controversial Topics in Science" on Saturday, March 3, 2018. The discussion will be led by NSTA's Executive Director Dr. David Evans. For more information, check out the link for the Virtual Conference here: I look forward to your responses! Megan

Ruth Hutson Ruth Hutson 64080 Points

Hi Megan,  I was so pleased when you started this thread in the forums. I absolutely teach about controversial topics because I find I can keep my students' interest. They see the content as very relevant. I feel it is our duty as educators to help students evaluate the evidence that is available related to controversial topics. If we don't take the time to address these topics in class, then typically students will not search them out.   In my high school biology class, the major focus of the class is teaching about model organisms. Therefore, I teach evolution at many different times throughout the school year. The major question we explore is what can the specific model organism teach us about evolution. For example, when we study viruses, we use influenza as our model organism. We explore how swine, avian, and human influenza demonstrate genetic drift in action. I base my [url=]classroom activity[/url] from a [url=]resource from the Learning Center[/url]. After students understand how genetic drift and antigenic shift cause viruses to modify, students then use [url=]CDC FluView data[/url] from the current flu season. They also explore several past flu seasons including the 2009-10 and the 1918-19 pandemic. An example of how I use this in my classroom can be seen [url=]here[/url]. I find that when we take the time to learn about how viruses evolve, then students begin to understand the importance of vaccinations. This allows us to be able to discuss concepts like herd immunity. Another example of how to incorporate evolution seamlessly into a biology curriculum occurs when we study bacteria. In fact, we are just finishing a microbiology unit where the big evolutionary idea is how antibiotic resistance develops in bacteria. First, we look at bacterial anatomy and determine what evolutionary advantage plasmids provide bacteria. An example of this lesson can be found [url=]here[/url]. Once students understand bacterial anatomy, then we explore how bacteria can be grown and analyzed in the lab. Students learn how to culture using nutrient agar as more specific differential media like EMB agar and Mannitol B agar. An example of this set of lessons can be found [url=]here[/url]. After student understand how bacteria can be used as a model organism, we talk about strategies that bacteria use to be successful in staying alive. That leads students to ask about antibiotic resistance. We watch the Frontline special from 2013, [url=]Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria[/url]. In this film, students consider three case studies--two individuals that were victims of an antibiotic resistant bacterial infection and a hospital which had an outbreak of KPC. Students watch the film from the lens of a practitioner and evaluate the symptoms that each patient experienced and what was done to cure them. I've attached a copy of the graphic organizers that we use. I pause the video several times throughout the viewing to allow students to talk about the symptoms and what was done to treat the infection. We also talk about why it is becoming less cost effective to develop new antibiotics, despite the growing needs in public health and safety.  When we finish the film, students complete a [url=]modified antibiotic resistance lab[/url]. Students evaluate several sample plates and determine the best antibiotic for the specific bacterial species they were assigned. In my experience, I’ve found that when one is teaching about controversial topics it is best to use a variety of methods. I use modeling so that students have a firm grasp on scientific content. I also have students do labs so that they understand the protocols used.  Students look at the research of professional scientists and compare it to their own work. Finally, I incorporate discussion in which students use academic discourse. They relate their opinions as well as support those ideas with scientific evidence. Throughout their learning, I require my students to thoughtfully reflect on their thinking and how it has changed as they learned more about the topic. 


Neely Tonos Neely Tonos 575 Points

First of all, I discuss with my students that these are required learning objectives in our curriculum. Then we discuss that they are important topics based upon scientific discovery and not the emotions surrounding those discoveries. However, we do discuss those emothional aspects when appropriate. I also like to let my students know that there is no way they may have an intelligent conversation with others about why they do or do not support the science behind one of those controversial topics if they do not understand it first. When I say that, I usually get a lot of students who would otherwise disengage to engage. That makes sense to them and gives them the freedom to at least open their minds to the topic from my experience as a teacher.

Ashton Yarbrough Ashton Yarbrough 265 Points

When teaching any topic, it is important to present information in a way that allows students to form educated thoughts and opinions on their own. As a current student studying Elementary Education, I hope that in my future classroom I will be able to share multiple different points of view on controversial topics. I believe students can develop a deeper understanding of their values and beliefs when they discuss them with others. Incorporating respectful class conversations about how students' feel on different topics will create an open, educational dialogue that everyone will be able to benefit and grow from.

James Dotson James Dotson 110 Points

What would be the "different points of view" on these topics that you would want to share?

Matt Bobrowsky Matthew Bobrowsky 6380 Points

James makes a good point, and I'd like to follow up pertaining to Ashton's statement, 'I hope that in my future classroom I will be able to share multiple different points of view on controversial topics.'

It's important to understand that, for most of the 'controversial topics' that Megan mentioned, there are not 'different points of view' in science. For example, we know that humans are the main cause of climate change. At this point, there's no other possibility. We know that evolution occurs -- and why it MUST occur. There is no scientific alternative. (And, it's important to note, this knowledge says nothing -- pro or con -- about the existence of God. Thus there are many deeply religious people who have no problem with evolution.)
Even though the general public may perceive these topics as controversial, they are not controversial in the scientific community, and it would be incorrect to teach that they are.

Having said that, I agree with you, Ashton, that the conversations should be respectful. See my reply to Daina (subject: 'Teaching a Topic against one's belief') a bit earlier in this forum. Also feel free to look at this publication containing suggested answers to questions that students (or parents) might have concerning evolution, the age of the earth, or the age of the universe.


Emily Faulconer Emily Faulconer 5725 Points

I absolutely agree that we should be teaching controversial topics AND that we should also scaffold and support students' development of fact-based opinions. I teach college science and use controversial topics in our online discussions. The discussions are actually titled 'Taking Sides Discussions'. Each week starts with a controversial topic and their first post is a fact-based opinion. Then they truly discuss the topic, gaining a better understanding of alternative perspectives. I emphasize that there is no 'right' answer. They are graded on the quality of their scientific and information literacy. 

Some controversial topics I cover in my classes include GMO labeling, climate change politics, bioweapons, designer babies, water rights, nuclear waste storage, and more. 

Carolyn Mohr Carolyn Mohr 91088 Points

Thank you, Megan, for starting this discussion on teaching controversial topics.  I am looking forward to the Virtual Conference on this coming up Saturday. March 3, 2018.   One thought I had was that it is important as the instructor to be aware of biases that could unduly influence students. The reason something is controversial is because there is more than one point of view and probably evidence on both sides to help support any claims being made.  To help uncover any facts, students may be empowered by doing individual research.   Another thing to consider is the relevance of the controversial topic.  It is important to make sure that the topic IS part of the curriculum.  Bringing up controversial topics when they have no connection to disciplinary core ideas is a huge "no-no". May I share one of my experiences? I recall being called to the principal's office one day after I had presented an astronomy lesson where students investigated revolution and rotation concepts. My principal said that she had received a call from the superintendent who had received a call from a parent of one of my students. When this parent had asked his child what he was studying in science, he said "evolution".  The parent was very upset because it wasn't part of the seventh grade curriculum, and based on his immediate call to the superintendent, he definitely saw this as a controversial topic that he did NOT want me teaching to his seventh grader.  I had to explain to the principal that we were learning about revolution of planets and not evolution.  One wonders why the parent didn't call me directly.  I am a very nice person!  But this topic is often perceived as one of those "controversial topics", and many parents have preconceived notions that impact how they respond to these HOT topics. The principal then called back the superintendent, and he called the parent personally.  I was careful to enunciate the next day :-)

Samantha Evans Samantha Evans 280 Points

Carolyn, Thank you for sharing this personal experience. As I was reading through these posts I got excited about the idea of teaching or discussing controversial topics in the class. I am in school to become an elementary teacher right now and have many questions about this. The students always find the topics so interesting and when you have GT students it can be to spark their interests. Even though it seems like an interesting thing to do with your students I was wondering about the problems you encountered. I really like how you pointed out how it is important to be aware of biases that could influence your students and I will probably add this tidbit of information to my "teaching tips" notebook. I feel like it also takes a lot of maturity from students to be able to have discussions about controversial topics! Thank you!! Samantha Evans

Norman Lederman Norman Lederman 40 Points

Greeting Colleagues, Based on some of the comments in the Chat Room, it appears that some of you thought that I said that theories eventually turn into laws. This is certainly not the case. Indeed, many laws have existed long before a theory was developed to explain them. For example, Boyle's Law existed many years before kinetic molecular theory. Mendel's Laws existing 50 years before the development of gene/chromosome theory. I am sorry for misleading or if I misspoke, no theory has ever changed into a law. They are different types of knowledge, both important, but neither changes into the other with more evidence. The idea that theories eventually transform into laws is the common misconception that students have and is often presented incorrectly in books. Norm

Norman Lederman Norman Lederman 40 Points

Colleagues, I know that many questions were left unanswered during my presentation on Nature of Science and Controversial Issues. Please ask all your questions here. I promise that I will answer every question I receive within one day. Norm

Ruth Hutson Ruth Hutson 64080 Points

Hi Norm, Thank you so much for explaining that misconception.  Both Boyle's Law and Mendel's Laws of Inheritance are perfect examples that we can use with our chemistry and biology students. There was another question in the chat that didn't get answered and I wonder if you could address it.  What resources are available to teachers to help them teach their students about the Nature of Science.  Could you make some recommendations? Thanks for your help! Ruth

Norman Lederman Lederman Norman 40 Points

Ruth, A great place to start is the website from our department (MSED.IIT.EDU) Once on the site, click on Project ICAN and there will be numerous classroom tested activities. Some of these are stand-alone and some are embedded within the curriculum. There is also a book, edited by William McComas (publisjed by Kluwer). That book is being revised, but it won;t come out until the end of the year. Norm

Ruth Hutson Ruth Hutson 64080 Points

Wonderful, Norm.  Thank you for those suggestions.  Is the McComas book, The Nature of Science in Science Education?  

Another question that came up the chat dealt with how to assist students in evaluating the inquiry methods that scientists use.  Other than the Lederman Depository, do you have any suggestions where teachers can begin helping students recognize the inquiry skills that scientists use to answer a scientific problem? Also, how does this look in an elementary school classroom vs. a middle or high school classroom?

Norman Lederman Lederman Norman 40 Points

Ruth, I never did quite answer your question about helping students recognize and evaluate the various aspects of inquiry in investigations. On e good resource is a book titled Students and Research (you can find the fourth edition on Amazon. [url=][/url] [url=][/url]Students and Research: Practical Strategies for Science Classrooms and Competitions [url=][/url]Sep 12, 2005 by COTHRON JULIA H and GIESE RONALD N [url=][/url]Paperback [url=][/url] [url=]$17.41 [sup]$[/sup] 17 [sup]41[/sup] [/url]$68.74 Only 3 left in stock - order soon. More Buying Choices [url=]$4.82(39 used & new offers)[/url] [i]4.6 out of 5 stars[/i] [url=]4[/url] However, the approach I use is to have students reflect on investigations they have performed in class and have them identify the various components of the investigation. This would look the same in an elementary and middle school classroom. I would also use the NGSS practices dimension as a guide to the developmental appropriateness of the practices you have students identify. Norm

Carili Rubiera Carili Rubiera 4145 Points

Hello! My sister has taught about evolution many times and she found that the best solution to this is to hold a classroom debate on evolution vs. creation! I have seen these lessons first hand and this gets the students very interested and involved! You are teaching them about the process of evolution but you are still giving them a chance to express their personal opinions in a safe and professional environment! Giving students a chance to see things from both perspectives makes it less controversial because no one will feel like their beliefs are wrong or ignored. Of course, be sure to make your expectations of classroom behavior during the debate clear (i.e no speaking over each other, no disrespectful remarks, etc.)

Matt Bobrowsky Matthew Bobrowsky 6380 Points

Carili, I strongly suggest that you urge your sister to NOT have students debate evolution vs. creationism.  I’m attaching an article on student debates of controversial issues, which anyone who is considering having a debate should look at.

There are several problems with having students debate about evolution:

(1) It reinforces the misconception that evolution is controversial in the scientific community.  It’s not.  Evolution is observed to occur, both in the lab and in nature.  Furthermore, we know why evolution MUST occur.

(2) Students can look on the Web and find all sorts of anti-evolution sites, and they’ll just parrot the incorrect information there.  No learning comes from that.

(3) Our understanding of biological evolution has become much more complex, and most students don’t have the background to evaluate the evidence.

(4) Perhaps most importantly, class debates give the incorrect impression that issues in science are decided by debates.  With that in mind, at some point it would be good to discuss the process of science and ask students:

  • In the scientific community, why aren't scientific issues resolved by debates?  

  • How DO scientists find answers to their questions? 


Emily Faulconer Emily Faulconer 5725 Points

I agree with Matthew that a true debate is not the best representation of how science is decided. Instead of framing controversial topics for debate, I challenge my students to form their own fact-based opinions. The goal is not to convince others of the correctness of their viewpoint but to teach them how to review scientific information and come to an informed decision. This will help them in their day-to-day life, whether at the checkout line (e.g. GMO labeling) and at the voting booth (conservation laws, climate action, etc.). 

Isis Mena Isis Mena 3600 Points

I am really interested in this discussion, I believe many teachers have similar questions but topics similar to this post are never discussed among teachers. After, reading some of the replies I believe the best way is to discuss findings from reliable resources and sharing the resources with your students. By sharing the findings, the students can make their own discoveries and conclusions. By allowing students to conclude on their own, the teacher can avoid bias and placing their influence onto the students.

Matt Bobrowsky Matt Bobrowsky 6380 Points

That could be a good approach, Isis. You just have to make sure that the 'findings' you present are from reliable scientific sources. Also, when students finally do reach conclusions, make sure they are consistent with the findings, i.e., are correct. They're entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. It's part of our job as science educators to make sure that students not only end up with the right information, but also understand why it's right. For example, we can teach that the earth is (approximately) round, but it's even better to teach why it MUST be round.


Emily Faulconer Emily Faulconer 5725 Points

Isis - I completely agree with your statement that teaching controversial topics and allowing students to form their own opinions can avoid bias. Like you mentioned, it is a great opportunity to reinforce information literacy by teaching them how to evaluate their resources. It is also a great opportunity to discuss how a scientific consensus is achieved. Some topics that now are solidly within the realm of scientific consensus (e.g. evolution) were once hotly contested!  

Estrell Mamonese Estrell Mamonese 200 Points

I wish there were more people like you on the forums! Interesting to read you!

Lauren Cramer Lauren Cramer 2025 Points

I usually start with letting students tell me what they know, or what they *think* they know. Taking the time to correct any misconceptions in science makes all the difference because they can differentiate what is considered to be 'fake news' and what is not. If you are worried about something you will be teaching based on the students' attitudes or comments, send a letter home to the parents. Make sure you tell them that you will adhere to any and all beliefs in your class and you will deliver the topic with the most sensitivity, which is important also. It can be tricky but I have not had many issues the entire time I have been teaching. You've got this. 

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