Socioscientific issues and moral sensitivity

By Heather King - May 2011


Fowler, S. R., Zeidler, D. L., & Sadler, T. D. (2009). Moral sensitivity in the context of socioscientific issues in high school students. International Journal of Science Education31(2), 279–296.


The study and the discussions presented in this paper highlight the need for educators to facilitate student engagement with moral questions when addressing socioscientific issues. 

What Is The Issue?

Socioscientific issues bridge science and society. As such, they are open to multiple viewpoints and inherently associated with morality. This paper presents the findings from a year-long study designed to enhance students’ moral sensitivity so that they are better able to recognize and negotiate the moral arguments embedded with socioscientific issues (SSIs).

What Was The Study?

This study involved a comparison between high school students following a traditional anatomy and physiology curriculum and students who covered the same anatomy and physiology content within a series of SSIs. The curriculum covered by the treatment group was designed to confront deeply held values by requiring the students to defend or reject particular notions following the analysis of evidence, the evaluation of claims, the identification of moral arguments, and negotiation with peers to reach consensus. Topics (and their curriculum content) included organ transplant allocation (the cardiovascular system), the safety of marijuana (the structure and physiology of the brain), and fast food consumption (the digestive system).

At the beginning and end of the year, both groups of students were tested using an instrument designed to measure students’ ability to recognize moral aspects associated with scientific issues within sample scenarios (e.g., the development of pharmaceutical milk using genetically modified cows). The analysis of pre- and post-test results showed that, at least for the genetic modification scenario, the treatment group had developed a greater moral sensitivity than the comparison group. However, there was no difference in the moral sensitivity (assessed by number and sophistication of moral concerns articulated) with a second scenario addressing human cloning.

What Were The Findings?

Given the inconclusive findings, the authors suggest that the emotionally charged content of human cloning may account for the comparison group expressing so many articulate concerns. They thus call for further research. Nonetheless, they also claim that ongoing opportunities to engage with SSIs (e.g., over the course of whole school year) can promote development of moral sensitivity, particularly with respect to situations that are less obviously human related. Moreover, they note that this study provides important empirical evidence about the effects of an SSI-driven curriculum.

The ability to negotiate and make decisions regarding complex social issues with links to science defines the skill of scientific literacy. As the authors point out, if we want to achieve the long-standing educational goal of scientific literacy for all, we must also strive to understand the relationship between moral sensitivity and decision-making in SSIs.