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Step into the Future(s): Introducing Dr. Tara O’Neil

Updated: Mar 20

As a part of our External Expertise interview series, we are delighted to introduce Dr. Tara O’Neil. Tara has developed two micro-modules in our new Transition Year programme, The Future of Innovation and Enterprise.

The Future of Innovation and Enterprise is a values-driven programme tailored for 15 / 16 year olds and Transition Year learners introducing Circular Design Thinking. Our programme merges circular economic principles, social, emotional, digital and environmental literacies with Design Thinking, a powerful framework for creative problem solving. The programme was designed to support learners by building the confidence and competence to become change makers and innovators to build for the future they will inhabit. By nurturing key skills, 21st Century skills, our values-led, circular design thinking programme will prepare learners to lead the way in sustainable, innovative, and socially responsible design practices. The programme's core ethos, supporting learners to explore their passions and consider purposeful action, while nurturing essential 21st-Century skills by igniting innovation, fostering empathy and inspiring change.

During our prior research, our learners reported a number of key findings that have influenced our Future of series and their design, summarised below.

Learning 24. Students’ evaluation of the CoDesRes learning interventions evidenced the need for interdisciplinary learning and knowledge application. Student feedback included a desire for more contemporary citizenship, political, sustainability and climate change education, group work, practical and interactive activities, and foundational and creative technology skills, as well as support on how to apply knowledge to contemporary issues.

(McKeown et al 2022:44)

This and our ongoing research within post-primary education (2017 - Present) highlighted the need to develop skills earlier that align with the needs of the 21c and The Future of Work, Enterprise and Innovation. While developing the skills and capacity that are applicable for future employment we wanted the focus of our Enterprise and Innovation programme to go beyond the Future of Work, towards a broader remit, a meaningful purposeful life.

The 7 module programme follows similar design principles grounded in Inclusive Transition Design. They are designed to be cross-curricular also embedding Universal Design for Learning (UDL), aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the UNESCO Earth Charter. They are learner-centred, project-based and are underpinned by place-based STEAM (McKeown et al, 2023; McKeown and White, 2021; McKeown, 2019, 2015). As part of our design and working with external experts we invited Dr. Tara O’Neil, Chief Innovation Officer from our sister site SMARTlab Niagara to develop two modules, Step into the Future and Creativity Toolbox. Find out more about Tara, the expertise she brings to the programme and her thoughts on the Future or Education in her interview.

Image Credits: Dr Tara O'Neil, SMARTlab Niagra and Artificial Intelligence

Tara’s first micro-module, Step into the Future(s) takes a project-based approach aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Earth Charter, students will develop the skills to envision and create multiple possible futures for their communities while fostering inclusivity, diversity, and environmental responsibility. The course integrates interactive activities and real-world applications to enhance students' critical thinking, collaboration, and communication skills. This transdisciplinary course empowers students to develop essential skills in trend development, scenario planning, and creative problem-solving.

Tara's second module, the "Creativity Toolbox" is a dynamic and engaging micro-module designed to empower learners with the essential skills and tools for creative thinking and problem-solving. This hands-on program explores various creativity techniques and fosters a culture of innovation while promoting inclusivity, eco-codesign, and community engagement.

We interviewed Tara about her work, motivations, and involvement in developing her micro-module.

What made you want to work in the field you are in?

I've always been driven by the fusion of design, strategy, and foresight. Over the years, I've been inspired by the potential of innovative, human and life-centred learning techniques to bring about transformational change and cultivate a lifelong curiosity for learning.

Do you have an organisation or work with a particular org - if so what is your / their mission statement?

I am the Chief Innovation Officer with SMARTlab Niagara. Our mission is to create a hub using the principles of Inclusive Design as a foundation to build new thinking and solve complex problems in research, education and business.

What do you offer?

With 30+ years of experience, I offer a blend of experiential learning, human-centred design, and foresight scanning, along with a proven track record of igniting curiosity, innovative thinking, and fostering transformational change.

What is your background / skill set and training?

I hold a Ph.D. in Inclusive Design and Creative Technology Innovation from University College Dublin and an MDes in Strategic Foresight + Innovation from OCAD University. My diverse toolkit includes critical soft skills, human-centred design tools, trends, foresight scanning, and inclusive and diverse methods and techniques for developing radical thinking.

Tell us about your work with FutureFocus21c.

My collaboration with FutureFocus21c was centred on a module about cultivating resilience in the face of an uncertain future. I introduced horizon scanning and trend analysis methodologies to provide insight into the changing landscapes we might face. By developing and analysing various future scenarios and harnessing the power of storytelling, the lesson was designed to underscore the idea that there are multiple potential futures. My primary goal was to impart that preparation, adaptability, and a deep understanding of these possibilities are foundational to building resilience. In a rapidly changing world, it's paramount for learners to understand that they have the agency to shape their future, and the ability to pivot and adapt is a crucial skill set to hone.

Additionally, I co-delivered a design sprint exploring how immersive technologies, like virtual reality, can reshape the future of education. The key takeaway: adaptability and understanding these possibilities are vital for resilience in our ever-evolving landscape.

What are you most excited about in the new lessons / modules that you have developed?

What excites me the most about the foresight module is the potential to transform students' perspectives on uncertainty. Instead of viewing the unknown as an obstacle, they'll learn to see it as a canvas of opportunity. It's not just about predicting the future but about empowering each student to proactively shape it, turning passive learners into active futurists. This shift from reactive thinking to anticipatory planning can be a game-changer in their personal and professional lives.

Why do you think sharing your knowledge with Transition Year learners is important?

Now, more than ever, we live in a world characterised by rapid change and unprecedented challenges, from technological advancements and shifts in the global job market to socio-environmental transformations and geopolitical recalibrations. The speed and complexity of these changes mean that the traditional educational models, focused on static knowledge, are no longer sufficient.

For Transition Year learners, this is the time when foundational understanding meets the realities of an unpredictable world. By equipping them with foresight skills and a proactive mindset now, we are preparing them for adaptability and leadership in this new era.

Moreover, the challenges today's world faces—like climate change, the implications of artificial intelligence, and societal equity—require a generation that can envision multiple futures, anticipate challenges, and collaboratively build solutions. By sharing this knowledge with them today, we are investing in a resilient, innovative, and forward-thinking generation prepared to navigate and shape the world of tomorrow.

This knowledge doesn't just prepare them for the future; it gives them the tools to navigate, adapt, and thrive in it.

What advice would you give to Transition Year / secondary school students?

Embrace the journey of discovery. As you navigate these formative years, remember that learning isn't just about mastering content and understanding yourself and the world around you. Cultivate a sense of curiosity and always ask 'why' and 'how'. Engage with diverse perspectives and be open to new ideas, as this will expand your worldview and foster adaptability. Don't fear mistakes; see them as stepping stones towards growth. And most importantly, believe in yourself. Your unique voice, passion, and resilience will be your guiding lights in a constantly evolving world. Forge ahead with confidence, and never stop seeking knowledge.

Where do you see the Future of Education going?

As we progress into the 21st century, I envision education becoming more personalised, adaptive, and globally interconnected. The rigid structures of traditional classroom settings will give way to flexible, learner-centric environments. Technological advancements, like artificial intelligence, will facilitate individualised learning paths, ensuring that students are engaged and challenged at their own pace. Moreover, the classroom boundaries will expand, integrating real-world applications and virtual collaborations across the globe. Additionally, with the rise of the metaverse, we'll see a blending of digital and physical realities in educational settings. The metaverse will offer immersive, experiential learning opportunities, enabling students to explore virtual worlds, conduct experiments in simulated environments, and interact with peers from diverse locations in real time. This shift will foster a generation of learners who are not only academically adept but are also culturally aware, critical thinkers, and equipped to tackle global challenges collaboratively.

What do you feel is missing or if there was one thing you wanted learners to know / have access to what would it be?

One aspect that seems overlooked in today's educational paradigm is a deep, experiential understanding of interconnectedness — the idea that every subject, skill, and experience is part of a larger, intertwined ecosystem of knowledge. If there's one thing I'd want learners to know and access, it's the ability to see beyond isolated disciplines and recognize the harmonious symphony of science, art, history, technology, and nature. Imagine a curriculum where music intertwines with maths, where literature converges with logic, or where history dances with holography. By breaking down these artificial silos, we can foster a generation of holistic thinkers who approach problems and opportunities with a wide lens, seeing connections where others see divides.

The Future is Now.

It is time to prepare today's students for today’s world.

Please get in contact at if you are interested in using our resources with your learners.

Muinín Catalyst Sustainable STEAM uses a transdisciplinary, STEAM-based pedagogical approach. Returning to SDG 4, Target 4.7, one of the core missions of the Muinín Catalyst Sustainable STEAM programme is to ensure an arts / design and culture-led approach to learning that is transdisciplinary and transformative. Learning that supports the development of informed citizens, that are systemic, critical and creative thinkers who can apply their knowledge in agile ways that are sensitive, generative and appropriately responsive to context, in relevant and meaningful ways.

This is done through placed-based learning, which enables individuals to experience learning in local, real-life scenarios. Place-based approaches to learning grounded in local communities and contexts are relevant, engaging and inquiry-based. Students gain confidence and competence in affecting change, learning to manage risk, and develop creative, real-world solutions that are eco-socially just and restorative.


McKeown, A., Lennon, M., White, R., Garska, J., Istrate, A., Russell, P., and Hochstrasser, T. (pending Dec 2023). Serious Games for Empowering Teenagers: A STEAM Approach to Climate Change Reflection and Communication. In: Leal Filho, W., Sima, M., Lange Salvia, A., Kovaleva, M., Manolas, E. (eds) University Initiatives on Climate Change Education and Research. Springer, Cham.

McKeown, A. and White, R. 2021 Muinín Catalyst - Exploring Future-ready Teaching and Learning International Journal for Cross-Disciplinary Subjects in Education (IJCDSE), Volume 12, Issue 2, 2021

McKeown, A. and White, R (2021) Muinín Catalyst - Towards a Place-based STEAM, Design thinking Curriculum for Transition Year, chapter 23 in AMPS PROCEEDINGS SERIES 22.2 Manchester School of Architecture; AMPS Manchester: 02-04 December, 2020 Teaching-Learning-Research: Design and Environments.

Mckeown, A (2019) From STEM to STEAM at the Beautiful Midden Field School: An Artist/Educator Perspective in eds. De La Garza, A and Travis, C. The STEAM Revolution Transdisciplinary Approaches to Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Humanities and Mathematics.

McKeown, A (2015) Cultivating PermaCultural Resilience: Towards a Creative Placemaking Critical Praxis PhD National College of Art and Design.

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