Carol O'Donnell

Director, Smithsonian Science Education Center, New York, USA
She is transforming science education to be an essential part of school curriculum


ABOUT Smithsonian Science Education Center

The Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC) was established in 1985 as the National Science Resources Center (NSRC) under the sponsorship of two prestigious institutions: the Smithsonian Institution and the National Academy of Sciences. In 2012, our name changed to the Smithsonian Science Education Center to reflect our mission: to transform and improve the learning and teaching of science for K-12 students. We are dedicated to the establishment of effective science programs for all students. To contribute to that goal, the SSEC builds awareness for K-12 science education reform among state and district leaders and Ministries of Education; conducts programs that support the professional growth of K-12 teachers and school leaders; and engages in research and curriculum development, including our comprehensive K-8, research-based science curriculum program: Science and Technology Concepts (STC), Science and Technology Concepts Middle School (STCMS), STC-Kindergarten, and our newest curriculum, Smithsonian Science for the Classroom. We have impacted all 50 of the United States and supported the systemic needs of over 1000 schools, districts, states, and teams from Ministries of Education across 25 countries through our proven Leadership and Assistance for Science Education Reform (LASER) model, which we now know leads to higher student achievement in science and improved science teaching and learning.

five-year goals as director of the SSEC

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.



Carol O’Donnell is the Director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC), a unit of the Smithsonian Institution that is dedicated to transforming the learning and teaching of science throughout the nation and world. As the Senior Executive of SSEC, Carol is responsible for all operational activities and planning for the unit, including building awareness for P-12 science education reform among State and district leaders; 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 coming to the Smithsonian, Dr. O’Donnell worked at the US Department of Education for nearly a decade, where, along with her colleagues, she oversaw ESEA federal programs focused on school improvement and teacher professional development. Carol and her team assisted States who implemented those reforms to achieve improvement in student outcomes.

Carol was also the program officer for the Cognition and Student Learning research program at the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the research arm of ED. While earning her doctorate at GWU, Carol managed a 5-year NSF-funded RCT aimed at identifying conditions under which effective middle school science curricular interventions improve student learning and reduce achievement gaps when scaled-up. Carol’s research on curriculum implementation, published in the Review of Educational Research, earned an “AERA Graduate Research Award” in 2008. Before joining GWU, Carol spent 11 years developing science curriculum materials for SSEC’s Science and Technology Concepts (STC) Program. One of her 6 books, Catastrophic Events, won a NOAA Award for raising students’ awareness of weather alerts. Dr. O’Donnell, who began her science teaching career in Virginia public schools, is still in the classroom today, serving on the part-time faculty of the GWU Physics Department.