Science and Decision-Making for a Complex World

The Educational Pipeline: preparing students for careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)

Science and Decision-Making for a Complex World

knowledge, competency and contexts for today's students

Interview with Jenny Dauer Andrea Wach Tenney

Science Literacy 101 is a course for almost 600 students in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources each year. Through this course, students are challenged to think about what science is and why it is necessary. Students are introduced to scientific, social, economic, political, cultural and ethical dimensions of current food, energy and water issues. 

It is all part of the Science Literacy Initiative focus area in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. The goal is for students to develop an enhanced capacity to make decisions grounded in science. The initiative includes and invites input from the public and from partners in business and industry; it offers professional development; and it provides higher education opportunities. 

Jenny Dauer, assistant professor in the university’s School of Natural Resources, developed the course to help students think objectively about challenging issues, explore their values on these issues, and use both science and values to think about the best way to solve complex societal problems. Her interest in student learning emerged after earning her doctorate in biogeochemistry and ecosystem ecology, she said. 

“I began to be interested in how people think about climate change, because it’s a very complicated issue, both in terms of the science and how we solve the problem,” she said.

That led to today, when she challenges students to think, understand and lead.

Dauer earned her Bachelor of Science degree in secondary education, biology and environmental science and her Master of Science in ecology, both from Penn State University. She went on to Oregon State University to earn her doctorate. Now, Dauer studies how students think about complex issues and build their science literacy skills. 

The restructured course focuses on decision- making, media literacy and systems thinking. 

“The goal of the course is not to change student’s values, but rather to help students learn more about who they are and have a process by which to scientifically support and defend their ideas about how to solve challenging problems that we will face long into the future,” Dauer said. 

“Students get practice thinking about tradeoffs among the things that they value instead of just making a decision based on their initial gut reaction,” she added.


Science literacy is not just about science content knowledge, but what a person does with that knowledge, Dauer said. It might be the ability to investigate and observe, which are the basic science process skills; it might also be using science skills in the decision-making process, which even non-scientists need to be able to do. 

“Science literacy is also understanding the science in the news and applying that science to decisions you have to make in your everyday life,” Dauer said. “To teach for science literacy, it’s changing the focus from just science knowledge and memorization to doing something with science.” 

The decision-making process

In the class, Dauer uses a structured decision-making framework that commonly is used in wildlife management, business, military and other fields. The first step in the decision-making framework is defining an issue. Once the students understand what decision is being made, they are challenged to think about their values, she said. Once students know their values that relate to the issue, Dauer has them explore different options or choices to solve the problem. 

Dauer asks students to use science to predict the consequences of their choices by gathering evidence from popular media and peer-reviewed sources. 

“The students then do a tradeoffs analysis to think about how to optimize conflicting elements of the issue that resonate most with them, for example conservation of natural resources and economic profitability,” she said. This process focuses on students comparing ideas and perspectives while identifying the student’s core values. The final step is communicating an argument for an option or choice that is informed by a reasoned analysis and backed by scientific evidence. 

Systems thinking

Throughout the course, students engage in systems thinking, which Dauer defines as thinking about the interaction of multiple components in a system and their dynamic nature. For example, when explaining the water cycle, the discussion moves beyond a static view of the water cycle to investigating Nebraska’s entire quantifiable water balance. She challenges them to think how much water is in the aquifer, how much water comes down in rainfall, how much water has evaporated and how much water is used in irrigation. This process then leads to discussion about the water system as a whole instead of a more static view of aquifers, precipitation, rivers and lakes. As a result, conversations can be addressed about what happens to the aquifer and the whole water system over time when water is used for agriculture. 

Measuring growth

Students are primarily assessed to determine their decision-making skills and their ability to apply scientific information, rather than simply what they know about each topic, Dauer said. 

Students in the course are graded on open-ended assessments instead of multiple-choice tests. “If we’re really interested in decision-making, there’s not really any multiple-choice tests that the students can take to demonstrate their skill in decision-making,” Dauer said. 

During the last five weeks of the course, student groups pick a topic of their own to research and analyze. They use the same decision-making steps to identify a solution to the problem they selected, and they are graded on their ability to implement the skills from the semester. 

“As the culminating activity for the semester, student groups present their work in a public poster session to communicate their analysis with an audience outside of the class,” Dauer said.


Many people in science education are interested in the method, format and techniques used in the course and are considering adopting the approach in their own courses, she said. 

The class continues to evolve as Dauer studies what skills the students have learned in the class and how to better teach them. And, the issues used in the class change over time, she added. The class has covered issues such as biofuels, water use, pollinator conservation, hunting of mountain lions, prairie dog conservation and food insecurity. She expects those topics to continue changing based on what is happening in Nebraska and what topics are interesting to students.