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Science vs Technology vs Societal Issues: What’s the difference?

Image of the word Pine Beetle connected to the three word Science, Technology, and Society When I read a recent post on Science on Google+ which distinguished between science and technology, I thought educators need to consider societal issues as well.

Consider these three questions:

  1. What is the effect of ionizing radiation on the rate of mutations in a bacterial population?
  2. Can mutant strains of bacteria be created which are resistant to an antibiotic?
  3.  Should foods containing genetically mutated organisms be labelled? 
I’m asking these three questions which may arise in a science class to illustrate that they cannot all be solved using the same type of thinking. Some recent postings on the internet reveal a frustration by science educators in taking on these problems with a rigid scientific method. No wonder: it doesn’t apply to all three. In Alberta over the past 30 years, we have looked on these three types of problems as being part of a three-pronged approach we called science-technology-society.

In almost any part of the science curriculum, you can come up with three parallel questions. In fact, with high school students it can be an interesting exercise to have the students themselves think about possible questions. You can download our “Inquiry into the Mountain Pine Beetle Epidemic” which was prepared to give teachers a primer on the science, technology and societal issues associated with the mountain pine beetle.

Here is another example often used with junior-high students:

  1. What is the effect of heat on the temperature of water?
  2. How can you maintain the temperature of hot coffee the longest?
  3. Should disposable plasticized cardboard coffee cups be used for take-out coffee?

Let’s return to our initial three questions. In the first, ‘What is the effect of ionizing radiation on the rate of mutations in a bacterial population?’, it is possible to identify and control variables. Thus, it is possible to make a hypothesis which can predict the shape of a graph. (see also previous blog on predictions). It is also possible to design an experiment to collect data which will support or negate the hypothesis. So we see that this question can be examined using the scientific problem solving model.

When we look at question 2, ‘Can mutant strains of bacteria be created which are resistant to an antibiotic?’, it becomes important to understand the specifications of the project followed by developing a plan to identify and test alternatives. This type of problem can only be solved using a technological problem-solving model.

It is much more difficult solving problems like question 3, ‘Should foods containing genetically mutated organisms be labelled?’. In this type of problem, there is clearly an issue to identify. It will be important to understand the problem from a variety of perspectives. Each of the perspectives may lead to alternative solutions and these solutions will have consequences. For this type of problem to be solved, there will have to be consensus building and a demonstration of responsibility through personal actions. This we refer to as the societal issues problem-solving model.

If one of the goals of schooling is to teach students to think, then talking with students about thinking and analyzing the type of thinking that goes into various types of questions is a valuable usage of classroom discussion.

On a personal note, I have found that many of the better science fair projects have considered all three areas – science, technology and societal issues. A number of years ago, working with Mike Schmidtler of LaFarge Northwest, we developed a major award at the Calgary Youth Science Fair specifically for the project which best exemplifies all three problem-solving approaches - science, technology and society.

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Science vs Technology vs Societal Issues: What’s the difference?

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