How the SSEC’s Vaccines! Guide can advance youth-focused vaccine education – and how healthcare leaders and educators can collaborate to drive it forward

In 2021, the Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC) released the “Vaccines!: How can we use science to help our community make decisions about vaccines?” community response guide. The guide is designed to help young people learn about vaccines, share their knowledge with their community, create tangible ways to help their community make informed decisions in this challenging time, and understand the best places to find additional information on the topic.

As the COVID-19 pandemic and omicron variant continue to surge throughout the country, educating youth about vaccines and empowering them to become trusted sources of information about vaccines in their community will be critical. Now more than ever – especially with newly authorized boosters for young people and child vaccination rates varying widely across states—healthcare leaders, educators, and community members must come together.

SSEC volunteer Pam Divack sat down with Dr. Carol O’Donnell, Director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center, to discuss the importance of educating youth about COVID-19 vaccines, why the Vaccines! Guide is important to the Smithsonian, and how educators and healthcare leaders can collaborate moving forward.

Pam Divack: Thanks for sitting down with me, Carol. I want to start by talking about the Smithsonian Science for Global Goals Project, which provides youth around the world with the knowledge and skills to understand the world’s most pressing issues and to become agents for change in their own communities. How does the Vaccines! guide fit into this larger mission?

Carol O’Donnell: In the beginning of the pandemic, we collaborated with the World Health Organization and the InterAcademy Partnership to create the guide, COVID-19! How can I protect myself and others? We learned that when we helped kids better understand the science behind the pandemic and the behaviors that can protect them from the virus, they were less afraid and better able to explain what is occurring. A year later, we realized we could do the same with vaccines.

The Vaccines! guide was born out of this pressing need for education on socio-scientific issues. The scientists we work with are so deeply committed to K-12 education, and they agreed that it was important for us to educate youth about the history of vaccines, how vaccines work, how we know vaccines are safe and effective, how clinical trials work, how to find trusted information, and then empower students to share this knowledge with others.

As we were writing the Vaccines! guide, we also focused on addressing the concerns the community had. One of the primary ways we do this is by helping students understand the perspective of others. Science education isn’t just about teaching sciences, because if we do that, we ignore the importance of history, art and culture. Right now, we are living through history and watching science unfold in front of us, and we want students to understand that what is happening to them now is informed by similar events in the past.

PD: What excites me about the Vaccines! guide in particular is that that there’s a real opportunity for healthcare leaders, in addition to educators, to use this guide to educate the youth and empower them with science knowledge. What opportunities do you see in this space?

CO: A science educator can no longer think about just educating youth on the science of complex scientific topics like pandemics or vaccine development. They need to help students also understand and think about the social, economic, environmental, and ethical issues that might surround that science.

The same thing is true with the healthcare industry. In addressing the healthcare needs of their patients, healthcare leaders need to be aware of the cultural background and social perspectives community members hold. Healthcare systems, just like many other industries, have increasingly taken on a transdisciplinary approach to problem solving.

Now, part of the healthcare industry’s responsibility is not only educating their employees, but also the public. They must communicate science and social science to the people they serve. This is crucial. Otherwise, there is resistance, hesitancy, and people may refuse the care they need. And this is where partnership with educators can come in.

PD: Absolutely. There is a role that everyone can play here. Based on your work and your expertise in education, what does a good collaboration between healthcare leaders and educators look like?

CO: Education doesn’t just happen at schools – it happens in an interconnected ecosystem.
In a good collaboration, everyone brings a different skillset and knowledge base to this ecosystem.

As circumstances make it difficult for educators to share information about vaccines, there is an opportunity for the Smithsonian and healthcare leaders to collaborate to play a bigger role in educating young people about the science that underlies COVID-19 and vaccines and encouraging informed choices.

At the Smithsonian, we know we are not experts in the healthcare industry nor public health, but we can help to convene the experts who are. We can translate and curate the complex scientific ideas and information for the public and make it digestible. We can also provide resources to help educators students to better understand the science, like the COVID-19! and Vaccines! Guide do. But we can’t do that without collaborators in medical and public health fields.

Where healthcare leaders can come in is helping the public make sense of the complex science. They can serve as trusted voices in their communities to help the public understand that we are living in the middle of constant change, when our knowledge and the information is constantly evolving. They can partner with educators and other community members to identify community concerns, share scientific information and facts, get ahead of misinformation, and respond with empathy.

As the pandemic continues, we need to collaborate across the entire education ecosystem. And that includes expanding the collaboration between educators and healthcare leaders.

For more ideas on how healthcare leaders and educators can collaborate on Covid-19 vaccine education, check out our other post, “Healthcare Leaders and Educators Must Partner to Educate Young People About COVID-19 Vaccines”


About this blog series:

This blog is part of an ongoing series dedicated to encouraging collaboration between healthcare leaders and educators for youth-focused COVID-19 vaccine education. In the coming weeks, look out for more posts sharing actionable ways to advance youth vaccine education, and learn from organizations leading the charge.
If you are interested in learning more about the Smithsonian Science Education Center’s Vaccines! Guide, please email Katherine Blanchard at BlanchardKP@si.edu. If you are a healthcare leader looking for ways to collaborate with educators, or want to share your story, please email Pam Divack at pameladivack@gmail.com

Pam Divack is a Volunteer Strategist with the Smithsonian Science Education Center. Her work focuses on encouraging collaboration between the healthcare industry and educators to advance youth-focused vaccine education initiatives. She graduated from Cornell University in 2018 with a Major in Biology and Society and Minor in Business, and currently works as a Healthcare Consultant.

About the Author

Pamela Divack

Pam Divack is a Volunteer Strategist with the Smithsonian Science Education Center. Her work focuses on encouraging collaboration between the healthcare industry and educators to advance youth-focused vaccine education initiatives. She graduated from Cornell University in 2018 with a Major in Biology and Society and Minor in Business, and currently works as a Healthcare Consultant.