Activist Science Education

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To what extent should science education in primary and secondary schools promote learning about science, technology, and ethics? At the primary and secondary school levels, ethical theory and issues of professional ethics would be inappropriate. At these levels one of the most common ethical issues has to do with the environment, which may thus serve as a case study here. But it must be recognized that environmental pollution and global climate change are controversial in ways not always easy to examine with primary and secondary school learners. Indeed many environmental education teachers also sometimes fail to critically assess their own beliefs.

Arguments for Activist Education

There are two basic arguments for activist science education to address environmental issues. One is a scientific and public consensus about its importance, another is the importance of democracy.

During the last half of the twentieth century, many environmental and social problems that drew public concern (climatic change, ecosystems degradation, demographic inequalities, migration, and terrorism, among others) expanded from local to global spheres. The situation had become so perturbing that science teachers often adopted the language of planetary crisis (Bybee 1991). During the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, educators of every subject were asked to contribute to public awareness and understanding of the problems and challenges relating to the planet's future in order to enable the participation of citizens in well-grounded decision making. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002), the consensus was that education is critical for promoting sustainable development, involving all levels of education in all countries.

Advances in science and technologies, because of their social impact, also call for a democratic debate on knowledge production and use. No members of early-twenty-first-century society can participate intelligently in the community without being familiar with how science and technology affect their daily life and future. Thus science education is considered a fundamental prerequisite for democracy and for ensuring sustainable development. Meaningful science education is more necessary than ever in order to develop and expand scientific and technological literacy in all cultures and sectors of society and thus improve public participation in decision making.

Activist Education Practices

But thirteen years after the Rio Conference, in spite of increasing international recognition of the fact that the challenges associated with environmental degradation and sustainable development have important implications for education, science education continues to demonstrate little concern for the present and future state of the world. There are numerous reasons for this insufficient response.

First, although the attainment of scientific and technological literacy (STL) is the main goal of curricular reforms in most countries, its meaning is still unclear. While some advocate a broadening of the knowledge base of the science curriculum to include greater consideration of interactions among science, technology, and society (STS), with more or less emphasis on environmental issues, others argue that educators must prepare students to compete effectively in the global marketplace (Hodson 2003).

The authors of Science For All Americans, for instance, direct attention toward scientific literacy for a more environmentally responsible democracy, stating that science can provide knowledge "to develop effective solutions to its global and local problems" and can foster "the kind of intelligent respect for nature that should inform decisions on the uses of technology" (AAAS 1989, p. 12). The "Standards for Technological Literacy" of the International Technology Education Association (ITEA) also establish requirements for technological literacy for all students; enforcing these standards, according to ITEA, will allow students to develop an understanding of the cultural, social, economic, political, and environmental effects of technology and of the role of society in the development and use of technology. By contrast, the National Research Council does not include such issues in the scientific literacy goals set out in its "National Science Standards."

Second, even when some environmental problems are incorporated in curricula, science education research has uncovered marked differences between the goals of curriculum designers and actual classroom practice. Such differences reveal that changes and reforms are difficult to put into practice and require significant changes in the values and beliefs of teachers.

Third, despite the enthusiasm that initially accompanied the appearance and promotion of environmental education (EE) with its varied proposals and projects, it continues to be a marginal and isolated subject in most education systems. Research frequently cites inadequate teacher preparation as a key obstacle to incorporating EE into school curricula. The situation is typical in a majority of countries (Poitier 1997, Gough 2002). In the United States Rosalyn McKeown-Ice surveyed 715 teacher education institutions and concluded that preservice teacher education programs seldom include EE. She also found that when such programs do include EE, the quality of it varies considerably. Thus EE teacher education is largely inadequate (McKeown-Ice 2000).

Fourth, most EE texts focus exclusively on local problems without addressing the global situation, display a reductionist approach, and ignore the strong connections between natural, environment and social, cultural, political, and economic factors (Tilbury 1995). These perspectives are beginning to change with such new approaches as Environmental Education For Sustainability (EEFS) and Science-Technology-Society-Environment (STSE) teaching materials.


But, possibly, one of the main reasons for the inappropriate treatment of the global crisis resides in the perceptions of teachers and researchers. Analysis of articles published in thirty-two journals of research in science education (from 1992 to 2000) reveals that work on this problem is almost nonexistent. There are few contributions (4.5%) on particular problems and references to sustainability reach a scarce 10 percent. Extending this analysis to the contributions made at international congresses and conferences, and in handbooks on research in science education, the results are similar. A study involving science teachers from Spain, Portugal, and Latin America revealed substantially the same results and exposed the perceptions of science teachers as, in general, fragmentary and superficial, displaying a serious lack of knowledge and commitment. Only
5.3 percent of 848 science teachers raised sustainability issues (Edwards 2003). Critics, of course, argue that such attitudes are themselves more realistic than activist advocates would admit.

Despite the evidence of spreading environmental and social problems, the importance of EE has made little headway in the majority of schools. As activist science educator David Orr wrote in 1994, "We still educate the young ... as if there were no planetary emergency"
(p. 27). But this reveals the problem at the heart of any activist science education program: how to get the majority involved. Education is needed to make it happen, but education itself is part of what needs to happen.


SEE ALSO Education;Science, Technology, and Society Studies.


American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). (1989). Science for All Americans: A Project 2061 Report on Literacy Goals in Science, Mathematics, and Technology. Washington, DC: Author. Also available from

Bybee, Rodger W. (1991). "Planet Earth in Crisis: How Should Science Educators Respond?" American Biology Teacher 53(3): 146–153.

Edwards Schachter, Mónica E. (2003). La atención a la situación del mundo en la educación científica [The attention to the state of the world in science education]. Ph.D. diss.: Servei de Publicacions de la Universitat de València, CD edition. Also available from]

Gough, Annette. (2002). "Mutualism: A Different Agenda for Environmental and Science Education." International Journal of Science Education 24(11): 1201–1215.

Hodson, Derek. (2003). "Time for Action: Science Education for an Alternative Future." International Journal of Science Education 25(6): 645–670.

Knapp, Doug. (2000). "The Thessaloniki Declaration: A Wake-up Call for Environmental Education?" Journal of Environmental Education 31(3): 32–39.

McKeown-Ice, Rosalyn. (2000). "Environmental Education in the United States: A Survey of Preservice Teacher Education Programs." Journal of Environmental Education 32(1): 4–11.

National Research Council. (1996). "National Science Education Standards." Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Also available from

Orr, David W. (1994). Earth in Mind. On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Poitier, Michel. (1997). Le développement durable: stratégies de l'OCDE pour le XXIè siècle [Sustainable development: strategies of the OCDE for the twenty-first century]. Paris: OECD.

Tilbury, Daniella. (1995). "Environmental Education for Sustainability: Defining the New Focus of Environmental Education in the 1990s." Environmental Education Research 1(2): 195–212.


International Technology Education Association (ITEA). "Listing of STL Content Standards." Available from