Elizabeth Warren walking students through a cow dissection in Behavior Neuroscience.
When most people think of a classroom, the image that springs to mind is a square space filled with neat rows of desks, a whiteboard, some pin boards, and a teacher standing in the front. And in most cases — whether due to budget constraints or testing schedules — nearly all of the student’s learning experiences are contained to that 20x20 box.
But what happens when a teacher makes the world their classroom? When they encourage students to explore and make every space a place of learning?
That’s the kind of teacher Elizabeth Warren — EXPLO at Yale’s behavioral neuroscience and heart science instructor — strives to be.
This summer, Warren (a doctoral student and researcher at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland) made it a goal to take her students beyond the lab and into the world to experience their field at work. A particularly poignant trip to the Cushing Center at Yale’s Cushing/Whitney Medical Library brought their studies to life, she says, and allowed the students to see themselves as scientists.
“It really matters to me that they see that Harvey Cushing was a nerd. He followed his curiosity wherever it took him, and it led to this career as the founder of modern neuroscience,” she says. “I wanted them to see that scientific curiosity and wondering how and why things work — that kind of curiosity that drives them — is exactly the kind of thing that can lead to being a scientist.”
I wanted [my students] to see that scientific curiosity and wondering how and why things work — that kind of curiosity that drives them — is exactly the kind of thing that can lead to being a scientist.
Placing students in the field also contextualizes what they’ve been learning in a way that can’t be achieved through textbooks and lectures, Warren says.
“They see brains in jars, which is an excellent part of neuroscience to see this tactile specimen of the thing we’ve spent so much time talking about. But they also see all of the things that Cushing collected, actual brains with actual tumors that he studied. And they learn that these things are still being studied today as part of the cutting-edge medical research that’s happening at Yale right now — all because Cushing was curious enough to collect them, and we can still use what he gave us.”
Warren (left) with student, examining neuro specimens in the Cushing Center.
Stop Talking, Start Teaching
Part of what facilitates Warren’s ability to infinitely expand the square-footage of her teaching space is EXPLO’s philosophy around engaged teaching and learning. At EXPLO, we don’t put classroom walls around learning. We believe that true learning happens through hands-on experiences. All EXPLO instructors are trained for months in advance of the summer to ensure that they feel empowered to teach this way and have the necessary support in place to do so. Working with a pre-season curriculum advisor, instructors develop a curriculum and lesson plans that are reviewed and refined within the framework of the EXPLO teaching method.
All EXPLO instructors are trained for months in advance of the summer to ensure that they feel empowered to teach this way and have the necessary support in place to do so.
“Every time I took my curriculum to my advisor she would say, ‘decrease the amount of time you’re talking by half.’ I would do that, take it to her again, and she would say, ‘Good job. Now decrease the amount of time you’re talking by half.’ But going through that process is what really empowered me to actually teach it. And going through the process of organizing all of this information in my mind, having to share it with someone else for feedback, and completing that process multiple times was really a valuable experience for me.”
A large part of the process for Warren was reimagining what it means to be a teacher. Prior to working at EXPLO, her teaching models were all of the same ilk.
“I had to learn to teach in a way that had never been modelled for me,” she says. “I based it on ideas from my peers here at EXPLO and from tips from my curriculum advisors. And I had to embrace this idea of student-directed learning, which goes right along with my belief in following your curiosity. And that’s what EXPLO is all about: learning through exploration.”
A New Path Forward
Science may have long been part of Warren’s plan, but teaching?
“That’s actually something I gained through EXPLO. When I started to understand what a researcher’s career looks like I did realize that I would end up doing some teaching, but I wasn’t choosing the path because of that,” Warren says. “At that point I viewed it as something I would have to do in order to be allowed to do research.”
Enter EXPLO. After two years of working closely with students in an immersive learning environment, Warren’s whole perspective on teaching has shifted.
Working at EXPLO has changed my view of what teaching could be like. . .
“Working at EXPLO has changed my view of what teaching could be like for me and has turned it into something that I’m really looking forward to about my research career,” she says. “There are two types of labs you can work in. One is a commercial lab where you might mentor younger scientists, but you don’t have a specific teaching role. But then there is the lab attached to a university, often with graduate students. Now I think I might seek out that style of research and teaching because just the practice of getting to share all of this knowledge that I’m excited about and all these things that make me curious about the world is so much fun to share with other people who want to know.”