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Volume 17, Number 5
September/October 2001

Why Controversy Belongs in the Science Classroom

From bioengineered food to global warming, science is rife with dispute, debate, and ambiguity


We generally think of science as a practice of calm and studied observation, a method of discovery that valorizes facts in the search for clear, unambiguous answers. We also treat controversy as somehow antithetical to the work of science. After all, controversy involves debate, personalities, and ambiguities, all of which seem to have no business in a genuine scientific discussion.

Yet controversy is an important part of scientific practice. Furthermore, as the recent debate over stem cell research shows, controversy is part of the process by which society understands and comes to grips with scientific progress. For the classroom science teacher, controversy can also be a means of engaging students’ imaginations and bringing the subject to life.

Science controversies come in many flavors and affect scientific progress in different ways. Research controversies push the process of scientific investigation forward by highlighting the absence of information on a particular point. One such controversy in neuroscience has to do with whether certain structures in the brain develop before visual activity or as a result of visual activity. By raising awareness of the question, the debate has sparked further research that, ultimately, could improve our understanding of the connection between brain development and learning.

Decisional controversies arise because some sort of action (or perhaps inaction, a decision in itself) needs to be taken on the basis of incomplete information. Global warming is just such an issue. The observational approach of traditional science cannot yet reliably predict the impact of human behavior on our climate. Scientific study may or may not eventually resolve the issue, but we still have to decide now whether to alter, say, the rate of fossil-fuel consumption. So the global warming controversy has prompted an active public discussion on our place in the environment.

In other cases, moral and ethical questions surround scientific issues, as in the controversy over the management of genetic information. For example, in Iceland, widespread genetic screening and the unique history of the island combine to produce a database of genomic information that will be very useful for learning more about human development, physiology, and disease. The database is most certainly of scientific value to researchers, but because it contains such individual information, its use may ultimately be a matter best decided on an ethical or moral basis.

In the project Science Controversies: On-Line Partnerships in Education (SCOPE), we have been exploring the dynamics of controversy in the context of science teaching and learning in K-12 classrooms and as a component of research science. The project—a collaboration by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Washington, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, with funding from the National Science Foundation —combines websites focused on particular science controversies with in-school projects to engage students in science learning and the use of computers. The website ( is open to all. Workshops and other project guidance are available for teachers.

Students are encouraged to take a position on a given issue, and then to investigate the pros and cons of their position through guided activities and web research. Portions of the website are also designed for the participation of research scientists, and students thus have the opportunity to see controversy unfold as scientists discuss their research. Students develop relevant, fact-based knowledge, and they exercise the skills of considering opposing views, researching to support an opinion, debating, and writing. Classroom activities may close with an actual debate.

SCOPE topics have included methods to combat malaria, causes of declining amphibian populations, and genetically modified foods. SCOPE classes blend multiple aspects of science, as well as ethics, intellectual property, government and trade policies, economics, and so forth. In considering genetically modified foods, for example, several questions arise: How can peaches be made more resistant to freezing damage? How does the presence of large multinational agrobusiness corporations affect the dynamics of innovation in this industry? What stands between development of “golden” rice and the release of that strain to subsistence farmers? Is a tomato expressing an animal transgene still acceptable to a vegetarian? This list illustrates how controversy in science also provides many opportunities for interdisciplinary studies.

Just as controversy sparks interest among the general public, this dynamic aspect of science can surprise many students and encourage a deeper, more compelling engagement with scientific topics. Even those students who don’t have an overriding interest in science may be familiar (through the media) with science controversies and want to learn more about them from school year to school year.

Also, a realistic presentation of how controversy plays out in science provides students with a clearer understanding of what a career in science might entail. Some controversies in science may be subtle and not grab headlines, but they are there nonetheless. Recognizing the dynamic nature of the field, students will realize, through the study of contemporary controversies—as opposed to those from the past that are already resolved—that scientists rarely have the benefit of simple answers and 20/20 hindsight. Each student who engages with today’s issues will likely experience firsthand the foggy unknown that is part of the practicing scientist’s life —the struggle to extract conclusions from incomplete or conflicting statements.

In doing so, students themselves can become more knowledgeable participants in public debates about science-related issues. Indeed, such discussions may already be going on in their own homes. Because elements of science are increasingly pervasive in our society, and increasingly relevant to all, the investigation of controversy in science challenges us and students to gain a better understanding of how the world really works.

Pamela J. Hines is a senior editor of Science magazine, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a co-principal investigator of SCOPE.

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