Research Summary

Toward citizenship science education: what students do to make the world a better place?

Scientific Citizenship: Understanding student knowledge, motivations, and beliefs

International Journal of Science Education

Developing the knowledge, skills, and motivation to engage in appropriate pro-environmental action is a cornerstone of environmental education. Educators can support students in becoming scientifically minded citizens through focusing on activities that deepen environmentally related knowledge, attitudes, and skills. Research that examines how and why young people engage in scientific citizenship, and using those data to inform curriculum design, can encourage action on important socio-scientific issues in school settings and beyond.

This study’s authors argue that teaching scientific citizenship should not feel didactic but, rather, should work to translate scientific knowledge and beliefs into actions. Therefore, educators should be aware of what citizenship activities students are already participating in or what activities interest them. To that end, the study explored the interactions among students’ scientific knowledge, motivations, and beliefs, and the actions that they reported taking.

The authors focused on behaviors that students reported consciously taking to “make the world a better place,” such as riding bikes to school. The authors noted that people might act in the same way for different reasons: one student, for example, might ride a bike in order to reduce her overall carbon footprint, while another might do so because she does not have access to a car or have a driver’s license yet. Based on the reasoning and motivation, the behavior might (or might not) be considered purposefully pro-environmental, driven by scientific understanding, and intended to be a type of citizenship behavior. In this example, although the resulting environmental outcome may be the same, the reasoning in the latter description (not having access to a car or not having a license) would not count as a purposeful citizenship action.

To collect data for this study, the authors interviewed 35 upper-secondary international students who were all attending a Millennium Youth Camp focused on science and engineering. The researchers conducted semistructured interviews around a number of key themes, with an emphasis on what students perceived to be the biggest problems facing humanity and what they had done personally to make the world a better place.

Based on initial analyses of the interview data, the researchers developed three categories of action that reflected students’ citizenship and motivations: personally responsible action, participatory action, and preparation for the future.

Personally responsible actions described cases in which students reported an awareness of wanting to help the environment or other people through their individual actions, such as efforts to recycle and make ecologically friendly consumer choices. Students reported the lowest level of engagement with this category, with 20 out of 35 students reporting some form of personally responsible action. Students offered two main reasons for taking these kinds of actions: being motivated by their personal values, such as kindness and justice, and wanting to lead or inspire by example.

Participatory actions described those performed as part of a group, whether the student reported organizing or participating in the group. Out of 35 students, 21 reported taking some form of participatory action, explaining their motivations for doing so as a desire to advance their own or others’ understanding of an issue or promote community awareness. Examples of these kinds of actions included participating directly in local projects, fundraising for charities outside their community, and conducting awareness-raising campaigns.

Preparation for the future described actions that students took to prepare for more complex or wide-reaching actions in the future. Examples included studying hard or learning new skills that would help with future career choices, such as becoming a scientist. This was the most common category in which students showed scientific citizenship, with 25 out of 35 students rationalizing their current activities as working toward future goals. Many hoped to contribute to future scientific or technological developments to make the world a better place.

The Bottom Line

Young people engage in activities that they see as “making the world a better place” in a variety of ways. Student-centered learning techniques that reflect the diversity of reasons for action can support and encourage those activities. Participating in scientific citizenship can help develop students’ sense of personal responsibility and nurture their interest in scientific citizenship. Giving students opportunities to share their work with peers and the community can be a powerful participatory motivator for student actions, inspiring them to prepare for future actions by interacting with a range of professionals, including politicians and community leaders. Such interactions may help students visualize how to translate their interests into careers, as well as understand scientific issues within socioeconomic and political contexts. These and other student-centered techniques can support personal, societal, and vocational motivations for scientific citizenship.