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Edge: Coronavirus understandings

Turning the pandemic into learning opportunities

Researcher: Troy D. Sadler
Troy Sadler cover image

The following article is from the Fall 2021 issue of Edge: Carolina Education Review.

Troy Sadler knows the problem: It’s hard to capture and to hold the attention of middle and high school students.

The Edge: A movement among science education researchers has sought to develop curricula and teaching methods that teach science in ways that make it more directly relevant to learners’ lives. Additionally, the Next Generation Science Standards urges science education that engages students in the work of science to advance attainment of science literacy. One group of science education researchers, including Troy Sadler, the Thomas James Distinguished Professor of Experiential Learning at Carolina’s School of Education, has sought to develop and implement a framework of science education that incorporates “issues-based” learning with curricula and teaching materials centered around science issues about which elementary, middle and high school students inherently care.

Sadler, the Thomas James Distinguished Professor of Experiential Learning at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education, taught science to middle and high school students early in his career. It’s an experience that helps inform his work finding ways to develop teaching methods and curricula that engage students in science classrooms.

One of the answers: Build science lessons around topics students care about.

Sadler and a team of researchers and teachers have worked for years developing and refining a framework for creating engaging and effective science lessons. The framework relies upon “issues-based” instruction involving hot topics for students, such as sexually transmitted disease, vaping, fracking, and climate change. The framework also features modeling as a central activity the team has shown to be effective in engaging students in science learning.

A case in point: The coronavirus pandemic.

When the pandemic arose last year, Sadler and his team saw in it a teachable moment.

They applied for and won a $200,000 National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research program grant with which they produced a set of lessons that have students engage in science concepts centered on the virus, produce models about its behavior, and wrestle with questions around how a society works to slow and eventually contain a pandemic.

Pursuing a vision of scientific literacy

Sadler has pursued a 20-year research agenda aimed at improving science education in elementary, middle, and high schools. His findings have ranked him among the top 15 most-published researchers in the field of science education with more than 15,000 citations of his work.

In addition to the NSF, his research has attracted funding from the Institute of Education Sciences, the U.S. Department of Education, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, foundations, and state agencies. He serves as a co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, the leading academic journal in the field of science education.

Sadler is part of a movement within science education that advocates promotion of a type of scientific literacy that can be applied in everyday lives. Dana Zeidler, who served as Sadler’s Ph.D. advisor, is largely responsible for developing the concept of science teaching around what he called “socio-scientific” issues, in pursuit of a vision of science literacy by engaging students in the science around societal issues that affect their lives (Zeidler, D. L., et al., 2002; Zeidler, D. L., 2003).

Achieving that vision of scientific literacy among middle and high school students requires learning experiences that are very different from having students follow scripted lab exercises and learn scientific vocabulary and concepts.

Developing a teaching sequence that works

Science education researchers, including Sadler, have worked for the past 15 years to develop, implement, evaluate, and revise methods to incorporate socio-scientific issues, or SSI, into science teaching. Sadler and a team of researchers at the University of Missouri, working with high school science teachers in that state, have developed and continue to revise a sequence of instruction centered around socio-scientific issues, demonstrating that the sequence can be effective in classes from elementary school through college (Sadler, T. D., Foulk, J. A., Friedrichsen, P. J., 2017).

They have worked to align the more recent iterations of the teaching model with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), specifically a focus on the big ideas of science in combination with learning about scientific practices.

Socio-scientific issues teaching shares features with problem-based learning, as it places learning into real-world contexts with which students can more readily engage, giving meaning to the scientific content. Students are asked to confront an issue, explore science ideas involved, but also to examine other perspectives, including economic, political, and ethical ones.

The socio-scientific issue instructional model sequence follows three phases:

First phase: The sequence presents a complicated, perplexing, and compelling focal societal issue that lacks simple, clear solutions. Students are presented the issue, including developing awareness of the ways in which science ideas, principles, and inquiries bear on the issue and some of the social issues that arise from it. In a sequence centered on antibiotic resistance, students were shown an emotionally charged video of a girl who died from an infection of methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The presentation highlighted bacterial evolution as a component of the problem and shared societal aspects — such as patient rights and health care policies — that make the problem challenging.

Second phase:
The second phase of the sequence engages students in what the NGSS describes as three-dimensional science learning, and with socio-scientific reasoning practices. Three-dimensional science learning engages students in learning about disciplinary core ideas (such as natural selection), crosscutting concepts (such as cause and effect), and science practices (such as modeling). In the sequence, students created models of cellular mechanisms of resistance, the growth of bacterial populations over time, and natural selection.

Socio-scientific Instructional model

During the second phase, students are also called to engage in practices that explore the social and scientific intersections of the focal issue — practices that have been described by Sadler and colleagues as “socio-scientific reasoning” (Sadler, Barab & Scott, 2007). The practices include 1) recognizing the complexity of the focal issue, 2) analyzing issues from multiple perspectives, 3) identifying aspects of the issue that need ongoing inquiry, 4) employing skepticism in analysis of potentially biased information, and 5) exploring how science may contribute to addressing the issue, and also the limitations of science.

In the antibiotic resistance unit, students explored websites that offered a variety of perspectives, including mainstream health information websites, personal blogs of patients suffering from MRSA infections, and other sources. Students took part in discussions about their observations of their own laboratory experiments with growing bacteria with varying concentrations of antibiotics, and their models that sought to describe their observations. Students explored social aspects that make antibiotic resistance a difficult issue to address, such as government interference in health care choices and the lack of financial incentives for drug companies to develop new antibiotics. The objective was not simply to identify solutions, but to demonstrate the complexity of the issues and the multiple perspectives that address them.

Third phase: The final phase has students synthesize ideas and practices, giving them opportunities to reflect on their own perspectives and how they interact with science ideas, science practices, and the socio-scientific reasoning practices they developed. Students are asked to write essays that offer policy recommendations, with justifications based on what they had learned during the sequence.

The students are expected to develop understandings of natural selection through examining the evolution of bacteria. But they are encouraged to take the evidence found throughout the sequence and to rely on their own individual perspectives on the social, political, and economic aspects of the issue to develop their recommendations.

The role of modeling

By working through iterations of the sequence with different groups of teachers, Sadler and his team have continuously identified ways to improve the sequence. One of those improvements is the incorporation of modeling as a science practice. The team identified that teachers had more difficulty using science practices in their classrooms that contributed to sense-making, so the team has chosen to move away from covering multiple types of science practices to focusing specifically on modeling.

Modeling, Sadler and his team have discovered, serves as an anchor practice that supports student learning, while also encouraging student engagement in other science practices. The result was a revised approach to socio-scientific teaching the team calls “Model-Oriented Issue-Based” (MOIB) teaching.

Researchers have determined that engaging students with modeling practices shifts science instruction from learning from models, textbooks, teachers, and lab exercises, to providing students with opportunities to learn with models — using their own ideas to construct and evaluate scientific knowledge (Gouvea, Passmore, 2017). Sadler and his team intentionally include exercises in which students develop their own models, using online platforms and mathematical models. Through the sequence, students create, evaluate, and revise their models, coming to see models as dynamic learning tools.

Applying learned lessons to COVID-19 curricula

When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, Sadler convened a team of his colleagues to apply for an NSF Rapid Response Research grant to incorporate lessons learned from developing socio-scientific teaching practices into materials and curricula that could engage students in a topic of high interest to them.

The team, which was also led by co-principal investigators Patricia Friedrichsen and Laura Zangori of the University of Missouri, recruited 12 Missouri high school teachers who had worked with the team in the past to develop SSI teaching sequences (Sadler, T. D.; Friedrichsen, P.; Zangori, L.; & Ke, L., 2020).

Download the lesson plans

The lesson plans developed by Sadler and his team are available here:

Some of the teachers expressed hesitation to address COVID-19-related content out of concern for students who were struggling with the daily realities and traumas associated with the pandemic. The team invited a pediatric neuropsychologist to discuss with the team and teachers their concerns, assuring them that engaging students in inquiry and learning about the disease and pandemic would support students’ mental health, allowing them to discover things then can do to protect themselves.

The team used videoconferencing tools to meet and develop teaching materials, a process that worked well, facilitating small-group teams that tackled components of the project. The team found it was helpful to focus on what available communications technology allowed the team members to do, rather than focus on what they might have lost from not being able to meet face-to-face.

Within a matter of a few weeks, the team developed activities and supporting instructional materials that focused on the biology of the virus, media literacy, social distancing, and modeling of viral spread and infection curve simulations.

Further research

The team plans to conduct case studies of how participating teachers use the materials with their students as well as explore how the collaborative design process impacts teachers’ approaches to creating and sing other coronavirus-related curriculum materials. Also, research is planned to explore how other teachers not involved in the development of the materials are able to use them in their teaching.


Friedrichsen, P. J., Sadler, T. D., Graham, K., & Brown, P. (2016). Design of a Socio-scientific Issue Curriculum Unit: Antibiotic Resistance, Natural Selection, and Modeling. International Journal of Designs for Learning, 7(1).

Gouvea, J.; Passmore, C. (2017) ‘Models of’ versus ‘models for’. Science & Education, v.26, n.1-2, p.49-63.

Ke, L.; Sadler, T. D.; Zangori, L., & Friedrichsen, P. J. (2020). Students’ perceptions of socio-scientific issue-based learning and their appropriation of epistemic tools for systems thinking. International Journal of Science Education. DOI: 10.1080/09500693.2020.1759843.

Peel, A.; Zangori, L.; Friedrichsen, P.; Hayes, E. & Sadler, T. (2019). Students’ model-based explanations about natural selection and antibiotic resistance through socio-scientific issues based learning. International Journal of Science Education, 41, 510-532. DOI: 10.1080/09500693.2018.1564084

Roberts, D. A. (2007). Scientific literacy/science literacy. In S. K. Abell & N. G. Lederman (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Science Education (pp. 729-780). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Roberts, D. A.; Bybee, R. W. (2014) Scientific Literacy, Science Literacy, and Science Education. In N. G. Lederman; S. K. Abell (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Science Education, Volume II (pp. 545–558). New York: Routledge.

Sadler, T. D., Friedrichsen, P., Zangori, L., & Ke, L. (2020). Technology-supported professional development for collaborative design of COVID-19 instructional materials. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 28, 171-177.

Sadler, T. D. & Zeidler, D. L. (2005). Patterns of informal reasoning in the context of socioscientific decision-making. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 42, 112-138. (NOTE: Awarded the 2006 JRST Award by the National Association for Research in Science Teaching.)

Sadler, T. D.; Barab, S. A.; Scott, B. (2007) What do students gain by engaging in socioscientific inquiry? Research in Science Education v.43, n.4, p.371-391.

Sadler, T. D. (2009). Situated learning in science education: Socio-scientific issues as contexts for practice. Studies in Science Education, 45, 1-42.

Sadler, T. D.; Foulk, J. A.; Friedrichsen, P. J. (2017) Evolution of a model for socio-scientific issue teaching and learning. International Journal of Education in Mathematics, Science and Technology, v.5, n.2., p.75-87.

Zangori, L.; Li, K.; Sadler, T. D.; & Peel, A. (accepted). Developing systems thinking through modelling in the context of socio-scientific issues among elementary learners. International Journal of Science Education.

Zangori, L.; Peel, A.; Kinslow, A.; Friedrichsen, P.; & Sadler, T. D. (2017). Student development of model-based reasoning about carbon cycling and climate change in a socio-scientific issues unit. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 10, 1249-1273. DOI: 10.1002/tea.2104 (NOTE: Recognized as “Research Worth Reading” by NARST.)

Zeidler, D. L., Walker, K. A., Ackett, W. A., & Simmons, M. L. (2002). Tangled up in views: Beliefs in the nature of science and responses to socioscientific dilemmas. Science Education.

Zeidler, D. L. (2003). The Role of Moral Reasoning on Socioscientific Issues and Discourse in Science Education. Springer Science & Business Media.