Speaker Project Series: Carol O'Donnell

Should teachers use digital tools to educate or should they use physical objects? Dr. Carol O’Donnell, the director of the Smithsonian Science and Education Center and professor at GW, believes that educators should find ways for object-driven learning and digital learning to complement one another. If you ever watched the Magic School Bus, then you may as well call Carol O’Donnell the real-life Ms. Frizzle.

Through her career as a professor, O’Donnell has been able to play a key role in redesigning the classroom experience to encourage more interactions not only between lecturers and students but among the students themselves. At a time when our attention span is shorter than that of a goldfish, it’s imperative that educators utilize a myriad of tools and incentives to encourage active learning in classrooms. You can read more about the SCALE-UP classroom format here

As someone who volunteered within the education department at the Smithsonian Air & Space museum, I have been able to see first-hand how important and impactful object-driven learning can be. I will never forget when a young boy approached me while I was giving a demo to some museum visitors about the importance of the various layers of an astronaut’s space suit, and he asked how he could become an astronaut because he was so drawn by what I was talking about. It’s experiences like these that prove that in our digital world, it’s still crucial to provide tactile experiences to students. And as, Dr. O’Donnell says “stuff matters”.


Having served for Dr. O’Donnell’s as a learning assistant for her Astronomy class, I was immediately drawn into her approach to teaching, and her background made her a perfect candidate to speak at TEDxFoggyBottom 2017. Needless to say, I was immediately drawn into her talk. But I kept asking myself: how can educators bring back that “phenomenon-based learning” into classrooms with students that were born into a digital world? According to O’Donnell, it’s all about leveraging the power of tactile experiences and applying them to the digital world. For example, students were  provided with convection tubes where they could observe the behavior of air and what happens to it when temperature and density change. Using those observations, they were able to apply their findings to weather forecasting simulations using software developed by the Smithsonian.

Through her talk, the term “gateway experiences” can be heard multiple times. It shows that for O’Donnell, nothing is more motivating than seeing students get excited about the experiments that they are doing. But what exactly are “gateway experiences”? Well, recently she was in a first-grade classroom, and students were being taught that vibrations cause sound. Students were given a simple tuning fork and a cup of water and as you may expect once you dip the fork, the vibrations cause the water to displace which gets students really excited. It’s simple experiences such as these that open the mind of young students and spark their interest in science.

In a world where terms such as “artificial intelligence” and “automation” are starting to become more frequent (and sometimes intimidating) it’s important that we take a step back and understand that face-to-face interactions will never cease to exist and nothing will ever replace the human touch. And as O’Donnell emphasized “Objects matter. ‘Stuff’ matters.”

You can watch Dr. Carol O’Donnell’s TEDxFoggyBottom talk here

This post was created as part of TEDxFoggyBottom’s Speaker Project Series. The Speaker Project is an ongoing initiative to reconnect with our past speakers all around the world and speak with them about life post-TEDxFoggyBottom. Stay tuned for more interviews and reflections by our team members!