Raising Curious Kids

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 22 │Raising Curious Kids

Tuesday, May 19, 2020



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Show Notes

Dr. Carol O’Donnell

Our kids seem to have endless questions about everyday life and sometimes the WHY questions can get a little frustrating. However, encouraging this curiosity is good for their development. We spoke with Dr. Carol O’Donnell, Director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center, about how you can support your budding scientist. Dr. O’Donnell discusses how families can find science in the world around them and shares fun activities you can do at home!


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Like this episode? Share your thoughts with us via social media @National PTA and by using #BackpackNotes. Be sure to visit PTA.org/BackpackNotes for more resources from today’s episode.


Helen: Welcome back to today's episode of Notes from The Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm your cohost Helen Westmoreland, Director of Family Engagement at National PTA.

LaWanda: And I'm LaWanda Toney, your cohost and Director of Strategic Communications at National PTA. Today, we're focusing on raising curious kids who enjoy exploring science, nature, and the world around them.

With summer right around the corner, I'm starting to wonder what can I do to keep my seven-year-old occupied? What types of fun educational activities can we do at home? That, will keep his mind open to learning, thinking, wondering, and asking really good questions.

Helen: Speaking of good questions, LaWanda, we know that with the current COVID Pandemic, our kids have lots of questions. We don't always know exactly how to answer. So, we've decided to explore not only how we keep our children curious and asking those questions. But also, how to answer some of them since they are very scientific.

So I'm so glad that we have Dr. Carol O'Donnell joining us today to tackle this topic.

LaWanda: Me too. Dr. O'Donnell is currently the Director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center, which is dedicated to transforming the learning and teaching of science in Pre-K through 12th grade classrooms. She serves as a part time faculty member with George Washington University's Physics Department and previously worked at the US Department of Education. Dr. O'Donnell began her science teaching career in Virginia public schools. She's the mother of four adult children and has previously served as a PTA President.

Helen: Welcome Dr. O'Donnell, thank you for being with us today.

Carol O'Donnell: Yeah, thanks for inviting me.

Helen: We like to start out just learning a little bit about our guest’s journey. What led you to become focused on science education and what makes you passionate about this work?

Carol O'Donnell: It's one of those situations where you talked about curiosity and the importance of it. And certainly, when I was young, I was a very, very curious kid. I grew up in inner city, Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, in a fairly large family of seven, and you know, we didn't have a lot in terms of resources in the home, but I turned to simple objects that I could get my hands on, whether they were in our home or whether they were out in our backyard, and I was constantly exploring.

For awhile I thought I would become an engineer, although I didn't really know what that was, but I was always inventing things. I had a small, this is true, a small notebook that I kept all my inventions in. I invented a bed maker. Anything that would make my tasks and chores simpler, but it was made out of yo-yos and string and clips that my mother used to hang clothes up and in the backyard clothespins, and literally just pulled the string to pull the bed sheet up. And it was like that. I was doing, that kind of curious, creative inventing all the time.

I also tried to invent something where my mother, who would put, you know, a teaspoon of sugar, for example, into her tea in the morning or her coffee, and I would, I figured out how to pour out just a teaspoon. So I was constantly, either in my home building or creating something or in my backyard trying to discover things. And in a  TEDx Talk I gave, I actually talked about, and I remember this so clearly being in my backyard, trying to look for small flatworms. I had just learned about them in school and we learned that they would regenerate if you cut them in half.

So, that poor thing. I literally went hunting for one, found one, created kind of a makeshift, Petri dish, cut the thing in half. And you know, my teacher had told me that it would take about two weeks to get to new flatworms and that's exactly what happened. So, you know, those are the kinds of things that I remember so vividly, and that's the way science learning should look like at home.

LaWanda: So, I'd love to continue that conversation, like, I really want my son to be that inquisitive and curious and not afraid to try things. How do you think parents can go about encouraging that at home?

Carol O'Donnell: Well, I mean, I think the first thing is that, you know, and, and you could ask this question of any science educator, you know, when you look around, do you see science in the world around you? And the answer is, absolutely. And so I think for us, you know, just making sure that we are constantly encouraging our kids to think about the science and the world around us.

So whether or not you're, you know, you're doing the laundry and your young child is by your side, and you're talking about how something goes from being wet to being dry or you're cooking and you talk about, you know, what happens when you mix things together and why does it bubble up when we put baking soda into the water and different, exploring and extracting from the world around us, the science that we see. Now, not every parent is confident about the science themselves, and a lot of that is because of the job we may have done educating them in science years ago, when science was really very traditional and didactic, and we were telling people science facts, instead of allowing them to discover them on their own.

And what we found is, that when we work with parents and encourage this kind of hands on investigation of the world around us at home, and allows students to ask questions and parents to think about how to answer them, that it doesn't require the parent having an answer. It's really about asking the right questions to get kids to sensemake. We, we talk in the science field about, phenomenon driven learning where, we ask students to look around and to observe and to see scientific phenomenon in the world around them. And all that a scientific phenomenon is, is something that has a cause and an effect, you know?

So, if you go out into your backyard and you see a tree that's tilted to the side, the effect is what you're observing and the cause is what you want to try to make sense out of. And so, I have colleagues in the science field who talk about asking students just simple questions like, well, what do you observe? You know, what do you notice? And what do you wonder, you know, kind of questions do you have about it? And I think it's really trying to arm parents, not with the answers to the questions, but just arming parents with the opportunities for noticing and wondering and looking for those, if you will, scientific phenomenon that are around us all the time.

LaWanda: Yeah. It makes so much sense.

Helen: Yeah. I really like that advice cause I do think you really hit on something that a lot of parents experience.

So when your kid starts asking why, you both want to celebrate it and sometimes run the other way. Cause you don't, as a parent, always have those answers. And so, relieving yourself of the pressure to give the answer. But more encourage the questioning, is really great advice. I want to take that one step further.

When your kid might say, okay, well here are the three things I'm wondering . And as a parent, you don't know the answers. Where should they go?

Carol O'Donnell: Yeah, I mean, I think that's certainly the right next step, because you can't just always ask questions. There is a time in science where you actually want to figure out what the answer is and you can do that in a couple of different ways. I mean, if you're fortunate enough, it may be having discussions with others.

So I know that when we're at home, especially in times like this where their school closures, you may only have one or two other people who are living in your home. But you do have the opportunity, we hope, to either use a phone or to, to be on the internet through zoom with your classmates. Or perhaps it's even looking up the answer on the internet. But you can't look up the answer unless you have the question and I think that's where we are really encouraging people to make certain that these are student driven questions and not adult driven questions.

So, a good example, and I was talking to a colleague of mine, yesterday about this. She wrote, a life science unit for young first graders, and this unit is driven by standards

There were a picture of many different types of cows, and each one of them looked different. And she asked very basic questions of them, you know, what are some of the patterns that they notice? Now let's look at some of their babies and do their babies look like them, or how do they look different? Why would you, what are some of the differences and similarities? And she showed me a video that she had taken of students who were basically reasoning from evidence. They were looking at these pictures of these four different cows trying to make a decision about one of them didn't look like the others. And why was that and what, what evidence did they have to support the fact that that one was different?


Helen   want to ask you a little bit about representation in STEM fields, one of National PTA's big initiatives here is a STEM + Families Initiative. Really geared towards helping spark a passion and interest in STEM, particularly among women, and kids of color.

Could you share a little bit about what the, sort of state of careers are in STEM and, and, why representation in these fields is important?

Carol O'Donnell: It's a great question and such an important one, you know, right now, and I think a lot of it has to do with, you know, the data. I mean, we know that there's this lack of diversity in the STEM workforce. I teach part time for the physics department at George Washington University. And you know, the number of years that went by before the university finally had a female on the faculty, not, and I don't say that in a disparaging way, it's just there, there is a lack of, you know, there, it was originally what they called, a pipeline problem, right? We weren't graduating enough women in the field of physics, in order to be able to, to draw them into a Professorial position.

It's really important that you diversify the pool of science, tech, scientists, technologists, engineers, mathematicians. And that's crucial, but it's not enough.

So you could make certain that your population in the STEM workforce is not just white men. It's a good mixture. demographically. But you can't stop there. You also have to make certain that the individuals who now make up this very diverse population are treated equitably. And that doesn't always happen. And you also have to make certain that they all have access, to opportunities and resources. And that also doesn't always happen. And so that's why it's important that you not only integrate STEM, science, technology, engineering, and math. But you also integrate diversity, equity, accessibility, inclusion.

In our center, we focus on K through 12 education. So, what does that have to do with the workforce? The bottom line is that we have to do a better job in elementary and secondary schools to ensure that all kids believe that STEM is accessible to them, whether they are girls. Whether they are students with disabilities. My husband was a special education teacher for 30 years, in public schools. He was absolutely committed, his entire life, to focusing on students with disabilities. And many of those students are included in science classrooms. And the question is, do they feel as if STEM is accessible to them when they're there?

And so we have multiple initiatives that help to diversify the STEM teaching workforce, ensure that young girls see STEM as accessible to them, and that students with disabilities also are engaged in inclusive design practices so that they feel that, the solutions you've engineered can be used by all people, no matter what their ability level. And so anyway, there, we are doing quite a bit in each of those fields, especially in diversifying the STEM teaching workforce. If students don't see themselves in others. Then they'll never believe that STEM is accessible to them. And right now, the teaching workforce doesn't look at all like the student population.


LaWanda: At PTA we have STEM + Families, and it's an initiative that we want families to get more involved so that they can encourage their children to look into STEM opportunities, because we know that parents and families at home are the number one influencers. And if we can help them feel comfortable about STEM activities, then we know that it will be a better conversation that they can have with their kids.  I love that you have those, resources with the Smithsonian, that can also help as well. It's really great.

Carol O'Donnell: And especially, I think just, you think about your weekend activities with your kids and you know, I'm a parent of four. I remember those weekends, well, when every weekend I was trying to come up with some creative thing I could do with my kids and my husband and I. Where my kids would learn something while also having fun. Now sometimes they were resistant. You know, I remember those long drives out to the country where I was going to go teach them how honey is made. And you know, my, one of my kids in the back complaining, why do we have to do this? And then when we get there, you know, they have a blast. And it was never easy, you know, always trying to say, this is giving, going to give you an opportunity to experience something that you've not had a chance to experience before.

Ask good questions, do the sense-making I talked about earlier, and it was always the exact opposite feeling when we were leaving the event. Now that was so much fun and then we would have conversations in the car about, what they saw and observed and learned. And so I think it's just trying to make certain that we balance what happens in the formal educational system during the days when they're in classrooms, with what happens in those informal experiences that, you know, the research shows students spend about, oh, I think it's 95% of their life will be learning outside of classrooms. And so, it's really important that we provide as many opportunities as possible. And if you're like, I was, where I grew up in a very urban environment, very few resources that were available to my family and I. Where we weren't able to do a lot of things. The idea is to try to find as much as you can that's free like the Smithsonian, no charge or outdoor and nature learning. That's the goal.

LaWanda: Yeah. It makes so much sense.

Helen: I want to ask you a little bit about  our current situation. Switching gears a little, cause you mentioned at the top of the show, sort of the importance of asking questions, Dr. O'Donnell and kids have a lot of questions about the COVID pandemic.

Could you give us a little bit of insight if our kids are asking questions like, why do we have to wear a face mask? Or how is this disease spread, about an appropriate way to give them some answers?

Carol O'Donnell: I would just want to start by saying it's a very delicate situation. As a parent, you know your child best, and you will know when it's okay to raise this as a question and not. And so emotional safety. And physical safety are the first and foremost things that you would consider when trying to discuss COVID-19 with your young child at home.

And this is guidance that's come from the Mayo Clinic, which is a really good resource. The CDC, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, each of these entities has put out really good guidance about how to speak with your children. And so they are the experts.

Now as a science educator, you know, we believe deeply at the Smithsonian Science Education Center that there are a lot of questions that students are asking and that the most important approach that we take is that students help to discover the answers to those questions together, either with their siblings or with their family members or friends even, you know, their parents. Some of the basic questions that kids have asked us is, well, why do I need to stand six feet away? Where did that come from? Why, you know, why did, why is that important? And so we actually, because we believe this, that students should be discovering answers on their own, that we want them to physically engage in an activity that helps to demonstrate why six feet actually matters.

So, you know, simple activity that you can do as a parent with your children is, to think about the fact that when we breathe small tiny droplets called respiratory droplets come out of our mouth, nose. You can do a simple activity where you take a glass, a drinking glass, or you take a mirror hand mirror and you just simply breathe into that glass.

And when you do, when you breathe out, you'll see on the inside of that glass. And you can feel water. Well, that's an example of a respiratory droplet and the virus that causes COVID-19, which is called SARS-CoV-2, that virus is inside of that droplet. That's how the virus is transmitted or moved from one person to another is through these respiratory droplets.

So first I think is important for kids to know. When you breathe, these respiratory droplets come out of your mouth. They're very tiny, but they carry the virus if you have it. The second really simple activity that you can do with your kids to answer, why are we standing six feet away, is because of the fact that the virus can be transmitted by direct contact. So, if you, if your respiratory droplets actually contact somebody else directly. And they have the virus, even if they don't show symptoms of it, you can catch it from them if you breathe, if it goes into your ears, nose, or mouth.  We have kids do a simple activity that take a bowl of water.

They put their hand into the water, they put the bowl of water kind of out towards their mouth. They put their hand in the water and then they just flick the water off of their hand and they do that from six feet away, they stand near a wall about six feet away, flick the water onto the wall and they'll see that maybe just a handful of droplets of water actually reached the wall. Maybe no droplets of water reached the wall, and then they just closed slowly close, get closer and closer to the wall. And as they get closer to the wall, when they flick, now they see a lot of droplets on the wall. And that's basically showing the reason we stand six feet away is because when we breathe, those droplets of water will carry the virus but they cannot travel further than that six feet.

LaWanda: Those are great. I'm definitely going to try the cup and the throw the water on the wall, but not too much water.

Carol O'Donnell: Another good, another good simple activity is the virus has kind of a casing of oil around it. And if you have your, your children just put their hands in a little bit of oil, maybe a tiny coin sized amount of oil on their hand and they spread it around and then they try to wash it off just with water and then they try to wash it off just with water and soap but for five or 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 40 seconds, and they should be able to see that after that 40 seconds, they were able to get that oil off of their hand with soap and water. And that simple activity kind of demonstrates, well, why are we asking you to do this? And wash your hands carefully and use good soap. And so, that's the goal. Help them discover those answers on their own.

LaWanda: Yeah. I think that's super important because we just tell them, just do it, because I said so. Getting the science behind it would be super helpful, I think that would make them want to do it a little bit more.

In that same vein, we know that because of COVID-19 a lot of schools are, won't be reopening physically and we're not sure about what summer camps are gonna look like or what the summer will look like.

Do you have a favorite go to science activity, that you can share so that we can help fill kids' time during the summer? Help them stay curious, help parents out to create some fun activities.

Carol O'Donnell: Yeah, there are a lot of free resources that are available online. if you have access to a computer and not everybody does. But if you do have access to a computer, there are a lot of free resources online that you can do with your kids at home. at the Smithsonian, we have a distance learning page called the learning lab. You know, learninglab.si.edu, and that is a place where you should be able to access all of the free resources that are available for caregivers, parents, students from all of our 19 museums, nine research centers, five education centers, a zoo, 21 libraries, three cultural centers. The Smithsonian is a big place but the learninglab.si.edu has all of those resources available in one place. And so parents who are looking for a particular age of their child. It's divided by particular topics, whether it's art, history, culture, or in my case, science. You can find those resources in one place. You can also if you can't go out physically, you can take virtual tours of our museum.

In addition, we have an activity on our Smithsonian Science Education Center website, which we'll share with you. That's kind of a, a cool activity you can do at home with your children that involves the sun and tracking and tracing the sun's path across the sky and comparing it in different seasons with three dimensional photographs that we've taken and we put together videos that are just tar, are targeting specifically your children.

So we talk to your kids in the videos. We help them know what simple materials do they need to gather in their home to think about the sun's path across the sky. What activity can they do in the summer to look at that sun's path, to trace its shadows. And then we also share with you these virtual photographs that we took of the Smithsonian, to show what the sun looks like when it rises above the Smithsonian in the winter, and what does it look like when it rises above the Smithsonian in the spring? And then, of course, comparing that to the summer. And so there are a lot of different activities that you can do at home if you're confined physically to just your home space.

But of course, a lot of activities that you can do in nature. If you're able to take walks, while, physically distancing from others. And so I just would encourage folks to, to go on to that learninglab.si.edu and to select activities that match your needs. And then I'll just end by saying, it's really important that whatever you do with your children this summer to engage them in learning that... One that it is place-based, in other words that it is something that they can relate to because it's something they experience in their own region and their own hometown or their own community. And that you are also encouraging their curiosity, helping them observe around them all the scientific phenomenon that they see. Asking them, what do you notice and what do you wonder?

]LaWanda: That's so great. I am so excited, and I've learned so much this episode. I can't wait to try some of these activities and find these resources so that I can have fun with my son this summer, learning about science and more things.

Thank you so much for sharing your insights and ideas with our listeners.

Carol O'Donnell: Oh, you're welcome.

LaWanda: Dr. O'Donnell, do you mind sharing your social media handles and where our listeners can learn more about you and your work?

Carol O'Donnell: So our Twitter account is, @SmithsonianSCIE, so it's Smithsonian, S, C, I. E. And, our website is scienceeducation.si.edu. When you go to that website, you'll see a distance learning page there that's filled with games, activities, hands on, investigations that you can do at home, all for free and clearly written directly for your child. And our other social media links are listed on that webpage.

Helen: Great. Well, thank you so much again, Dr. O'Donnell. I feel a little more comfortable going into the summer months and sort of a "question mark" of what the next year will look like with some of these ideas. So thanks for joining us.

Carol O'Donnell: Thanks for the invitation. It was great.

Helen: Great. And to our audience tuning in at home or even while at work. Thank you for listening. For more resources related to today's episode, check out notesfromthebackpack.com.

Also, we completely understand everyone is on lots of duties right now working, parenting, maybe teaching from home. So to help ease family's challenges during the pandemic, National PTA has created a COVID-19 resource page for parents, students, and educators. Learn more by visiting, pta.org/COVID19.

Thanks for tuning in.

LaWanda: See you next time.


Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.