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Mar 09, 2021 Academics Critical Making EXPLO Summer Programs

Teaching + Learning at EXPLO: Where Learning Mirrors Life

Our Department of Teaching + Learning develops courses that ignite learners’ curiosity and inspire them to embrace their inner explorer. Learn more.

Abby Leigh Curtis

EXPLO embodies MIT’s motto, mens et manus, or mind + hand, echoing the ideal of promoting education for practical application. EXPLO’s motto adds spiritus — spirit and heart — capturing the joy of learning that EXPLO tries to spark with each child every summer”.

— Brian Hughes, EXPLO Employee #01, MIT Trustee

With this nod to our roots at MIT at the forefront, our Department of Teaching + Learning works year-round to develop and deliver engaging, hands-on courses that ignite young learners’ curiosity and inspire them to embrace their inner explorer.

The EXPLO Approach

At EXPLO, projects are intentionally designed for iteration — and because our courses aren’t graded, students have the room to take risks, fail (perhaps even a few times), test their creativity, and work towards solutions that aren’t predetermined for them. With each trial and error, our students start to see mistakes as an opportunity to learn how to improve, ask better questions, or try to do things differently. They develop a sense of optimism and resilience (and a sense of humor!). Mistakes simply become opportunities to improve, not a reason to self-deprecate — and certainly not a reason to give up. Instead, they experience growth and development that helps them be the most authentic version of themselves, navigate the world with humility and courage, and act on the big goals they set for themselves.

Our programs are designed to be progressive, with three age-appropriate stages:

  • Grades 4–7: Rising fourth and fifth graders experience learning with their whole selves — head, hand, and heart. With myriad courses and activities to choose from, these young explorers have the opportunity to try new things, develop new skills, and find what lights them up. Though this age group still look to adults to guide them, our programming empowers them to begin making their own choices. Hands-on projects injected with whimsy make every moment a learning moment.

    Rising sixth and seventh graders are becoming more peer-oriented, moving away from their dependence on parents and other adults. In addition to fostering friendships, they also start to look inward and utilize abstract thinking. Courses and projects start to bridge the concrete with the abstract.
  • Grades 8–10: We put rising eighth through tenth graders in the driver’s seat so they can develop the independence and confidence to pursue their strengths and explore new interests. But it’s more than just the incredible range of courses, activities, and events. EXPLO is the place where students from around the world come together to explore their strengths and interests, exercise their independence, express themselves honestly and authentically, challenge each others’ perspectives, and find the common ground between them.

  • Grades 10–12: For EXPLO students entering grades 10–12, college is on the horizon. Hyper-focused, immersive concentrations help them center their exploration. Though many high schoolers recognize their academic strengths, the connection to career areas may be vague. At EXPLO’s Pre-College + Career program, things start to come into clearer focus through hands-on projects that offer them the opportunity to practice the work of the profession with career mentors. 

Where Teachers Come to Learn

At EXPLO, we spend most of the year developing our curriculum and student programming for our summer enrichment programs. Many school educators have only a few short months to develop their school year curricula. So the question for us then became: How can we help?

In November 2014, summer camp administrators from five urban camps in Wilmington, Delaware made their way to EXPLO’s headquarters in Massachusetts for three days of immersive professional development, EXPLO-style. They came to The Exploration Center as part of SummerCollab — at the time, a brand-new consortium to help community summer camps in Delaware stanch learning loss among low-income kids. Through case studies, individual consulting, and hands-on exercises, EXPLO staff encouraged camp administrators to re-imagine their camps from every angle.

Since collaborating with EXPLO, SummerCollab has ballooned to a state-wide operation with 14 member camps. In 2018, 86.2% of their campers reversed summer learning loss, with 14% showing a gain of a year or more — meaning they gain 3.7 months of learning on average over the course of their summer program.

We were onto something. 

We again thought about the advantages we have as curriculum designers and educators, as well as our core competencies: training teachers, experiential learning, and engineering powerful learning experiences across age groups. So how could we partner with schools that could benefit from these?

From Professional Development to a Member-Centered Cooperative

In 2016, we launched a new division, EXPLO Studio, to take our teaching and learning philosophy and actively address the engagement problem facing so many schools and educators. In its inaugural year, Studio launched an international Critical Making Camp for Educators, presented an interactive keynote with a herd of (cardboard) moose in Maine, and successfully implemented Foundations of Critical Making courses at Catholic Memorial School and Thayer Academy. We then set out to explore the ways in which a critical making-based curriculum and an entrepreneurial mindset can change the way educators approach teaching and boost student engagement. Our findings led us to launch EXPLO Elevate: An Innovative Schools Cooperative, in 2019. 

We started working with schools across the U.S. and around the world looking to innovate their approach to 21st-century education, increase student engagement, and equip young people with the necessary skills to navigate an uncertain future economy of jobs that don’t yet exist. Our cooperative model keeps us grounded in the most current and pressing needs of schools, allowing us to help both member and non-member schools in a highly responsive way. Elevate’s mission is to empower schools to design and build the learning environments needed for students to thrive now and in the future, and we’re elated by how far we’ve come — and by the work still left to do.

Head, Hand, and Heart

At EXPLO, we believe learning mirrors life — full of questions, tensions, and worthwhile digressions in an ever-changing world just begging to be explored. We know that whimsy and wonder have a place alongside pragmatic investigation. We celebrate discovery through doing, and empathy through authentic connection. We know immersing ourselves in the earnest exploration of the world of people and ideas reveals the joy of learning — and with it, the joy of living.

Whether through our summer programs or curriculum and professional development, EXPLO continues to design remarkable teaching and learning experiences. That’s the EXPLO way.

Abby Leigh Curtis