Listening to the Learners: Proposing the Tool of Photovoice for Engaging Students in Community-Based
Kristin Cook & Gayle Buck
Department of Curriculum & Instruction
Indiana University, W.W.Wright Education Building, 201 North Rose Avenue, Bloomington, IN 47405
4505 Michael Lane
Bloomington, IN 47404
Rationale for Using Photovoice as a Community-Based Socioscientific Pedagogical Tool
Socioscientific Issues as Community Context
As educators make efforts to advance and empower a scientifically literate citizenry while simultaneously
increasing the emphasis on student voice and engagement, recommendations that science be taught as a situated,
relevant, and socio-political discipline that is informed by and has implications in all learners’ lives are gaining
momentum. Hodson (2003) expressed the importance of this mission when he stated:
Those without a basic understanding of the ways in which science and technology are impacted by, and
impact upon, the physical and the sociopolitical environment will be effectively disempowered and
susceptible to being seriously misled in exercising their rights within a democratic, technologically-
dependent society (p. 650–651).
Attempting to ground scientific knowledge in real-world situations for students, the use of socioscientific issues
(SSI) seeks to encourage students to formulate a critical understanding of the interface between science, society, and
technology. Discussions of issues such as deforestation, global warming, or environmental pollution to engage
students in considering the consequences of scientific advancements in society serve as contexts for SSI instruction.
Empowerment is a central goal of SSI instruction, as students are steered to reflect on the impact of science not only
in the world around them, but also in their own moral and ethical convictions (Kolsto, 2001; Sadler & Zeidler, 2004).
By contextualizing instruction in this way, SSI instruction assumes the form of real world examples that are
meaningful to students or to the local community. Situating instruction in a local context, SSI hopes to offer students
an opportunity to become active participants in the community and has the potential to encourage them to
authentically and critically participate, and engage in understanding, caring for, and transforming the world to which
Photovoice as Pedagogical Tool
Empowerment is also one of the central foci of critical qualitative research. In qualitative research, the tool of
“photovoice” has received attention for engaging participants in the research process. Qualitative researchers must
concern themselves with ways in which knowledge is constructed from within students’ experiences. The role of a
qualitative researcher is to facilitate an environment that feels safe and supportive within which participants can talk
about their own experiences. Developed by Wang and Burris (1994), photovoice is a method by which researchers
provide cameras for participants, whose voices are often ignored in policy-making, so that they may document issues
important to them through the use of photography. Participants collaborate on the reasons for and use of their
pictures and reflections to showcase relevant issues and generate dialogue with community members and policy
makers who may be in a position to mobilize change. The researchers’ role in photovoice is to facilitate
conversation, story-telling, and reflection on pictures taken by the participants, and then attempt to codify the
emergent themes that are generated by collective discussion. Empowerment of participants is one of the key goals of
the use of photovoice as a research tool:
[Photovoice] enables the recording of and reflecting on problems of a group or community, promotes critical
discussion of these problems, generates collective knowledge of the problems through discussion of the
photographs, and finally takes action to change the problems by reaching out to those who influence or make
policy (Wang, 2006).
As former teachers and current university researchers, we see the potential for the research practice of
photovoice to be a useful pedagogical tool with which teachers can actively engage their students in community-
based socioscientific inquiry. Students’ lives in the classroom and outside of it are often directed and structured by
decisions made by others. Photovoice puts cameras into the hands of students in order to address issues from their
position and point-of-view. It offers teachers an insightful insider perspective into the lives of their students.
Photography also offers participants new and reflective ways to perceive their own world and the science around
them. The photos offer a structure to the ensuing dialogue and can serve to advance social action as the community
responds to the students’ perspective and locates it in solution-generation. Those in positions of power to change the
community may not reflect what change is most desired by students. Ultimately, then, students are able to participate
in a process which may lead to unforeseen social change. Furthermore, a student-guided focus of scientific issues
enables teachers to gain knowledge about the larger social context of the lives of their students.
A Community-Based Socioscientific Inquiry on Lake Quality
Using the tool of photovoice as a culminating project, we designed the following unit as a community-based
inquiry which incorporated the use of probeware technology for collection of water quality data in Indiana. Hence,
the standards highlighted are specific to the Indiana Science Standards (see Appendix A), which are similar to many
state’s required content standards. While probeware was employed to simplify measurements, such as sensors for
turbidity, pH, dissolved oxygen, phosphorus, and E. Coli, any water quality test kit could be used to collect similar
data. The purchase of a comprehensive water quality testing kit could be supplemented yearly; as well, a classroom
set of disposable or digital cameras used for photovoice could be purchased once and then used annually by new
student groups. Teachers could ask local photo-processing companies to donate their printing services, or digital
pictures could be showcased on the computer. While the tool of photovoice could be used in any content area at any
grade level, this unit was geared toward middle school science students. When planning for a community group
discussion, we contacted the local parks and recreation department to inquire about events or gatherings at which the
students could speak with interested parties. Other community contacts could include school boards, natural resource
management groups, and other non-profit parties. Additional information for teachers on photovoice are presented in
the appendices, such as ethical considerations, an assessment rubric for this unit, and suggestions for gathering a
Listening to the Lake: Bringing the Voice of Griffy Lake Nature Preserve to the Bloomington Community: A
Community-Based Investigation of Lake Water Quality
Local residents are asking expert middle school scientists to take on some important tasks: 1) to identify, document,
research, and propose solutions to management issues facing Griffy Lake Nature Preserve and 2) to dialogue with the
Bloomington community about the health of this local water source and recreational lake area.
1. Working as a water quality inspection team, you will identify what data needs to be collected about Griffy
Lake and how to go about collecting that data. What information will you need? What materials will you
need to collect that information? How will the data be recorded? You may want to conduct research on-line
to investigate management techniques and water quality information (see Appendix B).
2. You will be traveling out to the field site of Griffy Lake Nature Preserve to research and collect data. You
will be provided with laboratory materials to assist your research. As well, you will be provided with a digital
camera so that you may document the lake issues you find most important. Ideas for photos include: pictures
of strengths and weaknesses of the lake, things around the lake that you want to talk about or change, or
simply how you see lake and its importance. See Appendix C for ethical considerations prior to taking photos.
Your teacher will give you basic training on using the cameras, such as manual operation skills and
photographic effects like lighting, distance, and picture composition. It may also help to go out into the
community as an entire group to do a practice picture taking session. As well, before you are sent off to take
pictures on your own, make a plan for when and where you will drop off the cameras to have the film
developed. If using a digital camera, you can store photos on memory cards and submit them to your teacher
3. Your team will then pool your data and develop summary charts that reflect your understanding of current
lake conditions and concerns. You must decide which data and photographs would be the most informative to
present to the community. You will also write narratives for the photographs you took. Each team member
should select one or two pictures that they want to discuss with community members. In choosing your
photograph, ask yourself which ones best depict the issues you have explored. You will be asked to showcase
the picture and your narrative to others and to describe it in depth, so you should choose pictures that you are
comfortable sharing and talking about. For your narrative, write about what is happening in the picture, why
you took the picture, and/or what it means to you. See below for ideas:
• Explain what is interesting or important about this issue.
• What is the issue?
• Why is this an issue?
• Why is this issue interesting or important?
• Who is affected by this issue?
• Where is this issue occurring?
• When did this issue become evident?
• What does the future look like for this issue?
You may need individual attention when writing their captions. It is a good idea to sit down one-on-one with
your teacher so she/he may help you write your captions. Care will be taken by your teacher not to direct you,
but rather to help you put your own ideas down on paper.
4. As a team, we will discuss our pictures and narratives together before presenting to the community. Through
this discussion, your group may find certain common issues or themes are emerging. Identification of
common themes may lead you to come up with some main ideas or messages that you want to communicate
to the community. The SHOWED discussion can be used to generate captions, tell the story of the pictures or
identify the issues and themes that emerge (“youthvoices.ca,” n.d.):
• S What do you see here?
• H What is really happening here?
• O How does this relate to our lives?
• W Why does this problem or strength exist?
• E How can we become empowered about this issue?
• D What can we do about it?
5. Finally, your team will present your collective ideas to the community about issues, concerns, and proposed
solutions to help with managing this important lake and recreational site. Your team will showcase your
photos, narratives, and summary charts to an interested and informed community group and dialogue about
ways to effectively manage Griffy Lake Nature Preserve. Be sure to check the rubric to ensure that you are
covering all facets of the project (see Appendix D).
Science for All Americans, a pivotal reform document, describes a scientifically literate person as one who
‘uses scientific knowledge and scientific ways of thinking for individual and social purposes’ (American Association
for the Advancement of Science 1990: ix). If teachers support the notion that scientific literacy entails, at least in
part, the ability of students to engage in active dialogue as they ponder evidence, apply critical thinking skills, and
formulate positions on various topics- then discussions that challenge students to consider multiple views becomes
central to a broader view of scientific literacy. Thus, educators trying to develop a scientifically literate citizenry who
can make well-informed decisions about societal scientific issues must pay attention to pedagogy that supports this
development. Active, project-based, constructivist SSI teaching where students ultimately take action in the
community after studying the science content, the societal implications of technological devices and their uses, and
the relevant community dimensions at play in science is a powerful tool for engaging students in building their
higher order thinking, decision-making skills, and understanding of scientific knowledge. Using the tool of
photovoice helps to make SSI experiences a way for students to experience empowerment by being provided
opportunities to care for the environment and educate others about their perspective.
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). (1990, 1993). Benchmarks for science literacy.
New York: Oxford University Press.
Hodson, D. (2003). Time for action: Science education for an alternative future. International Journal of Science
Education, 25, 645–670.
Kolstø, S. (2001). Scientific literacy for citizenship: tools for dealing with the science dimension of
controversial socioscientific issues. Science Education, 85, 291–310.
Sadler, T. & Zeidler, D. (2004). The morality of socioscientific issues: Construal and resolution of genetic
engineering dilemmas. Science Education, 88, 4-27.
Wang, C. and Burris, M. (1994) Empowerment through photo novella: portraits of participation. Health Education
Quarterly, 21, 171-186.
Wang, C. (2006). Youth participation in photovoice as a strategy for community change. Journal of
Community Practice, 14, 147-161.
YouthVoices.ca. (n.d.). Retrieved June 8, 2009, from http://www.youthvoices.ca/photovoice.html.
Appendix A: Standards Addressed in Unit
8.1.1 Recognize that and describe how scientific knowledge is subject to modification as new information
challenges prevailing theories and as a new theory leads to looking at old observations in a new way.
8.1.4 Explain why accurate record keeping, openness, and replication are essential for maintaining an
investigator's credibility with other scientists and society.
8.1.7 Explain why technology issues are rarely simple and one-sided because contending groups may have different
values and priorities.
8.1.8 Explain that humans help shape the future by generating knowledge, developing new technologies, and
communicating ideas to others.
8.2.7 Use computers to store and retrieve information in topical, alphabetical, numerical, and keyword files and
create simple files of students' own devising.
8.2.8 Participate in group discussions on scientific topics by restating or summarizing accurately what others have
said, asking for clarification or elaboration, and expressing alternative positions.
8..2.8 Use tables, charts, and graphs in making arguments and claims in, for example, oral and written
presentations about lab or fieldwork.
8.3.6 Understand and explain that the benefits of the Earth's resources, such as fresh water, air, soil, and
trees, are finite and can be reduced by using them wastefully or by deliberately or accidentally destroying them.
8.4.8 Describe how environmental conditions affect the survival of individual organisms and how entire species
may prosper in spite of the poor survivability or bad fortune of individuals.
8.7.4 Explain that as the complexity of any system increases, gaining an understanding of it depends on
summaries, such as averages and ranges, and on descriptions of typical examples of that system.
Appendix B: On-line Research Resources
Freshwater Ecology and Pollution
Fresh Water Aquatic Creatures
Environmental Protection Agency: Clean Lakes
Point and Non-Point Source Pollution
National Park Service Inventory (includes water quality reports on Great Lakes)
Great Lakes Network
Appendix C: Data Table for Water Quality Testing
Water Quality Measures
Test Acceptable Prediction Trial 1 Trial 2 Trial 3 Average
Appendix D: Ethical Considerations for Photovoice
adapted from “youthvoices.ca,” (n.d.)
Discuss with students the need to get permission before taking someone's picture. One option is to use photo release
forms in which youth obtain written permission from a subject before taking their picture. Privacy can also be
respected by taking pictures in such a way that the identity of the people in the photograph is not clear, for example
by taking pictures from far away, or by blurring out faces after the picture is developed.
It is important to orient group members towards safety measures when taking pictures. As a general rule youth
should not take a photograph if they feel the situation is uncertain or potentially dangerous.
Discuss with the youth the use of photography as a tool for documenting the reality of their communities, and the
importance of not misrepresenting individuals or issues.
Photographs should be considered the property of the photographer. Youth should get personal copies of all their
pictures. Written consent should be obtained from the youth for the use of any pictures that will be displayed to
others outside of the project.
As a facilitator, take care not to direct youth towards photography of a particular subject area or issue.
Asking youth to document the realities of their communities has the potential to be disempowering if it is not done
with a focus on giving youth a voice to speak out about issues in their lives. Even if tangible social change is not
possible, ensure that the project ends on a note of empowerment and celebration
Appendix E: Rubric to Assess Water Quality Unit
Adapted from: http://www.iptv.org/exploremore/PDFs/Rubrics_and_Student_Projects/WebQuestRubric-Short.pdf
The Lake Lingo:
Nutrients ground water aquatic plants
water table point-source pollution Microbes
non-point source pollution Runoff Infiltration
Erosion Nitrate Phosphate
pH acid Acidic/ alkaline dissolved oxygen
Sedimentation invasive species-plants native species-plants
Watershed macroinvertebrates Salinity
Pollution/pollutants surface water Eutrophication
Turbidity stream bed Thermocline
Rubric for Presentation of Lake
PROFESSIONAL APPRENTICE INTERN SCORE
Who, what, where,
when, why, how Answers the basic Answers the basic Answers three of
answered with questions of who, questions of who, the six basic
supporting what, when, where, what, when, where, questions of who,
empirical why, how with
SUPPORT information- facts, supporting
why, how. what, when, where,
research, statistics, information-
or quotes. examples, or quotes.
Presents a single Presents a single Presents the issue Explanation of
issue with thorough issue with adequate with adequate issue needs more
explanation of explanation of explanation. information.
CONTENT** associated concerns associated concerns
and influences. and influences.
Presents issue from Presents issue from Presents the issue Presents the
COVERAGE more than three three or more from two issue from one
viewpoints. viewpoints. viewpoints. viewpoint.
that clarifies Provides information
CLARITY viewpoints, attitudes, that clarifies Provides adequate Provides minimal
and involvement viewpoints, attitudes, information of the coverage of the
and involvement issue that suggests topic.
beyond the average additional insights.
coverage to that communicate
communicate additional insight.
ORGANIZATION Includes an Includes an
Includes a good Includes a weak
engaging adequate introduction.
Uses and cites three Uses and cites two Uses and cites one Uses and cites one
SOURCES or more print and
print and Internet
print and print or Internet
Uses words, spelling, Uses words, spelling, Uses words, spelling, Uses words, spelling
and punctuation and punctuation and punctuation and punctuation,
G.U.M. accurately and accurately and accurately and accurately and
(Grammar, Usage, Mechanics) correctly with no correctly with correctly with no correctly with two
errors. no errors. errors. or more errors.
Effectively uses Effectively uses Sentence structure Sentence structure
STYLE advanced sentence
and vocabulary are and vocabulary are
unclear two or more
** Content should include a presentation of the following: Water quality data in charts or tables, written
interpretations of the data, use of unit vocabulary, and recommendations for improving the lake’s water quality.