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Profile of TEDx speaker Dr. Carol O'Donnell

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Profile of TEDx speaker Dr. Carol O'Donnell

Meet the director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center

Carmen Collins

4.18.17

Dr. Carol O’Donnell has been a science educator for 34 years and now is director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center. She will give a talk at TEDx Foggy Bottom in Lisner Auditorium on April 22,, which will emphasize the importance of physical and tactile learning experiences in science .

Coming from a humble beginnings in Pittsburgh, O’Donnell's family didn’t have a lot of money. She didn’t go on vacations or to summer camp, so her way of experiencing the outside world was her backyard.

O’Donnell said this experience was the defining moment that sparked her interest in science. As a kid, she would invent things from objects in her house. Using physical objects, she created inventions through physical manipulation, learning how the natural and mechanical world worked. This inspired a passion for a lifetime and teaching students with physical objects, so that one day, they too would have an experience like hers with the flatworm. Her love of the natural world came from looking at nature.
O'Donnell stated, "My science teacher told us that if you cut a planarian flatworm in half, or if it got cut in half, it would regenerate. So I remember thinking, I have to figure this out...I was always messing around at home. We had a creek, a drain really in our backyard. I remember lifting rocks looking for that darn flatworm. I found it, cut it in half and put it in a makeshift petri dish. Sure enough, I think it took two weeks, there was a new flatworm that had completely regenerated."

Additionally she reflected, “I loved looking at the sky. I was completely fascinated by why the moon changed it shape, why sometimes there were points of light close to it and other times they weren’t. I think that’s where my love of the natural world came from."

“I loved looking at the sky. I was completely fascinated by why the moon changed it shape, why sometimes there were points of light close to it and other times they weren’t."

Fittingly, she teaches astronomy at The George Washington University. Even though many of her students aren't science majors, some love the subject so much that they become learning assistants for her astronomy classes. An example is business major Martim Silva who became a learning assistant and then contacted O’Donnell to ask if she wanted to give a TEDx talk.

To backtrack. when O’Donnell first came into teaching in 1983, science education was very traditional. She said it was very “dry” and “textbook” driven. Over the span of 34 years, she saw the metamorphosis of science learning from textbook learning to “object-driven learning” to “phenomena-based” learning.

The Smithsonian Institution and the National Academy of Sciences came together to form the Smithsonian Science Education Center in 1985 when a report came out called “The Nation at Risk.” This article stated that if the United States doesn’t do something to improve the education of children in science, then the country would not be able to compete internationally.

If kids had hands-on experience in museums, why not apply this same hands-on learning in schools? This began the center's drive to bring object-driven learning to schools. O’Donnell said that Douglas Lapp, founding director of the Smithsonian National Sciences Resource Center, was her mentor because he made sure that all kids, no matter how wealthy or poor, would have an even playing field in experiencing science.

If kids had hands-on experience in museums, why not apply this same hands-on learning in schools?

O’Donnell who has seen the metamorphosis of science-learning is also a part of it. She helped revamp GW's Physics Department from traditional, large lecture halls to small group, round table discussion with interactive hands-on learning classes.

Her work leading the Smithsonian Science Education Center also helps students all over the country and the globe across different socioeconomic classes. She said that families of higher socioeconomic status spend more money and time to have kids experience the world through museums, vacations, and summer camps. The gap is growing between high and low income families. "We are trying to bring these same kind of resources into the most impoverished schools in the United States and around the globe," she stated.

Right now, O’Donnell says the stage of science education is phenomenon-based, but that it’s still in metamorphosis: always changing for the better.

Photo credits to TEDx Foggy Bottom.

Correction: This article was corrected to better articulate Dr. O'Donnell's early science experience.