Alumni Q&A: Carol O'Donnell (SOE '83)

by Pitt School of Education


Carol O’Donnell is the director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center, which is dedicated to transforming the learning and teaching of science in P–12 classrooms throughout the nation and the world. O’Donnell is responsible for all operational activities and planning for the unit, including building awareness for preschool through 12th-grade science-education reform, conducting programs that support the professional growth of P–12 teachers and school leaders, and overseeing all research and curricular-resource development, philanthropic development and administration.

Prior to her time at the Smithsonian, O’Donnell worked at the U.S. Department of Education where she oversaw nearly $17 billion in annual federal investments under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. These investments focused on education reform, school improvement, teacher professional development, improved student achievement and assistance for states building their capacity to implement and sustain education reforms and achieve improvement in student outcomes.


You have been in your current position as director of the SSEC for about 2.5 years. What were some of your five-year goals for the position?
It was interesting to come to the Smithsonian after having just worked for the U.S. Department of Education under the Obama administration where a lot of his efforts were focused on serving the underserved and also STEM. He made the announcement in one of his State of the Union addresses about improving the STEM teaching profession by bringing in 100,000 new STEM teachers in the next 10 years. From that one sentence, a new effort was born called 100kin10. When I came back to the Smithsonian Science Education Center in 2015 (I had been at the Center from 1991-2003), my five-year goals included highlighting what is at the heart of the Smithsonian--and that is engaging all students in lifelong experiential STEM learning.

My second goal was to make certain that we continued to serve those students that are typically underserved in STEM education, and I don’t say that lightly. Our Center had just secured a major grant of $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to bring experiential learning to 60,000 underserved students annually in 16 districts across 3 states and to study the efficacy of our work on student learning and teacher practice.

My third major five-year goal was to also broaden our international work. I had this goal because the mission of our Center is not just national, but international. Currently, we are developing international curriculum that focuses on teaching students about complex socio-scientific issues, especially those that are aligned with the UN Global Sustainable Development Goals. How do you get kids to think about these really complex scientific issues and use this scientific knowledge to solve complex social issues, such as climate change, biodiversity, deforestation, or infectious diseases? My goal for the Center is for us to help students understand socio-scientific issues that impact students as global citizens, while empowering students to take control over the decisions they make.


What do you consider the most rewarding moment of your professional career?
I think being able to see students all over the globe and realizing the impact that your work, and the work of the Smithsonian, has had on an international level. At first it was being able to teach millions of kids through your books, through the books that you wrote, the curriculum materials you developed. And I think second is being able to travel abroad and to see a young student in Santiago, Chile in 2017 using curriculum materials you wrote in 1990 or 1991, and just being blown away by the fact that something could have that much of a lasting impact, not only on students here in the United States but abroad.


What made you choose the University of Pittsburgh School of Education to begin your educational journey?

You know, I don’t think this is probably the answer the School of Education is looking for, but I grew up in a family of seven, and my father didn’t go past the eighth grade. My mother got a high school degree, and we were living in inner city Pittsburgh in Hazelwood. There was never an expectation to go to college, not in my family and not in my neighborhood, but I was a lover of learning and lover of teaching. I wanted to do both by going on to college and also becoming a teacher.

I knew there was a college that was two PAT buses away from my home, and that was the school I was going to go to because I had to live at home. I couldn’t afford more than that. My parents didn’t know how to apply for loans or those kinds of things. I just didn’t live in that environment, and so for me, Pitt was just, unfortunately, a choice of convenience.


You are the recipient of this year’s Distinguished Alumni Award. How did your Pitt degree set you up for continued graduate work and ultimately your illustrious professional career?

What I did in my undergraduate education at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education absolutely set me up for my incredible passion for making experiential learning the heart of everything I did as a teacher. I clearly remember everything about that time and how working at The Falk Laboratory School completely influenced the direction of my life. There was a teacher there who was an expert in experiential learning, and this was at a time in the 70s when you just didn’t learn like that. Science was very traditional and textbook driven. She was incredibly innovative and I learned a ton from her.

I also had an opportunity to go to McKeever Environmental Learning Center. The Falk School took their students to the McKeever Environmental Learning Center and we spent a week learning outside. At this moment, I was absolutely committed and convinced that this was the only way I wanted to teach my students, that is, experiencing and solving real world problems.

I can tell you all the activities I did like it was yesterday, both at the Falk School and in the McKeever Environmental Learning Center. It was that foundation that came out of the School of Education that put me on my path to being an absolute advocate for learning by doing. And today, I am a Senior Executive at the Smithsonian Institution, which believes deeply in hands-on, object driven, experiential, lifelong learning.


When you return to Pittsburgh to visit family, what amazes you about the growth of the university and city?

I am a true believer in Pittsburgh and I tell my 84-year old mother that no matter where I go in the world – it doesn’t matter if I’m in major technological hubs like Zurich, Switzerland, Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi, or Dubai or I am in Mexico City or Santiago, Chile – and I’m not exaggerating, somebody mentions Pittsburgh as the future Ed/Tech hub of the Eastern US. And I recently saw an article in Geek Wire that said the exact same thing.

When I grew up in Hazelwood, I thought clouds were made in the steel mill pipes at the bottom of my street, because I simply didn’t know the world very much. Yet today, I just can’t believe what a hub of innovation Pittsburgh has become. I think back to what I learned about, in terms of being a good science teacher at the University of Pittsburgh in the late 70’s, and how innovative the teaching practices were then. I would never have known that as a 17 or 18-year old, but now looking back I recognize how advanced and transformational some of the thinking was in Pittsburgh and it continues to be. The city is thriving and is known globally because of the collaboration between Google and the self-driving car companies and the robotics at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. It is just a hub of innovation, especially in education technology. And full of nice people.


Are you familiar with the out-of-school learning area of concentration of the EdD program at Pitt? How do you view this as opportunity for out-of-school programs/education to grow?

This further illustrates how innovative the education programs are at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education. My colleagues and I are, of course, entrenched in this massive informal learning environment at the Smithsonian. John Falk wrote a book in 2009 that talks about free-choice learning and the importance of how much time is actually spent learning outside of the formal environment or structure of a classroom. He found that in your lifetime, people spend nearly 95 percent of their time in free-choice learning or out of school learning—watching documentaries, visiting museums and parks, or going to the zoo. Because of that, we have to sit back and think of this economically – why do we spend so much money supporting in-school learning?

With the U.S. Department of Education, most of the gifts and grants go to what happens in classrooms and our students learning the standards, and yet so much of our lifetime is spent learning outside of those four walls. And so right now, especially with the onset of digital learning opportunities, learning is happening everywhere and schools of education have to recognize that this blended learning model is crucial to the success of students being able to be scientifically literate, and providing people with the skillset for knowing how to educate students in environments that are not in formal classrooms or schools. I think it’s wise of the School of Education at Pitt to really recognize that out-of-school learning needs to be a concentration in the EDD program and that learning happens everywhere.


What is one of the most creative programs or endeavors you have witnessed to inspire learning out of the classroom?

There’s a program through the Smithsonian Affiliations called Youth Capture the Colorful Cosmos! which is designed for inner-city youth to be able to work directly with scientists from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory at Harvard--the largest and most diverse astrophysical institution in the world. It offers middle school and high school students the opportunity to control a real MicroObservatory of online telescopes over the internet, capture deep space astrophysical images of the sky on their own, and then apply different colors to the images to integrate art and science.

Every year, the Smithsonian hosts an event where they bring kids from across the country who have been in the Youth Capture the Colorful Cosmos program and they come to Washington DC to give presentations on why the program was important to them and what they learned from it. It is really powerful to see some of these kids who had opportunities to work directly with scientists and directly with real data and do something this advanced in their communities. It’s just wonderful. And this program is creative because it not only inspires learning out of the classroom, but helps students integrate STEM and art.


What do you view as the largest issues or greatest opportunities for reform in K-12 STEM education?

I think the issues are also probably the greatest opportunities. Until about 2012, science education in the classroom really was much more traditional. More classrooms were learning science by simply a teacher lecturing, or in elementary school, they weren’t teaching science at all because of No Child Left Behind. The National Academy of Sciences published its K-12 science framework in which they made recommendations that students should really be engaging directly with scientific phenomenon and engineering practices. They made this recommendation and from it, the “Next Generation Science Standards” were developed. Nineteen states adopted those standards wholeheartedly and another 18 or so states adapted them in some way. And now we have two-thirds of the country which has completely made a commitment to experiential learning, that’s focused on engaging students in the practices of science and engineering. For the nation to recognize this kind of experiential learning is the greatest opportunity that I will face in this decade, but it is also an issue because it’s a big challenge to bring about that kind of reform to K-12 science education that quickly.

As far as the word STEM is concerned, people aren’t really sure what it means. They know it stands for four words: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. But they want to integrate Art into so it’s STEAM and they want to integrate Reading into it so it’s STREAM and they want to integrate History into it so they flip the words around and now it’s HAMSTER. STEM is not content though, STEM is advocacy. And STEM is advocacy that all sectors – government, schools, businesses, or corporations – are all talking to each other to prepare or students for the future workforce. As one of my Board members Dr. Sam Houston would say, STEM is really about the processes of learning. He says that STEM stands for “Strategies That Engage Minds.”

And that’s why hands-on in-school and out-of-school learning is so important.

STEM education, at least at K-12, is no longer just inside the school. You have STEM Learning Ecosystems funded by the STEM Funders Network all over the country, including in Pittsburgh, where the communities work across sectors both in school and out of school, to offer young people access to STEM-rich learning environments. Regions want to make sure their kids are STEM ready and that their students are not leaving to find jobs somewhere else.

For example, if Amazon doesn’t think the University of Pittsburgh, and Carnegie Mellon, and the K-12 system are going to do a good job preparing that future workforce then they will not pick Pittsburgh. So, your job at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education is more important now than ever. Because now people are finally recognizing that what you do in terms of preparing future teachers and what we do in teaching students in schools will make a difference in whether the community is thriving. Because corporations are making decisions based on these skills. And it’s essential to draw that future workforce directly from the community.


You were recently part of a panel on Opening Doors in Glass Walls for Women in STEM? What advice do you have for women in the STEM field or college students considering going in that direction?

Just persist.

The Smithsonian is currently engaged in an initiative with Johnson & Johnson called “Women in STEM2D” which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, Manufacturing, and Design. Along with Johnson & Johnson, the Smithsonian is asking the question: As a young girl, do you see yourself in the role models around you in terms of being a Scientist, Engineer, Technologist, Mathematician? The idea is that we have to provide role models for young girls when they’re in the K-12 system, in particular before they enter fifth grade, so that they see themselves in those roles and in those future careers when they’re very young. Otherwise, what young girls will say to me is “Oh I’m not good enough to do that job.” And when you dig down and find out “Well what do you mean you’re not good enough?” What they mean is they’ve never seen someone who looks like them who does that job so they never really thought that could be them. This is what Eric Mahmoud called the “Belief Gap” which is when students don’t believe in their own capabilities and or the teachers don’t believe in the capabilities of the students. It’s also what some have called the “See/Do” theory, which says, you have to put role models in front of young girls so that they see themselves in others and continue to pursue and believe they can do science. That is, with more accessible female role models, girls can relate to actually becoming a Scientist, Technologist, Engineer, or Mathematician in the future.

We’re now at a place where 50 percent or more of young women are actually pursuing degrees in the STEM field, but there are only making up maybe about 25 or 30 percent of the STEM workforce. And we have to ask what happened. It’s not that females aren’t pursuing STEM degrees, it’s that something is keeping them from getting that job or keeping it once they get it. And that’s where the glass door comes in. How do you get females through the door and into the profession to begin with?

Something is happening between college and actually entering the workforce, and it’s keeping females from entering the profession. That’s why we say we’ve got to open up those glass doors. And then finally, it’s the glass ceiling. How do you get females to persist in the STEM field and becoming leaders? Maybe they’re like me and they have four kids and are trying to balance their professional and personal lives but something’s keeping them from staying in the field. I was an outside reviewer for a Pew Research study last year and the findings from the study basically said that one of the major problems that we have is that women feel like they’re not being supported once they get into the STEM field. That’s obviously a major problem and women feel especially unappreciated in environments where an advanced degree is required or where it’s predominantly a male-dominated profession, such as computer science or engineering.

That’s why our job in K-12 STEM education is so important. We have to not only teach students the “hard skills”—the actual content and practices of science, technology, engineering, and math. But we have to teach students the “soft skills”—persistence, communication, listening, empathy, creative thinking, teamwork, critical thinking, and problem-solving. If we want to close the gender gap in STEM fields, we have to start young by giving students firsthand experience of working together in teams to solve problems. Why? Because, “Hard skills will get you in the door, but soft skills will keep you there.”


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