Alain Viel has taken the helm of the UNESCO Chair on Life Sciences and Social Innovation, a position initially held by the late Rob Lue, an education innovator and Harvard professor of the practice in Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) with whom Viel frequently collaborated.
“The idea of the UNESCO chair is to create a network of people within the organization to work together to address issues in education. The mission is to have our institution involved in the development of educational programs that would serve the global community,” says Viel, Senior Lecturer in MCB, the Director of the Northwest Undergraduate Laboratories, and LabXchange faculty co-director.
As the education arm of the United Nations, UNESCO has brought together hundreds of universities from around the world to provide input aimed at improving worldwide education access. Harvard joined the program in 2019 with a proposal from Lue, who leveraged the broad accessibility of his nascent program LabXchange.
“It was a logical continuation,” Viel says of pursuing the chairholder position. “I decided to continue what Rob had started with LabXchange and also honor his role in creating the Lemann Program for Creativity and Entrepreneurship.”
Under Viel, the Harvard arm of UNESCO will further the reach of LabXchange and introduce new programs aimed at the arts and at teaching about entrepreneurship with an eye towards social change.
LabXchange has already helped to support science education in Ukraine. Volunteers translated material and staff members interfaced with the Ministry of Education to get the program to children who have been affected by the ongoing war. By 2025 the program will be translated into another 30 languages.
The LabXchange team’s next mission will focus on increasing sustainability and climate change actions, inspired by studies that have shown that students who engage in projects relating to social change have greater long-term involvement. Students using LabXchange will, for example, contribute environmental data from their home areas to a collaborative worldwide database on the effects of climate change.
“LabXChange will become a repository of vetted information on sustainability and climate change and a place for global exchanges between students,” says Viel. “Climate change or sustainability has a different meaning in different parts of the world. The consequences of climate change are different. The goal is not to create scientific research, necessarily. You can find a lot of scientific institutions that record temperatures around the world. The idea is to involve students in something that makes them realize the situation in other places. ”
LabXchange’s success inspired a new program to improve arts education access. LANIA, a non-profit collaboration between Harvard, the Juilliard School, Fordham University, and the UN Chamber Music Society, is an open-source platform for integrated learning through the arts. (The program’s name is derived from the supercluster of stars that inspired a forthcoming UN musical performance by Dr. Edward Bilous from Juilliard.) Lue was an expert in art and had a passion for collecting, and so–though this program is launching three years after Lue’s passing–his footprint can be found in this endeavor as well.
“Unfortunately when budgets are tight, the first thing to disappear is any support for arts programs in schools,” says Viel. “It’s to schools’ advantage to have access to this online material.”
Harvard’s Lemann Program in Creativity and Entrepreneurship (LPCE) will also benefit from an extended reach thanks to the UNESCO chair. Certain classes within LPCE shepherd projects from the idea stage through the process of becoming socially responsible businesses based on the UN’s sustainable development goals.
“With UNESCO, I’m developing an online international conference on sustainability and climate change education, and that would be a capstone in a series of activities that can be done by these students at Harvard and others around the world,” says Viel.
An LPCE collaboration called HealthLab Connect will bring those creative entrepreneurial skills out of Harvard to students around the US and the world. HealthLab Connect has coordinated with schools in Brazil and will bring the program to locations throughout the African continent, two endeavors that will benefit from Harvard’s UNESCO connections.
Recent studies have suggested access to education affects many quality-of-life measures, and Viel is honored to continue the efforts of Lue to make worldwide change through this partnership with UNESCO.
“When I was a student in France many years ago, education was a right. But in many other places, education is an option, and many people don’t have the option to receive a good quality education,” says Viel. “By improving education globally we will also improve life expectancy and the quality of life.”