Using Science Education to Shape a Better World




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Sep 23, 2020
by Mira Merchant
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Using Science Education to Shape a Better World

Through her work with the Smithsonian Science Education Center, Salzburg Global Fellow Carol O’Donnell aims to transform K-12 science education around the world Carol O'Donnell at Salzburg Global Seminar in 2019 (Photo: Katrin Kerschbaumer)

In a world where science is often politicized, science education is perhaps more critical now than ever before. One Salzburg Global Fellow hopes to transform science education by providing communities worldwide the resources needed to educate students and inspire them to use science to make a difference.

Carol O’Donnell is the director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC), one of 34 organizations that make up the Smithsonian Institution. SSEC dedicates itself to transforming the learning and teaching of K-12 education through science. The center facilitates this through collaboration with communities. In her role, O’Donnell oversees all of the SSEC’s business, philanthropic, and programmatic decisions, and its mission and vision.

The Smithsonian Institution and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine jointly founded the SSEC. Today, the SSEC works across 140 countries through the InterAcademy Partnership, a collaboration of national academies, as well as organizations within each country that serve their local communities. The SSEC’s portfolio of training programs, curricula, and resources has been in use for over three decades and is a crucial addition to many classrooms around the world.

Two main issues the SSEC hopes to tackle both revolve around accessibility. The first is the broad idea that science is not necessarily accessible to young people. As O’Donnell says, “[We don’t want] science… viewed as something that is elitist, and [that] only the top, the best and the brightest understand science… We don’t like the fact that people say science as hard as if it’s something that’s not accessible to all.”

The second issue is the accessibility of science education programming. The COVID-19 pandemic has completely transformed education delivery, but not every student has access to Wi-Fi, computers, and other tools that allow them to continue learning. As O’Donnell says, “If you rely on just creating virtual webinars and things like that, and think that everyone’s going to be able to access them, you can’t.” One example of SSEC’s community outreach initiatives is in Mexico.

O’Donnell says, “In Mexico… we work with an organization called Innovec… When COVID-19 happened, we worked with the World Health Organization and the InterAcademy Partnership to develop content to educate youth on how to protect themselves from COVID-19. And so we would then work, for example, with Innovec in Mexico, who would then take that content and create virtual webinars or even television shows for their children throughout Mexico, because they’re at home… And their Ministry of Education is working with television programing to bring content to their children, to the students… We work with community partners all over the globe to be able to meet the needs of how they disseminate content.”

O’Donnell attended the Salzburg Global program, Social and Emotional Learning: Time for Action, held in March 2019. While in Salzburg, she connected with colleagues around the world, many of whom were experts in the field of social and emotional learning, a topic she says is crucial to include in science education.

“One of the things that, as science educators, we have been remiss in doing for years is understanding the importance of integrating social-emotional learning into the teaching of science. And yet when you look at the number of employers who, when they are asking for the most important skills, it’s not necessarily the hard skills, it’s the soft skills that they’re drawing on.”

By combining the “soft skills” associated with social and emotional learning, as well as the “hard skills” associated with STEM education, O’Donnell hopes the SSEC’s programs can provide students with the tools they need to make informed decisions and spark change in their communities – and their own lives.

O’Donnell says, “[It is important] to [be] certain that we are doing everything we can to educate students through science. That’s our mission: K-12 education through science. And we use science as a hook to help educate them on things that are of interest to them but from their local community perspective. And so I think our role is to just make certain that students understand the underlying science of issues, complex socio-scientific issues that they face so that they can use that science to make better decisions and hopefully use it for social good.”