Connection to science at the Smithsonian

03/21/2011  |  DAVID MARSLAND
Science Education

An X-ray image of two galaxies that are close to collision was taken using the Chandra space telescope operated by the Smithsonian’s SAO. Photo courtesy NASA/CXC/Univ. of Bristol/Worrall et al.; Radio: NRAO/AUI/NSF

Who could have guessed that a gift from an illegitimate son of an English lord would lead to the formation of the world’s most famous museum and research complexes, one that is situated in Washington DC and is visited by millions of excited visitors each year? The bequest of $580,000, a fortune when it was donated in 1846, was made by James Smithson, a member of Britain’s Royal Society. Smithson was an analytical chemist of some repute in Europe. The institution his fortune provided for was, of course, the Smithsonian Institution — its goal was the “diffusion of knowledge.”

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It is said that most Americans visit the Smithsonian at least twice in their lifetime, once as a child with their parents, and once as a parent themselves. Despite its interesting origins it is very much an American Institution, fondly perceived as being “America’s Attic,” a repository for the nation’s treasures — which it is, but it is much more than this. Yes the public face of the Smithsonian may be its museums and galleries, but each of these houses a workforce of experts that make the Smithsonian Institution a dynamic force in original research and a major resource for educators.

The Smithsonian’s origin as an organization dedicated to science is reflected in the work it conducts today. Supported in part by federal and trust resources, grants and private donations enable the Smithsonian to be a one-of-a-kind organization, quite different from a government agency or university. This uniqueness has allowed the Smithsonian to engage in independent research, often over extended periods of time, into a wide variety of fields of inquiry. The ability of the institution to conduct different kinds of research in a wide variety of settings is combined with its accumulated scientific talent, collections, and other resources, is found nowhere else. This is the side of the Smithsonian that is not well understood by the public, but is one of its most valuable contributions to American culture.

Were you aware that the Smithsonian is one of the world’s premier institutions in exploring issues such as the origins of the universe and understanding the biodiversity of our planet? Did you know that Smithsonian scientists are on the cutting edge of exploring the processes that shape human cultural and biological diversity from the earliest origins of our species?

The scientific prowess of the Smithsonian is not just centered in Washington D.C. Its scientists work all around the country, and the world. Much of this work is shared between locations and involves cooperation with other agencies. Take the Chandra X-ray telescope, the largest satellite ever launched by a space shuttle; it is operated by the Smithsonian’s Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) in Cambridge, Massachusetts and NASA. The observatory coordinates the planning and conducts the day-to-day flight operations and the science activities, while NASA manages the project. The result is not just spectacular images of some of the most violent events in our universe, but also a revolution in our understanding of its origins. 

Down in Central America there is the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. What began in 1923 as a small field station on Barro Colorado Island, in the Panama Canal Zone, has developed into one of the leading research institutions of the world, conducting long-term ecological studies in the tropics. The Institute is used extensively by some 900 visiting scientists from around the world every year.

Closer to home, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, is the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), which leads the nation in its research on linkages between land and water ecosystems in coastal zones. Like all 19 Smithsonian museums and nine research centers, SERC has a public program. At SERC, this centers round the Reed Education Center. They offer a variety of fun and informative activities for the public and groups throughout the year, as well as public foot and canoe trails.

Find out more about SERC

One group at the Smithsonian specializes in the formal side of science education. This is the National Science Resources Center (NSRC). Founded 25 years ago by the National Academies and the Smithsonian Institution, the NSRC has a mission to reform science education using processes that are based on research on how people learn and theories of organizational change. This work is often conducted at the state, regional, district and school level, and is designed to help these units and their communities plan and prepare for improving the quality of science education.

NSRC’s approach to professional development takes on a wide variety of forms including Strategic Planning Institutes, which are designed to get the planning process moving, and professional development opportunities for science teachers. For example the NSRC conducts three Smithsonian Science Education Academies for Teacher’s programs each summer. In 2011 these academies focus on topics that are particularly relevant to the future of our planet — Earth’s History and Global Change; Biodiversity; and Energy: Past Present and Future. Teachers attending these weeklong events have special access to collections and behind the scenes resources at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, Air and Space Museum, National Museum of American History and Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. They also visit other research facilities in the Washington DC area, such as the labs of National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Carnegie Institute’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. Teachers get the opportunity to see parts of the Smithsonian and artifacts that are not on public view.  In past SSEATs teachers have seen rocks from Mars, the Smithsonian’s fossil collections, and strange organisms from the deepest parts of the world’s oceans. When blended with inquiry-based hands-on sessions that are transferable to the classroom, these interactions with Smithsonian scientists and educators provide a very powerful and unique professional development experience.

For more information regarding the SSEATs please visit

The Smithsonian is an unsurpassed resource for teachers and their students. It is an active institution engaged in research, as well as formal and informal education. In coming issues we will highlight additional resources for schools, both outside and inside the classroom, both real and virtue. We hope to show you that the Smithsonian is much more than the “America’s Attic.”

David Marsland is the Director of Professional Development at the National Science Resource Center of the Smithsonian Institute. For more information visit
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