Here's Why Podcast Series
November 1, 2023

Science Shouldn’t Be Neglected in Schools … Here's Why


On this episode of Here’s Why, we’re talking about teaching science in schools and why it matters. We’ll talk to three experienced teachers about safety science education, why it's relevant for educators, how it can fit into an already developed curriculum, and some resources UL Research Institutes (ULRI) provides to support teachers.



  • Kristen Delphos, vice president of communications and public relations, UL Research Institutes


  • Kelly Keena, Ph.D., senior director, Office of Research Experiences & Education (OREE) 
  • Megan O’Keeffe, OREE senior content specialist
  • Dr. Ann Nielsen, director, Office of Global Engagement, Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Arizona State University (ASU)


Kristen: Hi, and welcome to Here's Why, brought to you by UL Research Institutes. I'm your host, Kristen Delphos, and today we're here to talk about safety science education and why it's relevant for educators, how it can fit into an already developed curriculum, and some resources ULRI provides to support teachers.

Today, I'm joined by Kelly Keena, senior director of the Office of Research Experiences & Education, also known as OREE, at ULRI. Kelly and her team develop educational resources and programs on safety science for teachers and students at all levels. We're also joined by Megan O'Keeffe, senior content specialist, also at OREE. And Ann Nielsen, who's from the Office of Global Engagement at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University.

Welcome to all three of you. And it's really important to note that here we have three teachers, each with over 10 years of experience in the classroom, so they are certainly more than experts on this topic today. So, thank you all for joining me.

Kelly: Yeah, thank you.

Kristen: We'll dig right in with a question. What happens if we stop teaching science in schools?

Kelly: It's a great question, and it's actually something we've seen play out. So in the late '90s and early 2000s, science was removed from the curriculum in many districts as standardized testing was ramping up. Science wasn't tested and so the value of science taught in the classroom on the ground was reduced because we increased the need and value on other areas that were tested.

So I can say in the state of Colorado, we saw the implications of that, and I would argue, and as a researcher, I'm going to say it's hard to say this without a lot of evidence, but I'm going to speculate that the lack of information literacy that we see in a span of our generation can be contributed to not having science instruction in the classroom.

So what does science instruction do? It teaches skills, analysis, content, and process, and it teaches us how to take in information and critically think about it and then make our own decisions about how to behave and what to do next. And so I think we have some experience on this, and we don't want to repeat that, and it's a really big deal.

Kristen: So it's almost like it's more important that science is a learning framework more than just the topic itself.

Kelly: Yeah.

Kristen: Megan, your eyes lit up.

Megan: Yeah, For sure. First of all, I don't want to believe in this world where we stop teaching science. There is certainly a difference in the level of science instruction that students get in elementary versus middle and high school. And as a middle school teacher, you can see the effect of that. So the science instruction that they receive in elementary school has a direct impact on what they're able to do when they are in middle school and high school.

So you talk about it as a process, and I think that's really important because students are naturally inquisitive. Children are naturally inquisitive. There's always going to be some sort of discrepant event that has them asking why. As a parent, it's, "Why can't we go to the park?" And it's a series of why's for my children until I end up... We [teachers] used to joke, and we'd just say, "The water cycle." That shut them up. But there's a reason that that would make our children stop asking: It's because they were at a place in their lives where they were able to recognize a good enough answer than just being put off.

And so that level of wanting to know and wanting to own and feel like what you're doing is relevant, that's what we want to enforce with science instruction in schools, and that's why it's always got to be there.

Ann: And I can speak up as the elementary teacher that came before you with the students in the learning process. And as an elementary school teacher, when I was in the classroom, I was required to teach four hours of literacy a day. When you think about a six-hour school day, four hours are spent on literacy. You have about 45 minutes for lunch and recess; you have to put in an hour for math. What do you have left? I had to choose between social studies, science, art, health... All the other subjects were just swept under the rug.

Megan: And in terms of opportunity cost too, why would you spend hours planning a fantastic lesson for your students when you only get 20 minutes a day for that?

Kelly: Yeah, and I think too, there's part of this that's literacy about what? Right?

Ann: Absolutely, yeah.

Kelly: I have this great story about my daughter. She was in kindergarten, and she had to do the early readers, and it was repetitive text, and that's how we start to teach literacy. And it was about somebody in a pirate hat. And she came home one day, and she said, "I know where his hat is. I don't care where his hat is. He finds the hat. I know the end of the story. Why do I have to keep reading about so-and-so and his hat?"

And it's like, let's give students something to read about, and let's give them something that already flares up their curiosity and passion. And then what we start to see is that we don't need to segment our days the way that they're segmented currently, where we have to choose between people issues and scientific issues. They're actually all one thing. And so we start to see these really braided approaches that these two women [next to me] are experts at.

Megan: Which is what we see in the actual profession, right? In a STEM field, you don't work in a silo. We've had a lot of conversation today about how it takes multiple people with multiple skill sets to incorporate a safe world, a safe, sustainable world, and you don't do that alone.

Kristen: So in a university environment then, where you are now being exposed to the students who maybe were part of that demographic, what are you seeing the difference between when science came back or whenever that changed? Are you seeing a difference in children of different age groups that are now at college level?

Ann: I think you run the gamut. The students that I'm interacting with at ASU are in the education field. They haven't gone into sciences and such, so I'm looking at a different group of students, but that level of inquiry as well as the curiosity is still there among all of our students, and they're seeking it out on their own.

One of the things we've noticed, and probably everybody's noticed, is the global movement of youth around climate change and the need for climate action and the demand for climate education to be taught in schools. I met with a student from the Philippines last year at the COP 27, and she talked about, in the Philippines, there's no word for climate change in their language. It's weather getting warmer.

And so as a student, when you're talking about weather is getting warmer, it doesn't hit on what's happening. But they see it in their economic situations, they see it in their social situations. She talked about how the influx of school systems and more Western systems being implemented in their region did not match.

So students and youth are bringing this up to the educators globally, and here in the U.S., it's happening as well. They're seeking for this opportunity because they see what's happening in their own communities.

Kristen: Yeah. So they want to talk about it.

Ann: Absolutely.

Kristen: They're naturally inclined to say, "We can't pretend this isn't happening. Why aren't we talking about this in our school?"

Kelly: We have a study happening right now of recent undergrads, and we're doing focus groups with them, and they're all in STEM fields, and what brings them to the field is altruism. They want to do something.

The other thing I think that's really important is that science instruction in schools is very important, but equitable science instruction in schools is more important because it's not a level playing field in terms of what [skill sets] students show up to university with. And actually, they're removed from the opportunity to even get to university to begin with based on socioeconomic status, location, region, resources, individual teachers with different levels of training and professional development, as well as content.

So there's multiple variables that impact where students come into science and where they leave. And we want to try and keep that from happening so that we can see more ... opportunities for advocacy for them.

Kristen: I love that. And equity, I think, is so important, and it's another word that's developing an emotion attached to it, but I also heard you use the word when we were speaking earlier, agency. And I think that there is a correlation between creating environments of equity so that children can have agency because then they get more power to determine which path that they want to follow.

Can you bring us in on what your thoughts are there?

Kelly: Yes.

The work that we're doing and the work that so many experts in education and pedagogy are doing around the world right now is to create access to quality education and resources to create opportunity for a good life and one that's happy, not necessarily just income, but a good life. And then also agency, so masters of their own future, of their own domain.

And right now we know there's so much anxiety with this generation post-ish [the] COVID-19 [pandemic] and watching the fires and tornadoes in places we've never seen them before, and they're not numb to this. They're so wired into this. It doesn't matter what community they're in all over the world. There's an understanding of it, right? Language or not.

Ann: Oh, absolutely. We have a global movement we did out of ASU with youth around the world about their visions for their climate futures and their education futures. And one of the big findings [was] that youth submitted art and/or messages around this initiative, and from the art that was submitted, we saw quite a few entries, especially from younger children, ages 10 and younger, of split images. And these split images showed either diagonally, halfway down the image, a beautiful world and a destructive world. And they're living it. They're demonstrating what they can see. They know the possibility. They see the green spaces in some places and not others, and they're aware of it.

They're not able to verbalize everything yet, but it was very striking to us how these images from [kids who are] six, seven years old, were already seeing the divide they live in.

Kristen: They know they want to show both, but maybe not why.

Ann: Exactly.

Kristen: And that's where being a teacher, and teachers have such an impact, but you can be a teacher and use your experience. You don't have to be in the classroom.

So Megan, I would love if you could quickly share your story. What made you jump the fence and join us here at UL Research Institutes?

Megan: Yeah, that's a really interesting question. So I love teaching and still love it and fight a constant battle to return or not return. But I think what it is that as an eighth grade science teacher, when STEM came out, it was a very attractive thing. Everybody was trying to do STEM. And in my perspective, nobody was doing it well.

So at that point, there was a lot of professional development, and I attended one of Kelly's professional development [sessions] in a room with 12 teachers and firefighters total. And she stood at the front of the room and showed something that was on fire, and I was like, "Okay, okay, we're going to build a bridge or a cup tower and it's going to have no connection." And then she dives into the content related to that. We're talking about chemical and physical changes and all kinds of science that was relevant to me and to my students.

And so in an eighth grade classroom, you have all these students that are extremely disengaged. They want to know why they're learning something and you don't have an answer for them, but what you can do is you can table it in a safety science conversation because everybody is intrinsically concerned with their own well-being and something as fantastical as fire or lithium-ion batteries, it transformed my teaching because it provided an opportunity to give them a really engaging, real-world problem that we then followed up with exploration. And that's really important because you have to give students space to explore without having an end result needing to be achieved. So, exploration is really important, but they explored and it changed the classroom culture.

And so I became... I was converted to Xplorlabs and remained in contact with Kelly throughout all the time that I was teaching. And then when she was granted the office, it just felt like a good place to be and to put more of those resources out is as much of an impact as teaching them in a classroom.

Kristen: Love that. Well, because formally, this office is really just over a year old.

Kelly: Eighteen months, yeah.

Kristen: Eighteen months. So to ground everyone, and what I love about this is that's also why we're here for this podcast, is for those of us who are well past eighth grade and we're not going to get to learn that way, we have to come back and tell you "here's why," so that's what we're doing.

So ground us in what safety science is because that is a term that comes up and it may not be something that people are familiar with, but it is the core of actually how you're building your programs around research experience and education.

Kelly: Yeah, I see it and the way it's been fleshed out in my thinking over the last eight years is that we know things. We know, "Don't do this," or, "Do this," right? And we say that to students all the time. We say it to our own children all the time, "Just stop that. Don't do that. That's dangerous." But why? I mean, speaking of the podcast.

So I like to think about safety science as what happens after the "because." So when we say, "Don't do that because here's the way fire behaves," and fire behaves faster now, and why is that relevant and meaningful to us? Well, because you have less time to leave your house, and now it's not even that you have less time, [it's] that you have no time with these thermal runaway events. And so we have to anticipate that happening.

I think batteries and planes are an interesting way. I hear the gate agent all the time say, "Make sure..." You hear it so many times it becomes white noise. "Make sure you don't have lithium-ion batteries in your checked bag." I've never seen anybody look in their bag for a lithium-ion battery, and I fly more than I'd like to. So I think there's no meaning, there's no relevance, there's no connection, so there's no agency.

Kristen: Yep because kids ask why.

Kelly: All the time.

Kristen: But we're all standing around going, "Okay, that's just the thing they have to say before we get on the plane."

Ann: There's no curriculum for this, for our teachers to draw upon. And I think one of the things that's so exciting is, as public educators, you're wedded to your state standards and the curriculum that your district has provided you. There is no curriculum around this. And OREE is providing a tremendous opportunity for teachers and students to really become engaged in safety science in ways that really bring connections, like Kelly was just saying. These are the standards we want to hit, but we're doing it in a way that is really relevant to our students. It's local, it connects them to things they're doing, and they can take home with their families.

And to me, it's also very inclusive in its approach; there's not a political component about this. We all need to be safe.

Megan: Yeah, right. And there's a content component to this that we need to talk about and that's the fact that lithium-ion batteries and thermal runaway was not something that a single teacher teaching received education on when they were in [school], even if they received very high levels of science instruction. So teachers, they receive their education, they get very great education depending on where they attend, and then they enter the field. And unless they seek out that additional content knowledge, it's not given to them. And so we have to provide that as a resource. We have to empower teachers with knowledge of the content so that they can pursue it.

I also wanted to answer your question about safety science too.

Kristen: You can.

Megan: Yeah. So...

Kelly: Can I say one more point part before the safety science?

Megan: Yeah, go!

Kelly: We're building agency for students. We're also building agency for teachers.

Kristen: I love that.

Kelly: And coming from a resourced school and an under-resourced school in my background, I have seen the level of support that teachers have, and I intentionally went into this role with this office to support teachers, to give them the resources they needed, to give them the training they needed, to give them the experts they need in front of them, with them, beside them. There's a huge component of this that we know teachers need us, and that was the other part of the mission.

Kristen: We need them.

Kelly: We need them desperately, yeah.

Megan: Yeah. And I mean, I think safety science is truly the answer to this podcast, like, "Here's why safety science." It's why we're doing things, but it's why we're doing things that we didn't even know that we're doing. I've heard [Kelly] say that it's something that just is ubiquitous in the background, but it's as simple as when we leave for a fire alarm and all the fire doors close. Well, we come back in, and these fire doors are still closed, and they become this impenetrable barrier that students cannot cross because they can't understand why they're still closed.

But at the core of that is a lot of science. There's an electromagnet, and the electromagnet loses electricity and so the doors shut. The doors are made out of a certain material that's either going to absorb or transfer that thermal energy.

And so it's about a lens. And I think that's what safety science is. It's looking at what you have to teach through a lens of safety science in these relevant issues and these things that we're interacting with on the daily basis. The science is there, and our job at Xplorlabs and at OREE is to find opportunities to bring that science to the surface and empower teachers to understand it so that they can translate it to their students.

Ann: Yeah. I actually take... Sorry.

Kristen: No, go ahead.

Ann: I take my comment back.

Kristen: What?

Ann: We do have the curriculum. It is our school buildings.

Megan: Yeah, truly.

Ann: Honestly, it is there. It's empowering the teachers.

Kelly: It's everything around you.

Ann: To really be able to explain. I mean, what you just brought up with the ... I can't tell you how many fire drills. We do them every year at the beginning of the year. Never once [had I] thought about the safety behind it.

Megan: Yeah, it's that natural inquiry that all students have. We need to teach them to be observers of their world and really critical observers. And that's not even just for safety science issues. It's critical observers of information. It's critical observers of what's happening around them. And that is not a science content standard. That's not the definition of conduction. It's a practice. It's a skill. We're teaching them to analyze, gather, and obtain evidence. We're teaching them to plan and carry out investigations. And that's what science instruction is and that's where safety science fits in really nicely.

Kristen: I love that. What's the coolest thing that you've heard from a student who's been exposed to this programming for the first time, Xplorlabs?

Ann: I will say...

Kristen: Yeah, you start.

Ann: I'll say from a teacher's perspective, I heard teachers after the introduction, we are working with 12 fellows at Arizona State, and we did the orientation session, and we had some very high-level educators from the state of Arizona, from Arizona Science Center, and other organizations, and they went, "There's nothing like this." And you could really see their eyes lighting up and they were engaging, and they were so excited.

So for me, it was just seeing their excitement at the level of information they could take forward to teachers and schools. And like I said before, everything's in our school building. The curriculum is there.

Megan: Yeah. I would say when students are like, "Ah, I got to call my mom and tell her to unplug her e-bike," or ... sometimes you hear students say, "I don't have a smoke detector," or, "I don't have an escape plan." And so those [are] ah-ha moments. And then what even gives me more the feels is when they're like, "Whoa, I never thought I could do that when I grew up," or, "Oh, wow, I had never thought about that career."

So the level of exposure, so from students, those are the really cool things that you hear. And really, honestly, if they're saying anything, it's a really cool thing because sometimes getting students engaged in a classroom is the battle.

From teachers, I've heard things like, "Wow, this is my entire curriculum tabled into a lithium-ion battery fire. Cool, I can do that," and then they are almost empowered to go through and do the work to make it fit for their population and their audience. And that's the most exciting thing is that we can create a spark for teachers in a time where clearly the spark is dwindling. So teachers, just like students, need to be engaged, and I think that's what we can provide.

Kristen: And it sounds like that's the magic of having this office be part of UL Research Institutes because you have scientists and researchers and people actually out there doing this discovery, doing these explorations, and so you're not inventing curriculum or having to, you're really just going off their work.

Megan: We just translate it.

Kristen: And the things that they're discovering.

Megan: Yeah.

Kelly: Yes. And I think the most exciting... Well, the most exciting student interaction I've had is Megan. We had the best conversation at workshop and having you on this team is unbelievable magic for me.

The other thing about UL Research Institutes and being embedded is if you think about how we package science lessons for students, they have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but we're sitting through two days of meetings where they don't have the findings. They don't know. I actually heard somebody say today, "I don't know." And that to me is the most generous thing we can do for students is to say, "Listen, we don't have all the answers. We usually look like we have them all, but we have the processes and the discovery."

So we're all trying to figure out how to solve these unintended consequences of interventions in our systems, batteries, green energy storage.... Well, wait, there's a safety factor here. So maybe they're not the silver bullet we were thinking they were.

So I love this idea that we all get to learn alongside the institutes, and we get to be embedded in the conversations and the rigor of the conversations here and clarify our understandings back with them so that we can share that with our students and not give students the false impression that when you get to the end of an experiment, you know all the things, and you move on to your next question, which might be unrelated. It's not a fair way to be teaching.

Kristen: It's the world that we're living in.

Kelly: Yeah.

Megan: Or even the false understanding that there's always a clear answer. And I think that's a thing that we have to embrace as educators and as people that support educators is that there's not always an answer and finding out that answer is part of the power, it's the process, and it's the process that real STEM careers utilize. They're all following. They're just doing their best to find answers. And we want our students to do that too. We want them to feel empowered to find answers.

Kristen: And those are the future scientists. They're the ones that aren't afraid of not having an answer because they can be part of finding them.

Kelly: Yeah. We haven't taken that away from them. I talk to people every day who say, "Oh, man, I would've gone into science if it was like this." So we're missing, we're missing so much talent. We're missing so much talent in STEM fields and we need it.

Ann: But I'd also say that even if they don't go into science, they go into the humanities, they go into other areas, we need this knowledge and we need our communities to have this mindset because it's imperative for all of our interdependence in going forward.

Megan: But yeah, right now, you can't throw a rock without hitting some sort of graph or some sort of piece of information, [or] a news article clip. And our students have to be really critical consumers of that information and there is some inherent scientific background that is necessary to understand our world, whether you're a scientist or not. And I think that's somewhere that I'm really passionate is like, sure, I want to grow a scientist. Absolutely. Scientists and engineers, yes. But I want to grow a literate citizen that's able to watch a news story and understand the science that's being presented in front of them.

Kristen: And that's one of our challenges is really how do we get to the educated public who are teachers, who are parents, who are students, who are just, as you said, citizens in the world, so they understand how these things impact them?

Kelly: Yeah, we say, "Make good humans."

Kristen: Make good humans. Well, Kelly, Ann, and Megan, thank you so much for being here on our podcast. It sounds like there are a lot of opportunities to incorporate safety science into current science curriculum, and I'm so glad that ULRI is helping teachers educate the future generation with free resources.


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