The Scientific Process in a Changing World

Jordan Axelson, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Michelle Kovarik, Trinity College, Jeff Moore, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


We have designed in detail a single course to serve as the first in an envisioned sequence of courses for a certificate in science literacy.

Our rapidly changing world faces significant, multi-faceted problems at the nexus of technology and society. The response to these socioscientific issues will impact the future of the human condition. The scientific process has a role to play in finding timely, effective, and evidence-based solutions. This course showcases science as a dynamic and iterative process that includes collecting and connecting observations, making hypotheses based on current understanding, and constructing models that are revised as new knowledge is acquired. It emphasizes the role of dialogue and communication in shaping responses to socioscientific issues.

There are two phases to the course. An initial case study will exemplify how the scientific process played out in a historical context. In the second phase, students will produce a final report about a contemporary socioscientific issue, present their results to the class, and generate a "publishable" product.See Course Syllabus Details »

Goals of the Program

The goals of this course are to teach the next generation of professionals to apply scientific and moral reasoning to real-world situations. Learners will gain perspectives on the dynamic interactions between science and society; on the priorities of the disparate stakeholders involved in a socioscientific problem; and on strengths and limitations of the scientific process itself.

Learning Outcomes

After completing the course, students will be able to:

Foundational Knowledge Learning Outcomes

F1. Demonstrate that science is a dynamic and iterative process that includes collecting observational data, making hypotheses based on the most current working model or framework, revising and updating understanding and conclusions based on validating or refuting hypotheses, and give examples in which setbacks or "failures" are shown to advance understanding and have value in the process of refinement to advance knowledge.

F2. Identify patterns, analyze data to find trends, and apply models.

F3. Compare and contrast primary literature to secondary sources, such as newspapers, news, commercials and advertisements, social media, radio, and podcasts.

Meta Knowledge Learning Outcomes

M1. Identify and reflect on the limitations and ambiguity of the current model, and how new information or new data may require refinement or update of the model.

M2.Apply lessons learned from historical case studies to contemporary problems.

M3.Communicate with different audiences (ex. scientific or expert vs. layperson) while balancing accuracy with clarity.

M4.Identify gaps in knowledge or understanding and propose questions or make plans to address them.

M5.Work in teams consisting of individuals of different expertise.

Humanistic Learning Outcomes

H1.Identify competing factors that shape the outcome, progress, guidance, and intervention of science. Identify the influence and interplay between science, policy, economics, special interest groups, and society.

H2. Identify the stakeholders surrounding a problem and empathize with their experiences and the impact of various outcomes they could encounter.

Assessing Program Outcomes

Students will be assessed based on two main projects, an individual journal and a team project.

For the initial case study, students will keep a journal where they respond to prompts similar to those shown below. The letter designators correspond to the foundational (F), meta (M), and humanistic (H) learning objectives listed above. Student journals submissions will be graded on a rubric that evaluates if a students has completed all of the assigned reading or activities related to a specific entry, has considered and identified connections between readings and activities, and has related new information to past discussions.

  • Journal Entry 1
    (F1) Identify a disruptive change. What is the origin of the problem? When was the problem identified? What took place that triggered events? What was the widespread understanding and perception of the topic (scientific community vs. general populace) at the beginning of the period of study?
  • Journal Entry 2
    (F1, F2, M1) Consider *specific reference, figure, text* in a primary source. What trends can you identify? What conclusions can you make based on this data set? What are the limitations and the degree of certainty in the conclusions made from this information at that time?
  • Journal Entry 3
    (F3, H1) Compare and contrast primary and secondary sources such as journal articles, newspapers, news, social media, radio, or podcasts. What information is the same? What is different? What is missing? How do these sources change or influence public perception?
  • Journal Entry 4
    (F1) Reflect on the progression of the case study and develop a timeline to show how knowledge evolved. What setbacks or failures occurred? What value was gained from these setbacks or failures? How was the original perception or understanding revised?
  • Journal Entry 5
    (H2) Identify the stakeholders surrounding a problem and their impact, perspective, experience, and influence.
    Who is most affected by the problem? Who has something to gain by finding a solution?
    Identify at least one stakeholder who has a different perspective, opinion, or motivation about the topic than you. Why do they hold that perspective, opinion, or motivation? What about their personal experience might influence them?
  • Journal Entry 6
    (M3, M4) How do error and uncertainty complicate the use of scientific data in the formation of public policy? How should scientists present their work to maintain public confidence while being honest about the limits of current knowledge?
  • Journal Entry 7
    (H1) Identify the competing factors that shape the progress, outcomes, and intervention of science. Give examples of the interplay between science, policy, economics, special interest groups, and society.
  • Journal Entry 8
    (M4, F1) Identify gaps in current knowledge or understanding. How is this issue still relevant?
  • Journal Entry 9
    (M2) Reflect on our work so far. What have you learned in examining this historical case that will inform your work on a contemporary example of the interactions between science and society?

For the team report on their contemporary case study, students will encounter prompts previously seen during the historical case study as well as prompts like the ones listed below:

  • (M2) Which skills or lessons learned from the historical case study were you able to apply to your team's inquiry? What was the context in which they were applied?
  • (M3, H3) Regarding your final product, who is your audience? How does your audience shape your message? What do you need to take into consideration when planning your project or presentation to best adapt it to your audience?
  • (M5) In what ways has your team functioned effectively? How has each team member contributed using their own unique expertise? In what ways has your team not functioned effectively? What changes will you make to your team's process to improve through the end of the project?

Implementation & Adapting the Course

Framework Flexibility

Our vision is that the proposed course could be used as a foundational or capstone course toward a Certificate in Science Literacy. Those who are interested in pursuing the development in a certification program are also invited to view the Scientific Solutions for Society page for inspiration regarding what the structure of such a program could look like.

However, we also see the opportunity for specific topics and content covered in this course to be adapted to a specific instructor's or department's need, which could help lower the barrier for implementation into existing curricula or provide a cornerstone from which to begin building a more complete program. For example, a single topic could be incorporated as a stand-alone module into an existing course, or a topic could be expanded into a full-fledged course of its own.

Specific topics that could prove well suited to this type of adaptation include:

  • Socioscientific Issues in Context (Any historical or contemporary case study showcasing the change over time in scientific understanding as well as the resulting interplay between science and society)
  • Defining Science (Examining what the term "science" means and what the discipline can encompass; What is viewed as "science" and who gets to decide what qualifies?; Indigenous Science Knowledge; History of Science; Philosophy of Science)
  • Identifying Stakeholders in the Scientific Endeavor (Projecting impacts of scientific results; taxpayer-funded research: how it works and who it affects)
  • Ethics of Scientific Research (Inclusion and exclusion in scientific studies; identifying influencing factors and bias in scientific studies; evaluating risk and uncertainty in the scientific process)
  • Science Policy (How science becomes policy; the role of science in making policy; the role of scientific administrations and agencies)
  • Science Communication (Knowing your audience; communicating with non-scientists; balancing accuracy with accessibility)
  • Science in the Media (Comparing and contrasting portrayal of scientific results in different media. ie. Journal articles, magazine articles, movies, social media, advertisements, etc.)

Building an Interdisciplinary Perspective

To implement a course like this at your institution, talk to your department members, suggest the course to your curriculum committee, and look for partners to give guest lectures or team teach, being sure to consider faculty, alumni, and organizations from outside the physical and life sciences. Views and perspectives from underrepresented populations can also prove valuable to class discussions.

Examples of potential partners:

Topic Ideas

The example syllabus below is based on a historical case study of leaded gasoline. Other historical case studies that could be used to anchor the course include: lead in gasoline, smoking, thalidomide, ozone, John Snow & cholera (The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson), DDT, acceptance of germ theory (The Gospel of Germs by Nancy Tomes).

Contemporary topics that student teams could choose might include: single-use plastics, high fructose corn syrup, climate, glyphosate and GMOs, climate change, ethics of personalized medicine, artificial intelligence, or traveling to Mars.

See the resources links below for additional ideas.


Factors Influencing Postsecondary STEM Students' Views of the Public Communication of an Emergent Technology: a Cross-National Study from Five Universities

How designers do it: 15 easy steps to design an infographic from scratch

Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) Toolkit

The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science

Instructor Reading List on Lead in Gasoline.pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 55kB Oct8 20)

Example Syllabus

This syllabus designed around a specific historical case study (leaded gasoline) and potential contemporary cases for students in the area of chemistry. Other faculty could apply this framework with case studies in their own areas of expertise.

Syllabus for The Scientific Process in a Changing World.pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 94kB Oct8 20)See Course Syllabus Details »