Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, Volume 11, Issue 1, Article 2 (June, 2010)
SEE-SEP: From a separate to a holistic view of socioscientific issues

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The different dimensions of SSIs

To date, more than 100 published papers highlight the emerging and cross-disciplinary topic of SSIs, and the results disclosed that many dimensions are involved in the process of students’ informal reasoning and informal argumentation about SSIs, such as scientific knowledge (Albe, 2008; Chang & Chiu, 2008; Ekborg, 2008; Jallinoja & Aro, 2000; Keselman et al., 2004), or a combined perspective like individuals’ personal experiences, values, ethical concerns, or governmental policy, and so on (Chang & Chiu, 2008; Fleming, 1986; Patronis et al., 1999; Sadler, 2004a; Zeidler et al., 2002). Currently, the dimensions connected to SSIs have been discussed from a broader scale, such as STS (Chang et al., 2009; Sadler, 2009b), sustainable development (Chang et al., 2009; Simonneaux, 2001; Simonneaux & Simonneaux, 2009), ethics (Sadler & Donnelly, 2006; Zeidler & Keefer, 2003; Zeidler et al., 2005), an ecological framework (Colucci-Gray, Camino, Barbiero, & Gray, 2006), or a humanistic view (Dos Santos, 2009). However, there seems to be a consensus that the important features of SSIs include complexity, multiple perspectives, inquiry and scepticism (Albe, 2008; Colucci-Gray et al., 2006; Fensham, 2008; Sadler et al., 2007; Simonneaux & Simonneaux, 2009). According to the aforesaid separate viewpoints related to SSIs, we feel the need to develop a more holistic view of SSIs, and here, we present a model entitled “SEE-SEP” to represent the essence of SSIs.

The SEE-SEP model

According to the role of SSIs in science education described above, we have discovered that cross-disciplinary concepts are involved in SSIs. Furthermore, from those empirical studies, we found that the three aspects of value, personal experiences and knowledge are influential important factors for individuals to argue about SSIs, which can be connected to different subject areas, e.g. science, sociology, environment and economy. Therefore, the main purpose of this article is to integrate the divergent concepts and develop a holistic viewpoint to represent the essence of SSIs.

Figure 2 shows the holistic model of SEE-SEP, which covers six subject areas of SSIs: sociology/culture (S), environment (E), economy (E), science (S), ethics/morality (E) and policy (P), connecting with three aspects of value, personal experiences and knowledge. SSIs are often perceived as single phenomena, hence, the aim of using the abbreviation of SEE-SEP is to make people aware of the multi-dimensional features of SSIs, and we also want people to see SSIs from the separate (SEP) subject areas. Furthermore, people could develop a more holistic view on SSIs based upon the SEE-SEP model while arguing about SSIs in daily life.

Adopting an image of the benzene structure on the top aims to utilize its structure of containing a six-membered ring of carbon atoms to depict the six subject areas of SEE-SEP model together with the features of complexity and multiple perspectives. In particular, applying the circle (symbolizing the alternating single and double bonds) with two arrows in the middle of this structures intended to express the ideas that we should explore SSIs from these separate subject areas to a more comprehensive view, and also to portray the uncertainty feature (combining the aforementioned features of inquiry and scepticism) of SSIs. In addition, there is an important root grounded under the benzene structure including the three aspects of value, personal experiences and knowledge. These aspects have often been disclosed to be important factors in students’ SSI reasoning or argumentation in former studies. Here, we consider that the three aspects of value, personal experiences and knowledge could be intertwined with those six subject areas, and this is the reason to locate these three aspects as a root. Accordingly, we visualize the SEE-SEP model of SSIs as a diamond structure (Figure 2). It also needs to be noticed that not all the above-mentioned subject areas and aspects can be observed in the argumentation of every SSI. In other words, the involvement of SEE-SEP is issue-dependent. More descriptions with regard to the components of SEE-SEP are delineated as follows. The supporting evidence for the SEE-SEP model will be presented in the section on the analytical framework.

Figure 2. The SEE-SEP model of SSI.

The aspect of value

According to former studies related to SSI reasoning and informal argumentation, students and the public tend to make decisions about SSIs based upon their own values (i.e. cellular phone is dangerous, or is not dangerous), especially in some SSIs, in which there is no obvious evidence to prove its harmlessness or harm (e.g. Chang & Chiu, 2008). The aspect of value also includes attitudes, or we could say it is related to people’s affective domain. With a very high correlation, value, attitude and affection are developed and connected strongly with an individual’s socio-cultural background. Here, the socio-cultural background can be referred to not only on the larger scale of the individual’s society (i.e. different religions) and culture (i.e. eastern or western), but also on the smaller scale of science community, family education, school life, and so on. When the value aspect connects to the socio-cultural subject area, we could view facts from a cross-cultural viewpoint. For example, Americans may think a cellular phone is good and important, but people living in the Amazon rain forest may think a cellular phone is useless, because the network is not built up or they do not feel the need for it in their lives. Moreover, when the value aspect meets the subject area of science, NOS and attitudes towards science are both anchored.

The aspect of personal experience

In parallel to the value aspect, it has been shown that students very often use their own personal experiences in SSI reasoning when there is no certain evidence found in relation to the SSIs. For example, regarding choosing organic food or not, some students may think about not to buy organic food, since they have tasted it before, and they felt there was no difference between organic food and others. We could say that people could argue about SSIs by using more personal experiences, when the SSIs are more connected to their daily life. Another example could be the topic of whether the government should require all restaurants to ban smoking. People who do not smoke could draw on their experiences of the unpleasant smell of smoke and vote “Yes”.

The aspect of knowledge

As science educators, we always maintain the hope that students and the public could make decisions based upon scientific knowledge and evidence. The knowledge aspect could be linked to those six subject areas through the concepts, theories, laws, or evidence developed and discovered from sociology/culture, science and technology, economy, environment/ecology, policy, or ethics/morality. Taking ethics/morality as an example, the concepts of it could relate to human welfare, justice and right, or the concepts of the welfare and rights of animals.

The subject area of sociology/culture (S)

As mentioned in the aspect of value, sociology/culture is strongly connected to value, attitude and affect, but also, regarding the knowledge aspect, people could provide the concepts or theories from sociology/culture to support their argument of SSIs. Additionally, people could provide their personal experiences from different societies or cultures to make SSI decisions. In this case, it is connected to personal experiences.

The subject area of environment (E)

More and more SSIs nowadays are related to environmental and ecological subject areas, such as the use of cars, nuclear power, global warming and also GMOs. According to the many SSIs that are connected to environment, we separate the environment subject area from the science subject area, although environmental science (including ecology) is one of the domains in biology. In so doing, we hope to be explicit about the importance of it, and also want to stress that students and the public could and should discuss or deal with SSIs with a concern about environment and ecology. This would also apply for scientists while conducting their research. An example concerning the value aspect involved into this subject area could be some kinds of local issues such as whether we should build a new freeway in the country side. Some people may think it is good for the economy (connected with the economy subject area), but some people think it is bad for the local ecology.

The subject area of economy (E)

While arguing about SSIs, the economic situation could be one of the concerns. For example, using DDT to kill mosquitoes and eliminate the Malaria problem in a poor county is acceptable to some individuals, since the poor economic status of a country influences people to think saving lives from disease is the first priority. Based upon the framework of sustainable development, economy is taken as one of the three main subject areas to consider, besides the social and the environmental subject areas.

The subject area of science (S)

For a science educator, making students apply scientific knowledge in their daily lives is one of the important goals. SSIs can serve as an authentic context for students to apply what they have learnt. Therefore, scientific knowledge from different subjects (i.e. biology, chemistry, technology, medicine, and so on) ought to be embedded into individuals’ thinking processes. However, scientific concepts could be wrongly applied in the SSIs by students, which ought to be noticed more by teachers. In relation to the personal experience aspect, students may argue about SSIs based on their experiences from conducting scientific studies. Again, attitudes towards science and the notion of NOS are related to the value aspect.

The subject area of ethics/morality (E)

Ethical and moral concerns have been discussed and stressed a lot in science education while dealing with SSIs today. In addition to the viewpoint of ethics and morality, the concern of humanity could be embraced in this subject area as well. We deem that ethics/morality can often be associated with the sociology/culture subject area and the value aspect, e.g. cloning technology is acceptable or not acceptable (an issue that can be related to religious beliefs).

The subject area of policy (P)

Some people like to make SSI decisions according to the policy or law made by the government. In other words, we could say this group of people trust and rely more on their government or authority. For instance, some people may support that we should develop a new nuclear power plant, because they trust the ability of their government. We could also see that policy/law can be involved in other SSIs, such as cloning technology, abortion, global warming and so on, where people may think the government should make laws to constrain people’s behaviour.

The analytical framework and evidence supporting SEE-SEP

To offer a more concrete idea regarding the SEE-SEP model and also to prove that the SEE-SEP model is a workable model to represent the essence of SSIs, here, we try to provide evidence from former studies analyzed via the SEE-SEP framework.

Since there are six subject areas and three aspects forming the SEE-SEP model, we could generate 18 codes to analyze students’ informal reasoning and argumentation. We added all the second characters from the six subject areas to the codes, due to there are two S and three E from the original abbreviation. Accordingly, the codes are presented in Table 1. Through Figure 3, we could visualize the analytical framework of the SEE-SEP model. The following examples for supporting the SEE-SEP model were extracted from the participants’ protocols in the former studies. The specific texts related to each code are highlighted with boldface.

Table 1. The codes generated from the SEE-SEP model.

Subject areas



Personal experiences (P)

Sociology/culture (So)




Environment (En)




Economy (Ec)




Science (Sc)




Ethics/morality (Et)




Policy (Po)





Figure 3. The analytic framework of SSIs.

From Patronis et al., (1999) study, we could find some suitable evidence from students’ discussion about whether they should build up a new road in the school area.

Example 1:

We propose the already existing road, which is along the coast, should be continued for 2 or 3 km towards Roin (a nearby village) and then turn towards the Patras-Athens Motorway. There are two reasons to support our opinion: firstly the road should be moved away from the school, and as a result we will avoid accidents (SoK), and secondly to avoid noise pollution (EnK), which is caused by the road being so close…and the big trucks that travel on it. (p.749-750)

Example 2:

When I asked where the train will pass, Angeliki said that it will pass under the bridge. But, from what she said, this means that the bridge will be long, and higher than the train rails. So, much more money will be spent. (EcK) (p. 750)

The following examples were analyzed from the study by Chang & Chiu (2008). From the university students’ written reports arguing about four different SSI topics regarding GMO, organic food, DDT and Malaria, and Dioxin, we could also find evidence to support the SEE-SEP model via the different SSI topics conducted in this study (Chang & Chiu, 2008, p. 1766).

Example 3:

[GMO topic] It is not a good idea if we always follow other countries’ steps. Just as the proverb says, “repeating what others say is not good.” (SoV) (Student S013)

Example 4:

[Dioxin topic] I consider the chemistry company as guilty, no matter whether there are veterans with cancer or not, since dioxin has caused permanent harm to our environment (EnK) and we should be concerned more about all lives in our environment. (EtK) (Student S011)

Example 5:

[GMO] No harm to human now does not mean it will be no harm in the future. (ScV about NOS) (Student S07)

Example 6:

[Organic food topic] I would buy organic food, since I have not heard that organic food is harmful to humans during the past time. (Student S031) (EtP)

Example 7:

[Organic food topic] I will not buy it, because I have checked the price one time in the supermarket (EcP) and it is too expensive (EcV). Also, I will buy any kind of vegetable, which has passed the examination by our government. (PoK) (Student S017)

Another four examples from the study conducted by Sadler and Zeider (2004) about students’ responses regarding whether cloning related issues are moral or not.

Example 8:

I don’t think it’s a moral issue…That’s just me. That’s just not how I was brought up with family or my religion or anything (participant 4). (SoP) (p. 12)

Example 9:

You want to let someone have the right to choose. You know, it is their child and they can do what they think is right. (EtV) I mean I think it is more interesting and more how things work to see how your child does turn out. I don’t think I could even fool around with anything going on with the pregnancy. (Participant 3). (p.13)

Example 10:

I do not think it is moral (to employ gene therapy). I do not think it is a good thing to be creating these genes just to change the way individuals are. (Participant 13). (ScV) (p.13)

Example 11:

With the example of SCID, we have a disease that is killing. (ScK) I think ethically, if this gene is found and we can replace it, I think ethically we have to replace it. I think ethically we have to replace it, and we need to do so as equally and equitably as we can. (Participant 17). (EtK) (p.13)

From the same research team, another study could also provide some evidence (Sadler & Zeidler, 2005b).

Example 12:

I know some families that have gone through the (Huntington’s) disease process and there is nothing that anyone can do except make the patient comfortable…there is no way of preventing it unless you change the gene. (H29). (ScP) (p.86)

In one study of teaching informal argumentation regarding GMO, we could also find some examples from students’ discussion and interesting questions to ask (Chang, 2007).

Example 13:

(S004) I don’t think our government is good at monitoring GMO in our market, so I don’t choose GMO in my life (PoV). From TV news, one time I saw some information from a western country…I forgot which country… that their government could monitor food in the market regularly, which is trustful for me. (PoP)

Example 14:

(S015) Although GMO can be good to our environment from decreasing the use of pesticide, I still could worry about whether GMO will cause any ecological problem in the future (EnV). Like global warming phenomenon we experience now (EnP), when car was invented, people didn’t think about it can cause global warming today (EnK).

Overall, more examples of SSI topics and the content of peoples’ arguments could be found in the cited papers and others. With the limited content of this article, we could only provide some examples to prove the usefulness of the SEE-SEP model developed here, and offer a holistic view about the essence of SSIs for further discussions on the SSI movement.


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